Cyber cafés are in Season

by Lionel Lumbroso, Rheingoldian reporter in Paris

True to the "surfing" metaphor, Internet things tend to come in waves. Last year saw the Web wave roll month after month around the world. In 1995, Internet Cafés have spawned from San Francisco to Tokyo, Vienna, Reykjavik, London, Torino, Paris or Marseille.

First in Orbit for the City of Lights

Next time you're here in Paris, you'll find the Café Orbital, first of its kind in the capital city, at 4, rue du Quatre-Septembre, right next to La Bourse, Paris' Stock Exchange and opposite Club Med's world headquarters on one side and Agence France Presse head office on the other. Were it not for its neon sign, however, you'd take it for nothing more than the sandwich café (Riva Sandwichs) that houses it and preexisted at that address: the Internet part of the affair is upstairs, where you can take you drink and sandwich (the management hasn't apparently started worrying about foreign objects such as crumbs or tomato seeds and unofficial grease products such as mayonnaise getting in the computer keyboards...).

Up there, six 486 workstations and a Pentium server hooked through a 64 kbps leased link to Internet are at your disposal for 30 FF per half hour and Julie is there to help you get the most of your cybertrip.

1995 Food of the year for reporters!

OK, that's a rather typical (by now) presentation of an Internet café, but truth be told, when I got to the last steps leading to the first floor of Café Orbital, the other day, the place looked much more like a film set: professional movie camera on a tripod, flood lamp, cameraman, journalist, assistants... It turned out that a German TV production house was there to shoot "a topic".

Julie told me that ten days before that, they'd had a Japanese TV crew around, and I got the notion that, as for scribblers cum QuickTake like me, they saw at least two a week! When the Germans got finished shooting, half of the young people who were at the terminals got up and left on the journalist's cue: they weren't true cafe goers, but virtual ones!

It makes you wonder: Do people go to these cafés? Or do we, media people show them, talk about them, cross-reference them unendingly? Virilio-Baudrillard, 1 - Us optimistics, 0 (à la soccer score, a facetious way of keeping track of how a discussion is going that we use quite a bit in France).

A subterranean city of theaters and terminals

Les Halles used to be the central food market of Paris. If you're interested, there's no better description of it than in Émile Zola's "Le Ventre de Paris". In the early 1970s, the market was moved 10 miles south of the city and a huge subterranean mall with a certain charm was built in its place. One of the 3 major movie distributors here, UGC, recently opened there, in the nicest 20-feet ceilinged part of it, a 15-theater complex, Ciné Cité, with a post modern art déco bar and lounge, complete with... 8 Internet terminals and a 64 kbps link.

When I was there, in the middle of the afternoon, 4 or 5 of the terminals were being used, which is rather more than I thought would be. Carla and Monique were trying to send an email to an English friend, but apparently, they didn't have the right address and the message kept bouncing back. They had a PC home but no modem and when I told them that you could get a 14400 piece for 1100 FF ($230) these days and an Internet access for 100 FF per month, that upped their excitement some more. The other surfers there had roughly the same story to tell and they were either going to get their own gear sometime or couldn't for some reason (as in "My parents think I'm asking for one mostly to play on it!").

The Internet coach there told me that the second major category of customers were tourists visiting Paris and thus finding a convenient way of staying in touch with home.

The Internet café as a promotional tool for access providers

Newcomers intent on getting their own Internet access will know where to turn to, as appropriate leaflets abound in both the cafés I visited. Indeed, they might be customers lost for our cafés, but customers gained for the access providers.

That's probably why each of these cafés -- and they make of course no mistery of it -- is sponsored by one access provider, InternetWay in the case of Café Orbital, and World-Net in the case of Ciné Cité.

Virtual community intrudes in a great good place

You might wonder, as I did, how the café, archetypal place of conviviality, might come to house an access to electronic conviviality (supposed partly to compensate for the loss of the former) and apparently work pretty well at it.

True, people around the different terminals tend to help each other, call upon each other's attention to some neat page or some funny chat. But it could be argued that in those circumstances, we don't really talk together anymore, we tend to "metatalk" about the communication we have with the other, less real or at any rate decorporealized ones "out there". And I had an eerie feeling when peeking above Julie's shoulder, at Café Orbital, while she was having fun being silly on an IRC channel: the feeling that I was intruding on her privacy, that these things are better done home alone! (shades of a strange blend of narcissism /exhibitionnism /voyeurism)

As much as I dislike the catastrophist diatribes of Virilio and Baudrillard these days (you should see how the latter vituperates twice a month in Libération -- unreal! ;-), I can't help regularly finding clues that support their theories: that some derealization is at work and it's worrisome.

Let's get real!

Or one could argue about this Great Good Place thing. A lot of people sit in cafés and ruminate. With the Cybercafé, at least, they have a passion in common, an excellent reason to talk, to get to know each other. Believe me, it's a great way of meeting and getting familiar with people of the other sex! (or same, depending on your leaning). ;-)

If you want more details, an electronic magazine called Cybersphere keeps an up-to-date European Cyber Cafés pages for a continental tour of hip places.

Go to Lionel's Reports from Paris index
Go to Howard Rheingold's home page.