I accidentally found myself trying to work at a no internet cafe.
“What’s the WIFI password?” I asked after ordering a dry martini at the Cecilia Cafe on Iraki Abashidze Street in Tbilisi. It was a straight forward question, one I’ve asked hundreds of times. The response I received though was something different.
“We don’t have WIFI. Our motto is to come here to talk to people,” the waitress said.
“But I’m all alone,” I limply protested.
I imagine that this business model is going to get more and more popular. Trends develop with the shifting of tides. Cafes once sold the fact that they had WIFI as a testament of their being worldy, connected, and social — better than the other cafes around them who didn’t offer their customers this advantage. Now, after the internet has made big strides towards being ubiquitous and normal, cafes will now sell the fact that they don’t have WIFI as some kind of unique point of sale — to make themselves appear more worldly, connected, and social.
For the record, the Cecilia Cafe was no more social than any other cafe in the world. However, I did notice people abiding by the no internet rule — they would come in, check their phones one final time, then put them away.
I sat there, alone. I tried to jump in and give their “motto” a try, but after smiling at the table of young women to my right only to receive hasty head turns I decided to abort the mission.
Anyway, not offering WIFI there was a moot point anyway, as everybody just has mobile data — which is dirt cheap in Georgia at $2 for 500 mb. But that’s not the point.
The internet is fundamentally a social instrument. At those cafes and hostels and whatever “social spaces” we construct those people on their phones and other personal electronic devices are communicating with other people. They are on Facebook, chat apps, etc, gossiping and sharing. Just because the people they’re communicating with are not physically present doesn’t mean they’re not being social.
The catch here is that people usually default to digital communication because their physical surroundings are simply not stimulating enough. Or because they feel awkward. Or because they would rather talk about something they are really interested in with their real friends…
Give someone a reason to talk to the people around them and their phones stay sheathed. If you go over to Canudos in Tbilisi you will hardly see a mobile device out. It isn’t because they’re banned but because people are having too much fun doing other things. If you do see a phone it’s usually someone showing someone else a photo or video or something — it is being used as a social catalyst rather than something which sucks people away from each other.
Not providing someone with internet is not going to make people all of a sudden want to talk to strangers. We scapegoat our absolutely amazing communications technologies because they’re an easy target. But, like most scapegoats, the problem is much more deeply embedded.