Diary of a Digital Refugee


Dear Digital Diary…

Monday October 8.30am café-land

There’s a strong Autumn sun, low in the morning sky.  I have the only remaining unoccupied table near a plug. The sun,warm on my back, is now roasting my back and the back of my neck. The screen is barely readable in the sunlight. 

Monday October 10am

This used to be a favourite cafe, until the owner went into a silent war with his digitally focused customers. Power points were removed from the walls, and free Wifi access is now restricted to thirty minutes, booting you at the end of your allotted time, and also if you attempt to use Skype, or anything else that exceeds 300MB in total over your half hour.

Monday October 11am

The music here is so loud that it is impossible to stay on the conference call. Also the violent bursts of barista-led steam sound like gun shots to the fellow callers. Fled to a hotel lobby for an hour and a pot of decent tea for an arm and a leg

Monday October Midday

The very polite café owner keeps apologising and resetting the router. The connection is live for no longer than ten minutes before cutting out again

Monday October 2pm

The wifi connection is fast and reliable. The coffee tastes like poop and the roast dinners look and smell like swill.

Monday October 3pm

Wandering around looking for a spare table at a café, any café, with a wifi connection. Found a chain. Sticky, uncleared tables, Wifi not working, staff shrug, clueless.

Monday October 4pm

An excellent wifi connection in a lovely café. But no Power Points. Batteries running dangerously low. 

The Challenge

Digital refugees are wandering all over your city or town. They are searching for a place to settle, if only for an hour or two. Freelancers, self-employed, writers, coders, inventors and entreprenuers, home is not a place they want to work today, and office life is a place they have fled from. Mobile, and fairly resilient to distraction, they seek a place to lay their hats and their tablets, to plug in, connect up, and start flowing.

Digital refugees find themselves wandering the streets in search of somewhere warm, friendly, and accessible. They are more than happy, in most cases, to pay their way. They know the spoken and unspoken etiquette of a regular coffee and an occasional meal to justify the rental of a table for a few hours. By and large they get it that cafés and restaurants need to earn a living. What they are seeking is a place to engage in their digital realm work that isn’t at home, and isn’t in an office.

Poor service

Here, in the UK, we are mostly poorly served when we step out of the front door in search of a place to fire up our laptops or tablets and to work in the digital realm. In my home city of Brighton not one café has got it all right, even though many claim they aspire to it.: A café where you can sit for as long as you need, and do your work. The digital dollar no small amount. I spend over $3000 per year in cafés and I sometimes feel the owners have decided to go to war against me, limiting my download speed, blocking my power points and booting my computer after half an hour. Excuse me, café owner – do you really want to lose even half  that amount of money? Is it really worth winning the battle against this growing and spending group of customers, justified by you by your attempts to control and even banish a small minority who sit there all day supping one coffee? Look harder and you’ll find a more significant minority of much higher spending digital workers and players, seeking a place to lay their tablets for an hour or so.

There is of course a sad quality to this image of someone, wandering the streets, as if they had no real life, from place to place, desperately seeking somewhere to indulge their sad addiction to the internet. There is also an alternative perspective, a view of someone who enjoys flow, likes being out and about, is happy to be distracted, but doesn’t want home to be their office, nor an office to be their home. cafés are social places, energetic places, places to welcome distraction, but also places to sit and write a letter, read a book, hold a conversation, meet up with friends and colleagues, seal a deal, and also to do all of these things in the digital realm as well.

A New Kind of Customer?

Digital workers and players are a new kind of customer for many cafés  and owners of public spaces and, by and large, the response has been patchy, often disappointing, and these customers find themselves wandering in search of a place that is suitable for their needs. Where there are no Power Points, the many devices soon reveal their battery life promise to fall short. Where there is no or an unreliable wifi connection, digital working is restricted to “offline” and reliance on 3 or 4G and dependent on “signal”. Noise pollution, uncomfortable chairs, digitally clueless staff, and limits on data and time, all send the digital worker packing. The main justification for this is usually that it is the owner’s intention to send them packing as they need the tables for the next customer. According to them, most of their digitally engaged  customers simply don’t spend enough.

This has led to the rise of “hub” with hot desks.(Here’s an example, in London, UK)  In my own home city of Brighton, these hubs charge by the hour, the week or the month and attempt to offer retro snacks and drinks. None have suited me. I WANT A café! They do suit some and these digital refugees have found a home. I’m still wandering…

Working in cafe spaces holds a unique attraction for some. The cafés  I am sitting in at present (The one roasting my back with sunshine) welcomes digital workers and players. There’s an unspoken agreement to buy more than one coffee, and, if staying for over an hour or two, to eat something. Wifi is excellent, almost totally reliable and there are plug points aplenty. Music is played at a reasonable level. This is café Ground in Brighton, and I thoroughly recommend both of their locations. I’ve had some of my best ideas here, done some of my best writing, had some of my best conversations – both on- and offline.

The buzz and flow of work is aided when the digital aspect of café working feels seamless, generous and relaxed. When the cafe recognises that digital workers are a decent source of income and also referral to new customers (not all of whom will be digital workers and players), it then sees digital services as core to the café offering. Whether there is a real opportunity here for dedicated cafés for digital working and playing, remains to be seen. There are some.

Little booths and breakfast bars?

Some cafés create little booths or breakfast bar areas where someone can sit one on one with their lap top, plug in, and zone out. This works until the sun bursts through the windows. Where there isn’t a window, staring at a wall is no fun. Booths and bars are better when we don’t feel we’ve been engineered out of the main space in order to keep us “away” from the rest of humanity. Then the space feels like lonely old home, or an office desk again. At its worst we have the milking booth cyber cafés, where people sit in a line, forced to use out of date computers and pay by the hour.  These may serve their own useful purpose, but cafés they are not.

Digital refugees are a sign that cafés have either become the quite correct last stand against digital encroachment, or that they have failed to recognise the changing times we live in, where socialising is both face to face and virtual, but that people in a social mood like to do their digital socialising in cafés as well. Café owners often have bad experiences of a beanie-hatted geek setting up camp with one coffee at 8am and still sitting there with tantalisingly not quite empty cup well after midday. This phenomenon seems to grow as word gets out that this is a “cool joint with a chilled out owner” and suddenly the cafe is Facebook and coder heaven and café income is around $19 for the morning. This demonic picture, based in some truth, is largely untrue. Many of the reactions of café owners to keep out and limit digital workers and plays have been over the top and have simply reduced income. Removing plug points, cutting people off after half an hour – these are gestures of unfriendliness. They create an image of the café as a place of “no”not of “How can we serve you”?

Other restrictions have included turning the wifi off at lunchtimes and limited what can be accessed (e.g. blocking video calling and watching). All of these add to the digital refugee phenomenon.

The New Standards

So, they wander from place to place, seeking fast, free digital working and playing possibility. They seek the following, which are, in a way, the new minimal quality standard for authentically offering digital working and playing services outside of the home or the office:

– fast, free (or reasonably priced) wifi access

– safe, available power points

– access to printing 

– comfortable seating and usable,, clean work surfaces

– air conditioning and sunlight control

– staff who are clued in and can be mindful and aware when digital workers and players take comfort breaks, leaving their technology at tables

– a way of dealing with digital meanies (the one coffee all day crew) separately from authentic, willing to pay, digital workers and players

– dedicated spaces for digital working and playing, smartly and sensitively designed, not clumsily cordoned off from the café buzz and vibrant life

It’s all about flow. Digital workers and players are a growing number of people of all ages, and from different parts of society. Mobile technology development is increasing their number, as is the improvement in café quality and variety. A growing number of people want to engage in the digital realm in physical places that feel social, vibrant, and “in tune” with the creative style of working. For many, offices are history, and the home is a place for family and also is too isolated.

Digital refugees are seeking more permanent homes. Nearly all have money to spend. As a café owner, are you fleeing from them, are you ready for them, are you ready to embrace the opportunity?

There are opportunities for new ways of working.  Cafés can be less stressful places, fire creativity, energise meetings, make us more productive when not in our home town or base. There are new challenges about privacy and confidentiality, about the risks of doing work in places not subject to work place health and safety protocols, but there’s also an opportunity to tap into the Buzz and feed that into more innovative thinking and working. The digital realm, when we are engaged in social interaction, harmonises well with the flowing and dynamic feel of a café.

So, the digital refugees continue to wander, in search of somewhere to connect and flow. Time for me to move on too. This black short sleeve shirt is now starting to smoke…

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on October 17, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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