Actor-Network Theory: why it’s relevant in the cafe

Trying to understand Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory sometime feels as difficult as understanding… Higgs Boson. Explaining Actor-Network Theory to a lay person can feel clumsy and not-so academically accurate. So apologies in advance if this is overly simplistic (or indeed, if it’s overly confusing).

Look around you, can you see your smartphone? I bet it’s within arm’s reach or at least in the same room as you.

Your smartphone was invented by a human. Someone dictated what went where to make it work, they decided what functions it should include.

But then you purchased the smartphone and it started to mould your behaviour, the way you interact with others and how they interact with you. In turn, you’ve added more apps and data to your smartphone to change your actions and influence your living further.

(are you still with me? I hope so.)

My understanding of Actor-Network Theory is that that humans and non-humans (objects, things, concepts) are all ‘actors’ in a ‘network’ where we impact, influence and change one another in equal parts.

And what does this have to do with coffee and wifi?

Actor-Network Theory is just one ‘sociological lens’ we can use to look at the cafe.

I assert that we’re being moulded and shaped by wifi, the location of wifi and the actions we do via wifi. The very fact that wifi is in a cafe shapes the way we interact with others in and out of our immediate vicinity.


Seinfeld on coffee

There has been coffee everywhere this week. We’ve come to the end of UK Coffee Week  which has seen anyone who’s even remotely invested in coffee come out to play. It’s a great reminder of how coffee brings people together.

Across the pond, NPR in the US has spent the week looking at all things coffee as well in their Coffee Week.

NPR reporters explored everything from suspended coffee, the rise of women in the coffee industry, latte art and, the history of coffee.

But my favourite story from Coffee Week is an interview with relative newcomer to coffee, Jerry Seinfeld. He says, ‘You have coffee and for some reason it makes you talk a lot.’

It’s a welcome distraction to all of this serious talk about coffee.

London Coffee Festival 2013

I was lucky enough to go to the London Coffee Festival yesterday evening at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch.

Lucky, in that I won my ticket thanks to Caffeine magazine, cheers!

And while it was good to geek out over different coffees and brewing methods, it was also interesting that conversation inevitably came around to digital sociology and the coffee and wifi research.

The conversations were mixed with some people thinking big data and mobile devices are a cause for concern, and others just being interested in talking about the subject area. I’m always fascinated to hear more from non-sociologists about their concerns with big data and mobile devices. It usually provides me with another perspective to look at things from.

Only at a coffee festival could come across a stall of someone selling a book extolling the virtues of working from cafes.

Out of Office book

Out of Office by Chris Ward

Chris Ward was at the London Coffee Festival spruiking his book, Out of Office. The book talks about the positives of working  from cafes and lists great books written, websites founded and revolutions commenced all from the humble cafe.

I’m yet to read the book thoroughly but provides a good pictorial, business argument for working from cafes. Definitely something to look into further.

I had a chat to Chris and it’ll be great to follow up with him in the coming months on his ideas about working from cafes.

On a coffee geek note, I managed to complete my Hario V60 pour over kit yesterday. This means the project will be fuelled by lots of lovely homemade, single origin filter coffees.

Hario stand at the London Coffee Festival

Hario stand at the London Coffee Festival – one of many coffee geek out sites.

Coffee and wifi. Really?

Yes, really. In the about section, I say ‘The internet café is dead. Long live the café (with wifi)’. Let me explain that a little bit.

In the Sensory Sociology module I was taking last year, my supervisor, Dr Nina Wakeford mentioned the 73 Urban Journeys project, an ethnography by Kat Jungnickel of the 73 bus route in London commencing in 2003. You can still take a look at the results of the project online and it makes for fascinating reading.

The main impression that l came away with was the strong feature of internet cafes along the bus route. In 2003, that was par for the course, the internet wasn’t so ubiquitous – don’t get me wrong, it was well on its way at the time.

But even though that study is nearly a decade old, so much has changed. Let’s face it: the ‘café’ in internet café wasn’t the highlight. The internet café of old was row upon row of desktop computers with a desk where you paid for your internet access by the minute and a refrigerator stocked with drinks to serve as refreshment.

You went to an internet café because you didn’t have internet access at home, or you weren’t at home and you need to get in touch with others online or you needed to print off a document on the fly. Or maybe the internet café was your gaming community – a place where you played MMPORGs

But over the past five years we have seen a shift against internet cafes full of fixed computers for hire. We can infer that this is due to an increase in mobile devices and the mainstream introduction of  free or cheap wifi and mobile internet (3G and 4G) services.

This has shifted internet use into the traditional café. It becomes fascinating when you consider that the cafe is a social place that is taken over by people consuming coffee and participating in work. And this is due to an invisible force that simultaneously connects us to distant others, yet disconnects us from those in our immediate space.

As a self-proclaimed caffeine addict and coffee snob, I first experienced the traditional café tip into a co-working space in early 2011. I had just moved from Fremantle, Australia where the café experience is gastronomic (or at least trying to be) to Manchester, where the café experience was one part social experience, another part co-working experience. This was the same across high street coffee chains where frantic students on Oxford Road carried out group work and essay writing, to the independent cafes in the Northern Quarter where freelance creatives and coders would gather around a big, communal table, working socially.

I found myself working out of the latter cafe a lot when I was living in Manchester and again when I was visiting friends in recent months. There’s something about working communally  in an environment that isn’t specifically labelled as ‘office’ – yes, that even includes ‘home offices’ – that allows a different type of productivity.

Although most cafes seem welcoming to people coming in to use their wifi, others aren’t so keen on the intrusion it has on the ‘turning tables over’ process in order to make a profit. Here’s a sign I spotted on the register at a cafe near my work which perfectly sums up the tension:

"Wifi will be turned off between 12-3 due to lunchtime rush" - sign on the till at Store St Espresso, London

“Wifi will be turned off between 12-3 due to lunchtime rush” – sign on the till at Store St Espresso, London

This blog will record the journey of examining this shift of wifi reshaping the cafe experience.

There will be coffee, there will be wifi, there will be sociology and there will be great lashings of ethnography. Join me on the adventure.