Last year a beautiful young woman was shot to death in a Toronto cheesecake palace. It was one of those restaurants which boasts one hundred different kinds of desserts, eighteen varieties of coffees, and is called “The Cake Lady,” “Calories,” or “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.”
As it happened, this cheesecake palace—where the beautiful woman was shot by a man who was attempting to rob the place—had the unfortunate name of “Just Desserts.”
You can imagine the jokes when the pun came full circle. I worked in a cheesecake palace in the summer between high-school and university. It was the kind of place where people who don’t like to go out go out—after an early show at the Cineplex or on a beautiful summer night when you really shouldn’t stay in, but a bar? So smoky. So loud.
That summer, I learned a lot about the type of people who frequent dessert palaces, and I grew to hate their impatience, their perverse joy in sending things back: “Too much raspberry sauce,” “Can you heat this up for five more seconds?” “Oh wait a minute what is she eating?” “Is this skim or two percent?” “I didn’t know this had nuts,” “I wanted my whipped cream on the side.” And although I had been thinking more along the lines of a scathing novel, the double entendre of the Just Desserts murder took on a special meaning for me.
It also took on a special meaning for Canadian cities; although it didn’t have much to do with class warfare, revenge, or retribution. It had to do with urban decay and rising crime rates, the idea that even upscale urban communities were not safe from, as one columnist put it, “The barbarians inside the gate.”
Just Desserts became a national rallying cry for the frightened white middle-class. If we don’t act now, Toronto—a city whose claim to fame is that it serves as a stand-in for New York and Chicago in countless third-rate Hollywood films—will spiral into these degenerate cities itself. What’s next? Drive-bys?
Don’t get the wrong idea: people are murdered in Toronto all the time. But there was something in the combination of bullets and cheesecake that struck a chord. If you’re not even safe in this, the closest thing to a tastefully decorated living room outside of your very own home, then where are you safe? Yuppie cafes lost their innocence that night.
I’m sitting in Eek-a-Geek, a brand new cafe in a part of Toronto where retailers specialize in minute specialties—fresh pasta, pesto, or brightly colored ceramic home decorations. Eek-a-Geek is the newest addition to the on-line cafe scene. There are at least forty-nine such cafes world-wide and twenty-four more are scheduled to open “real soon now.” Like their cheesecake cousins, they all have super cute names like “CyberPerk”, “Cafe Liberty,” and “Cyber Java.”
Now, “Spend more time in front of computer” was pretty low on my list of New Year’s resolutions—a higher priority was “Visit chiropractor about disturbing curve in spine.” But thanks to the rise of Wired and Macintosh’s ads featuring Henry Rollins et al., computers have lately been transformed into a rather costly but indispensable accoutrement of hip. So it wasn’t long before the new culture accessory became the latest gimmick for the hippest cafes and bars, and the espresso-makers weren’t even baptized before the techno-dazzled media was embracing the trend with clever headlines like “Au-Lait On-Line.”
These public net sites are really nothing more innovative than Kinko’s with beverages. But the cyber-vision of Kinko’s—with its prim staff in pale blue button-downs, Gap khakis, and name tags; with its gray, freshly steam-cleaned carpets and its list of services displayed fast-food menu style on the wall—summons an image of the future that is more eighties/Cold War/IBM than nineties/Wired/psychedelic.
Eek-a-Geek melds two of the most inane and over-hyped nineties crazes: coffee and the Internet.
But then there’s Eek-a-Geek, where everything, including its wacky name, is designed to mask the sterility and threat of technology’s pre-lifted face. The computers are embedded into the wall so you can’t see their smooth gray bodies—only their groovy screen savers. They are framed not with institutional cubicles but rustic pieces of plywood and anarchist stickers—one says “burn your user card,” another advertises the local punk band Bellygod. All the surfaces are cluttered with mini plastic smurf-like creatures and toy cars. One waitress is on roller blades and talks endlessly to her friends, another is warm and flaky and has a nose ring. To balance out the slickness of the main attraction—point and click on-line bulletin boards—Eek displays real bulletin boards of the ultra hectic health-food co-op variety. The kitchen consists exclusively of an espresso maker and jars of home-made oatmeal cookies.
Eek-a-Geek melds two of the most inane and over-hyped nineties crazes: coffee and the Internet. Mark Dziecielewski, a man who has devoted a disproportionate amount of time to monitoring these venues and posting the information he collects on a web site, can supply you with a startlingly long list of on-line cafes, complete with ghastly pictures of their proprietors as well as tips on how to start your own on-line joint. If you find the combination of coffee and computers particularly compelling, you can discover how much coffee there is left in a pot somewhere at Cambridge University (there’s a camera hooked up to the coffee maker which updates the image every few seconds). In other words, fascinating, useful stuff. The stuff the “information age” is made of.
When you first enter the web site, Mark treats you to brief homage to cafe culture: “Artists and intellectuals and revolutionaries such as Picasso or Sartre used to publish their manifestos in cafes”—as if to imply that by sending electronic diarrhea to your new best friend in Sydney, Australia while you both drink over-priced coffee, a similar work of genius will surely result.
I hadn’t witnessed that kind of logical leap since the last time I visited a digital cafe. Well, I didn’t actually visit it. It was at an event hosted by the Marshall McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto, one of the many “media labs” cropping up on university campuses around our oh-so-global globe. Timothy Leary, who has lately recast himself as the embodiment of technology’s make-over from tool of the Pentagon to psychedelic/revolutionary toy, was going to host an interactive debate on the topic “If Virtual Reality Is The Medium, What Is the Message?” The trick was that Leary, who has actually visited Toronto many times on the Learning Annex circuit, was not going to be there. He would be at the Interactive Cafe in Santa Monica and we would do a video hook-up with him.
The message Leary tried to deliver was that the new technologies are going to result in something called the “exchange of ideas,” but he couldn’t hang on to a single thought, let alone anything that could qualify as an actual idea, for more than the time it took to spout yet another non-sequitur bumper-sticker slogan: “The future of books is the blurb!” and “You can visit the home of a child in Cambodia from your living room!”
It’s true of technophiles in general. They talk a good game about ideas—the exchange of them “in nanoseconds,” the creation of an idea-based culture, about how technology isn’t an end but a tool to facilitate the exchange of ideas—but they don’t actually have any.
Maybe it’s because before we can get to all those juicy revolutionary thinkings, we have to work out all those technical glitches. At the Leary babble, for instance, the speaker’s brain wasn’t the only thing cutting in and out, so was the sound, the image, and then we could all see and hear him but he couldn’t see us. When the organizers finally called it quits, they made no attempt to pick up the discussion where Leary cut out. We all just stumbled out and went our separate ways. Technology’s promise had failed us both functionally and intellectually and this group of cutting-edge, globally-focused, economically-flexible grad students and professors were utterly helpless in the face of it.
The single, entirely predictable thought that Leary did manage to convey was that, in the looming excellent future, “cars and office buildings will become obsolete. There will be no need to leave your house, to travel, except for pleasure.” This was presented as a good thing and at times it is indeed an appealing notion. But its meaning for most people probably has more to do with Just Desserts and whether computers will make the city safe again for the middle class.
What does it mean when you leave your house, go to public, urban spaces and spend the entire time ignoring the people around you?
In The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold argues that internet discussion groups are creating real communities where television and the suburbs have robbed us of them. He is concerned by the loss of “third places”—cafes, pubs and beauty salons—where people once gathered to talk outside of their work and homes. “When the automobilecentric, suburban, fast-food shopping-mall way of life eliminated many of these ‘third places’ from traditional towns and cities around the world, the social fabric of existing communities started shredding…. Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public spaces where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall.”
But what does it mean when the still existing malt shop (or cafe or pub or laundromat) becomes cyberspace? What does it mean when you leave your house, go to public, urban spaces and spend the entire time ignoring the people around you in favor of finding out more about some angster in Texas named Bryon who has posted his entire diary on the Internet in all of its excruciating detail, including a picture of his ex-girlfriend Sandi’s cat and the heartwarming description of his relationship with his best friend Kriss: “We do a lot of things together, usually related to computer hardware (buying, selling, fixing).”
I’m thinking of e-mailing Mark Dziecielewski with my definition of an on-line cafe: “A place where you would normally go to interact with the people you are with but where you instead interact with people who are absolutely anywhere but there.”
The Internet’s claim of being the forum for thousands of mini think tanks, each cooler and more really you than the next, has enormous appeal for the unhappy high-school girl in all of us. After all, the search for a perfect designer group of friends or a like-thinking “discussion group” is a big part of what propels us from one school to the next, one bar to the next, one job to the next and one city to the next. But the Internet’s endless web of simultaneous discussions ensures that you will never, even momentarily, reach your destination and the inanity of the discussions you do find will keep you searching. With all of this global cool kid envy of your finger tips, who cares about the person who came with you to Eek-a-Geek? True happiness and inner peace awaits.
There is something pathetically symbolic in the spectacle of cities becoming afraid of actual cafes and turning instead to on-line cafe where they can leave behind the reality of the city itself. Someone once told me that one day we’d have no ozone layer so we’d all have live in giant malls and never go outside. This is the purpose the Internet is beginning to serve for the frightened upper-middle class—an intellectual suburb for people afraid of their Just Desserts.