Earlier this week, I was sitting in the downtown St. Paul Dunn Brothers coffee shop when Jeff Horwich from America Public Media’s Marketplace approached me for a man-on-the-street (or person-in-the-cafe) interview about Starbuck’s new free wi-fi service. Part of the interview aired as a segment of the show that evening, and while I’m glad I didn’t come off sounding like a stuttering idiot (the editors at APM earned their salaries!), I don’t think I managed to say anything terribly profound. In the bit of the interview that aired, I came off mostly as a Starbucks hater without much to say about wireless internet access.
I’ve done a little bit of thinking since, and have come up with what I hope are some more valuable, if not at all original, thoughts.
To get the Starbucks thing out of the way: it’s not that I hate Starbucks, it’s just that I prefer not to spend my money there if I can avoid it. When I’m looking for what a cafe has to offer–not just coffee and wifi, but a little bit of sonic buzz, a chance to watch interesting people, maybe look at a little art on the walls or pick up a free periodical or two–I find that the independents in my neighborhood (the Blue Moon, the Riverview, Fireroast) and the local Dunn Brothers chain are more likely to deliver. Starbucks is not only ubiquitous, it’s perfectly stanardized: the same decor, the same products, the same atmosphere, whether you’re in downtown St. Paul, suburban Chicago, or Outer Mongolia (surely there’s a Starbucks in Mongolia by now). It’s simply not a place to sit and take in the atmosphere; it’s purely a to-go vendor for me.
On the wifi front, I think we’re asking entirely the wrong questions. As wireless connectivity becomes increasingly common, and in many peoples’ lives is shifting from fun and convenient to wholly necessary, it seems strange to me that we continue to rely on businesses like coffee shops and restaurants to provide it. As internet technology expands, making it easier for us not only to communicate with the world but get real work done, the piecemeal, ad hoc nature of our wireless connectivity can only be a brake on our progress.
Starbucks, Dunn Brothers, and the Blue Moon are not in the business of providing internet services; they’re in the coffee and pastry trade. That we’ve let our connectivity services fall to businesses that offer wifi (sometimes good, sometimes spotty; sometimes free, sometimes with strings attached; rarely, if ever, secure) as a sideline convenience is a sign of a failure of imagination and foresight. It’s a bit like the early days of the telephone, when you had to go to the post office or the corner store to place a call, and when service was unreliable and access uncertain. We are applying a late-nineteenth-century model to an early twenty-first-century technology.
I’m not suggesting that a large public project–something along the lines of rural electrification–is the only way to go for wireless internet. But if this is a technology that has positive social and economic potential, and could prove to be as transformative as the telephone, radio, and electricity were over the last hundred years, do we really want to leave it in the hands of the nation’s baristas? (Not to disparage my favorite baristas, who are hard-working, talented, and have great taste in music.)
Some cities are tentatively rolling out public-private partnerships for large area wireless service; Minneapolis is one, and I appreciate the near-ubiquity of its service. And some public institutions, most notably the libraries, also provide wireless service: this seems to be something that fits well within their mission, and I would love to see it expanded, perhaps with remote library wifi stations along the lines of the bookmobiles of old. With network devices becoming increasingly cheap, small, and easy to use, expanding the network seems like an obvious strategy to bridging the digital divide.
So yes, I think it’s lovely that Starbucks is trying to lure people in with free wifi (clearly their stale pastries and preposterously-named drinks weren’t doing it), but that’s possible only because we’ve dropped the ball on building on the technology in a meaningful way. We need to have ideas about our shared technological future that are a little more “venti” than the decidedly “short” approach we’ve had so far in this century.
(I’ve been reading Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, so I’m sure that I’m influenced by his social democratic critique of the last three decades of privatization. But there are worse influences to be under.)