Gathering 'Round a Virtual Campfire

Shunning isolation, computer users bask in the fluorescent glow of monitors in cybercafes

Inside Seattle's Speakeasy Cafe, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald bobs above the sound of tapping keyboards and the hiss of espresso machines.

Patrons relax around pale wooden tables, their faces lit by the iridescent glow of computer monitors.

The Speakeasy is one of about 100 such "cyber-cafes" across the country, places where one can enjoy the company of other real people while navigating the electronic virtual frontier.

The hybrid of a traditional bistro with a computer lab, is a growing cultural phenomenon, some observers say - a countercurrent in the unrelenting tide of technology.

"I was terrified about the whole computer thing," says Linda Silberstein, after logging into an Internet chat room discussing UFOs. "But I'm having so much fun.... it's really friendly here. If I were by myself, it would definitely be too isolating."

Although the Internet and its graphic component, the World Wide Web, enable people to communicate over vast distances as never before, some futurists worry that computer users may become increasingly isolated in their cyber-cocoons.

With a powerful computer and a modem, you can read the newspaper without going to a newsstand, converse with strangers without ever having to shake hands, and go shopping without ever talking to a salesperson.

In many ways, the technology that was meant to bring the world together atomizes those who exploit it. And that, some say, sounds like an extremely lonely existence.

"This much-touted interactive media means most people are hunched over their keyboard in their basement," says Robert (Lou) Torregrossa, co-owner of the Speakeasy, "There's nothing interactive about it."

As a result, entrepreneurs are trying to put a human face on cyberspace.

Getting together

Along one of the window tables of the Speakeasy, three people huddle around a computer terminal and hash out an electronic letter together.

Across the wood-paneled room, cafe regulars nod acknowledgments to each other. At several of the terminals, computer users sit by themselves, but they are never completely alone.

Besides chatting with the attendants, patrons often lean over their keyboards to ask one another computer-related questions. Like any other cafe, there is a constant hubbub of laughter and conversation, even though the Speakeasy's main feature is access to the electronic world that computer-users can visit only on their own.

This interplay between technology and society may speak volumes about the human condition in the electronic age.

The emergence and popularity of Internet cafes suggests that the human need to congregate remains strong in this brave new world.

"By its very nature, the Internet is a double-edged sword as a communications tool," says A'isha Ajayi, assistant professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"In the area of interpersonal communication, the Internet can be very positive in bringing people together for dialogue, while at the same time contributing to the decline in important face-to-face or verbal communication. Cyber-cafes have the potential to bridge that communication chasm."

Like the cafes that became popular in many European cities around the turn of the century, their cyber-offspring are places to meet, chat with friends, and discuss the news of the day.

And, like their predecessors, cyber-cafes have spawned offspring across the Atlantic.

London's Cafe Cyberia, which opened its doors two years ago, touts itself as the world's first cafe offering Internet access along with the traditional crumb cakes and hot drinks. Cafe Cyberia is open in four cities in Britain, as well as in Paris. The chain plans to open cafes in Japan and the United States.

Boston's Cybersmith is also beginning to expand to other cities, recently feting the debut of a New York cafe. Other similar cafes around the country go by such names as Cyber Java in Venice, Calif., and Honolulu's Internet C@fe.

Seattle's Speakeasy, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary in June, is one of the grandfathers of the genre.

For a $10 membership fee each month, patrons can use the Speakeasy's access to the Internet, which is far less expensive than purchasing a personal computer and a modem.

If patrons have their own e-mail accounts, they can use computers free of charge. Graphic terminals with access to the World Wide Web are $4 per half-hour for nonmembers and $3 for members. The Speakeasy currently lists more than 1,000 members.

About 40 percent of its customers have Internet access, either at home or at work, and visit the Speakeasy for the human contact and ambiance, Mr. Torregrossa says.

As rain lashed at the windows of the Speakeasy like a cat-o'nine-tails, the watering hole provided welcome respite to about a dozen computer hackers and socialites on a recent afternoon.

"This sort of cafe gives a human side to the technology," says Ian Bell, a local actor who sat by the windows and typed a letter to his parents on the East Coast. "It takes the sterility out of the technology."

Such cafes sell mostly hot drinks and sodas, not alcoholic drinks.

No more wallflowers

And cybercafes tend to be more "egghead friendly" than discos and nightclubs, Ms. Ajayi says.

"If you were a wallflower in a typical disco, you could be a star in a cybercafe," she says.

Most experts say the cybercafe boom has yet to crest, but they don't expect all of them to survive financially.

The fundamental concept of the cybercafe, however - combing traditional literary salons with the latest communication technologies - is sound enough to become a fixture on the cultural landscape.

While cybercafes may boast the latest electronic tools and tricks, their emphasis on actual human interaction fills a basic need, a need that goes back to prehistory, Ajayi says.

"Cybercafes are like the new campfires," she says. "People sit around and talk. Instead of the glow of the embers you have the glow of the [VDT] displays."

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