By Harry McCracken | Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 11:41 am
It’s always dangerous to assume that anything presented in a newspaper article as a social trend is, in fact, a social trend. But I’m still a bit stressed over a Wall Street Journal story that says that there’s a growing backlash among coffee-shop proprietors over laptop users doing their computing on the premises.
A few years ago, notebook-toting workers and students were seen as an attractive clientele, which is why both national chains and neighborhood joints set up Wi-fi hotspots and installed extra power outlets near seating. Now–at least in some restaurants in New York, according to the Journal–they’re seen as freeloaders who hog tables during busy times without buying enough to eat and drink. Laptop bans are going into effect, and some places are going so far as to padlock power outlets. (One chain with a zero-tolerance policy for computer users is, appropriately, called Café Grumpy.)
I take this all personally. Technologizer doesn’t have an office–not even in my home. I do my work wherever I have my laptop, an Internet connection, and my phone. Which, at various times, is in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and public parks; on the subway; and in my car (not while driving). In fact, I’m writing this from the comfy corner booth of the Westlake Coffee Shop, near my house.
I try to be a good citizen. When I’m working from a coffee shop, I buy food and beverage–although I confess I’ve been known to nurse one Starbucks chai for hours, or even leave the empty cup sitting on my table in hopes that people would think I’d recently purchased it. I’m sensitive to busy times, and try to take off if a line’s forming for seating.
But I don’t want to hang out where I’m not wanted, and if a restaurant institutes a ban on laptop use–even if it’s only during certain hours–my instinct is to not do business with it, period. It’s not computer use itself that’s the problem. So why not just institute a minimum bill amount and/or a limit on the duration of visits if it’s absolutely necessary? Or charge enough for Wi-Fi that the joint makes a profit even if someone doesn’t consume any coffee?
Better yet, why not look at laptop users as an opportunity rather a threat? Maybe there’s a market for a sort of hybrid of Starbucks and Kinkos, with power at every seat, services like faxing and photocopying, and recharging stations for your BlackBerry or iPhone. And a promise that you’ll never, but never, be harassed for pulling out your computer and getting some work done.