Cities are an important symbol of our contemporary era. They are not just places of commerce, but are emblems of the people who live within them. A significant feature of cities are their meeting places; areas that have either been designed or appropriated by the people. An example of this is the café. Cafés hold a unique place in history, as sites that have witnessed the growth of revolution, relationships great and small, between people and ideas, and more recently, technology.
Computers are transcending their place in the private home or office and are now finding their way into café culture. What I am suggesting is that this is bringing about a new way of understanding how cafés foster community and act as media for social interaction. To explore this idea further I will look at the historical background of the café, particularly within Parisian culture.
For W. Scott Haine, cities such as Paris have highly influential abilities. As he points out "the Paris milieu determined the consciousness of workers as much as their labor" (114). While specifically related to Paris, Haine is highlighting an important aspect in the relationship between people and the built environment. He suggests that buildings and streets are not just inanimate objects, but structures that shape our habits and our beliefs.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, Paris was developing a new cultural level, referred to as Bohemia. Derived from the French word for Gypsy (Seigel 5) it was used to denote a class of people who in the eyes of Honoré de Balzac were the talent of the future (Seigel 4). People who would be diplomats, artists, journalists, soldiers, who at that moment existed in a transient state with much social but little material wealth.
Emerging within this Bohemian identity were the bourgeois. They were individuals who led a working class existence, they usually held property but more importantly they helped provide the physical environment for Bohemian culture to flourish. Bourgeois society had the money to patronize Bohemian artists. As Seigel says "Bohemian and bourgeois were -- and are -- parts of a single field: they imply, require, and attract each other" (5).
Cafés were a site of symbiosis between these two groups. As Seigel points out they were not so much established to create a Bohemian world away from the reality of working life, but to provide a space were the predominantly bourgeois clientèle could be entertained (216). These ideas of entertainment saw the rise of the literary café, a venue not just for drinking and socialization but where potential writers and orators could perform for an audience.
Contemporary society has seen a strong decline in Bohemian culture, with the (franchised) café being appropriated by the upper class as a site of lattes and mud cake. Recent developments in Internet technology however have prompted a change in this trend. Whereas in the past cafés had brought about a symbiosis between the classes of Bohemian and bourgeois society they are now becoming sites that foster relationships between the middle class and computer technology.
Computers and the Internet have their origins within a privileged community, of government departments, defence forces and universities. It is only in the past three years that Internet technology has moved out of a realm of expert knowledge to achieve a broad level of usage in the average household. Certain barriers still exist though in terms of a person's ability to gain access to this medium.
Just as Bohemian culture arose out of a population of educated people lacking skills of manual labor and social status (Seigel 217), computers and Internet culture offer a means for people to go beyond their social boundaries. Cafés were sites for Bohemians to transcend the social, political, and economic dictates that had shaped their lives. In a similar fashion the Internet offers a means for people to explore beyond their physical world.
Internet cafés have been growing steadily around the world. What they represent is a change in the concept of social interaction. As in the past with the Paris café and the exchange of ideas, Internet cafés have become places were people can interact not just on a face-to-face basis but also through computer-mediated communication. What this points to is a broadening in the idea of the café as a medium of social interaction. This is where the latte and mud cake trend is beginning to break down.
By placing Internet technology within cafés, proprietors are inviting a far greater section of the community within their walls. While these experiences still attract a price tag they suggest a change in the idea that would have seen both the café and the Internet as commodities of the élite. What this is doing is re-invigorating the idea of the streets belonging to the middle class and other sub-cultures, allowing people access to space so that relationships and communities can be formed.