Techno java

Nov 18, 1998 at 12:00 am

Once upon a time, a café was a smoky, dimly lit environment, synonymous with great thinkers and rabid expressionism.

Now, however, it seems that some cafés are designed for people to plug in, turn on and zone out. As technology evolves, so does our idea of socializing, to the point where the whole idea of café culture is changing.

The latest and greatest advent is the cyber café, a place where nothing is sacred anymore, not even a good ol' cup of joe.

The idea is to introduce technology, mostly in the form of computer terminals, printers and fax machines, into a caffeine-laden atmosphere conducive to free thought and vivid idealism. The result is a new kind of socializing, which bears little resemblance to the original philosophy for a café environment.

Instead of debating the latest literary and philosophical ideas, as people have done in cafés and salons for the past few centuries, cyber café patrons now sit at their own individual computer terminals, sipping double decaf lattes or triple mocha espressos while eagerly awaiting their next e-mail message.

"Think of it as the next generation coffeehouse," laughs general manager Diane Demayanovich at the Café Domain, a brightly decorated cyber café in Royal Oak. The tropical motif is underscored by the heady whir of fax machines and printers.

Café Domain boasts state-of-the-art software, such as Windows 98, and a full range of handy-dandy office capabilities including an upstairs conference center for last minute meetings. The café also offers live entertainment -- including jazz -- weekly, but its real mission seems to be to provide as many technological conveniences as possible.

"Think Kinko's with coffee," says Demayanovich.

I begin to wonder if the social and creative vibe of the traditional café setting was ever meant to be hot-wired and fitted with hard drives and gigabits. Is it truly realistic to advertise a cyber café as a place of entertainment and social gathering when it seems more like the kind of place you'd go to finish a business presentation than to meet other people?

I decide to question my fellow patrons on the social benefits of the cyber café, and am greeted with dazed expressions and looks of bemusement.

"Socializing? What a goof! I didn't even think about that. I just came here to learn how to use the Internet," exclaims one woman, who declines to give her name when I rouse her from her deep meditation in front of a computer screen.

Another cyber café patron seems puzzled about the entertainment aspect. "To be perfectly honest, I think it's kind of odd for them to advertise themselves as a café, when in fact it's more like an office with coffee and snacks," says Jessica Thor, a marketing assistant with Ross Roy of Bloomfield.

"Everyone in here is into what's going on in front of them, not around them," she observes. "It just doesn't have the same feel as going to Borders or Starbucks. Nobody is really talking to each other here."

If bookstores such as Borders have become places for socializing over coffee, and coffee shops such as Starbucks have become places where people read poetry to each other, it makes sense that erstwhile business centers could cross out of their market niches to become hotbeds of intellectual and philosophical activity.

Maybe that's the biggest problem faced by cyber cafés -- trying to maintain a balance between the old and the new. Maybe there isn't a way to do it. When Alphabase, another cyber café, opened its doors at 5019 Woodward in Detroit last month, founder Lee Gaddies said it was intended to be "a comfortable place where people of all knowledge levels can enjoy computing in a relaxed setting."

Alphabase provides patrons with onsite computer classes, computer rentals, Internet access, Web page design, fax machines and photocopying. It also offers customers access to the latest software and technology before it hits the retail stores.

But what about a forum for lively thought and discussion?

Communication is still there -- it's just lurking amid a sea of techno jargon. People are still conversing, just not out loud or to each other. Instead, they're communicating across continents, changing timelines and language barriers, via e-mail and online chat rooms. Sure, they're ignoring their neighbors in the café, but they're not operating in a complete void.

Cyber cafés are part of a bigger trend of technology that makes it easier for us to incorporate business and pleasure. While they may never be able to offer consumers a happening night on the town, they do offer individuals the ability to gain access to new technology without breaking the bank.

So maybe, just maybe, sitting down with a friendly PC and a hot mocha deluxe ain't such a bad thing.