Flesh and blood hearts
When people sit in cafes with their laptops and other screened devices, sipping a poor excuse for amphetamine and chewing on invisible sugars, what percentage of that time do you think is spent floating around in the Wi-Fi ether? How much of “going to the coffee shop to work” is work, and how much is procrastination oscillating against distraction? Experience tells me that drift accounts for a significant portion of these sessions. My purely unscientific research puts the portion of effort spent disengaged in the task at hand at 63%. For college students, that number might jump up as high as 76%! We either don't really have enough to keep us productively occupied, or we just don't like to get to it. (Because getting to it means that “it” will inevitably be evaluated, and not starting down the path often seems easier than ending up at the other end of it. But that's a different topic.)
In their last issue, Willamette Week ran a story touting the ten best proletarian coffee shops in which to study. Their criteria for goodness included availability of fast Wi-Fi and an allowance to occupy a table for hours on end. The anti-virtuous locale in this exposé was Heart, on East Burnside and 22nd Avenue; the complaint being an abundance of wisdom about roasting, but too little warmth for the elite thinkers ostensibly invested in their labors. Given the figures in the non-study above, I applaud Heart for earning this distinction. They deserve even more kudos for something that Willamette Week didn't mention: they turn off their Wi-Fi on weekends.
Let me name my hypocrisy before someone else does. I love to sit in coffee shops for long stretches, doing very little that applies to my excuse for being there in the first place. All that science up above? That's all based on an estimate of my own historical habits. To wit: I've been sitting here, drinking iced coffee, surfing, and daydreaming for a couple of hours now under the pretense of composing this post. Guilty.
Still and all, my complaint about this pastime – and my concomitant admiration for Heart – is not really about lack of productivity. I actually believe that the circuitous route to a goal may often be the most fruitful. Mentally wandering around the periphery of an objective frequently builds associations that are impossible to see from the direct route. By all means, spend lots of time getting where you think you're going. It's merely that, if we are going to drift, then let's find venues that encourage us to drift together…live…in the flesh. I count ten of sixteen people in this present space living in relationship to a screen (yes, me, too). Some of them are sharing a table but living in entirely distinct virtual realms. Perhaps there are other people in other cafes on the other sides of all that Wi-Fi. Perhaps they are all over the world and indeed that's a miraculous thing that the Internet has done for us. But maintaining at least a little bit of live-and-in-person still holds value, and a lack of Wi-Fi may be a coffee shop's best attribute.