Walk in a typical cafe in London, like other cities, and you might see a row of freelancers staring at their laptops, or people scrolling through smartphones as they wait in line. But later this year, Londoners might have another option: A cafe that automatically blocks wireless signals, so you’re forced to pay attention to your friends instead of your technology.
“I want to question the advancement of wireless technology,” says Julien Thomas, the artist behind the concept, who built a similar coffeeshop called the Faraday Cafe in Vancouver in a temporary exhibition last year. “Why is it that people have to involuntarily embrace these technologies, all of the time? There has to be a time and place for people to opt out. I think this is absolutely necessary for us to feel like we have some say over our lives.”
Now Thomas hopes to recreate the experience in the tech-filled U.K. capital. “I want to expose the contrast between a space that’s connected and disconnected,” Thomas says. He’s interested in partnering with a tech company to fund the space.
The design is simple: A metallic box surrounding the coffee shop repels wireless signals and other electromagnetic radiation, so it’s impossible to get a text or browse Facebook. “We don’t have to have a conversation about our cell-phone usage, or the ethics of pulling out your phone at the table,” Thomas says. “The space itself makes people stop.”
The experiment in Vancouver drew big–and diverse–crowds. “People came because they felt an affinity towards the concept,” says Thomas. “A daughter brought her mother for her birthday. One person had just gotten off the plane, and a long-lost friend picked her up and took her here to the cafe. A group of anarchists wanted to have a conversation and not feel like they had to worry about surveillance.”
With the next cafe, Thomas hopes to use a different design, with a higher-end copper mesh that repels 4G signals and has a different look. Though the technology creates a metallic cage around the coffeeshop, he says that it doesn’t have to feel like a confined space.
“British pubs often have tin ceilings, and a lot of shops have tile floors,” he explains. “So you can easily replicate pre-existing interior design features. You can also hide the material and make it look like wallpaper in a way. You’re making it a more attractive material, so it doesn’t seem oppressive.”
It’s a straightforward design that could easily be added to other buildings to finally make them cell-free zones, from movie theaters to classrooms. It’s something that people have been suggesting for years, but now may actually start to happen.
Thomas thinks there’s a clear appetite for more tech-free places–and sees it as a new business model, much like the Anti-Cafe, a London coffeeshop where freelancers pay by the minute instead of by the drink.
“Part of the interest to me is around business concepts for creatives that kind of play with the transaction a bit,” he says. “The thing with the Anti-Cafe is it doesn’t matter what you consume in the space, and the same is true of the Faraday Café. Maybe you buy a coffee–but you’re actually paying to have something taken away from you.”