Friday, December 26, 2003

The miracles of modern technology

In the late 1970s, I spent rather too much of my time and pocket money hanging out in milk bars with slightly unsavoury people and playing the first generation of coin operated video games. As an activity, this (and a passion for the very first microcomputers) was at the time not in any way cool.

Right now, I am in the cafe on the basement floor of Richard Branson's first (and flagship) Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, London. The floor is mostly devoted to (electrical) musical instruments (this is probably actually an instance of the Virgin Megastore subletting space rather than selling musical instruments itself, but I digress). However, the cafe (which is part of a chain called "Costa Cofee") has a real retro look. It contains a mixture of serious and comfortable chairs (in the Starbucks manner), a couple of listening stations for sampling CDs sold elsewhere in the store, and also four cocktail version coin operated video games from about 1980. (Scramble, Galaga, Pacman, and one other that is out of order). It also contains a couple of pinball machines, but 1990s era pinball machines.

I was sitting here using the free WiFi to chat to Scott Wickstein in Adelaide about this, and he expressed a certain admiration for this - this is a cooler retail environment than in Adelaide. My immediate next move was to get out my digital camera, take a photo, transfer it to the laptop, and send it to Scott, so that he could see it for himself.

I will have to say that the fact that I was able to do this is just mindblowing when I think about it in the abstract. We live in an amazing world.

It's also interesting that what was not cool in 1979 has become cool in a retro sense. I understand that cool people took to computer technology in a big way in around 1995, but they weren't the people back in the milk bars in 1979. Certainly plenty of people who were like me in 1979 have since become rich and have started hanging out with cool people because they are useful in such environments , but I am not sure that they are cool themselves. I haven't become cool myself. (I haven't become rich myself either, largely I think because I have not really been very focused my late 20s and early 30s - I have certainly had opportunities to that I have not taken).

So who is responsiible precisely for the retro nostalgia that leads to a cafe looking like this? I'm not sure.

Update: When I wrote about the differences between cafes in different parts of the world earlier this year, I made the observation that cafes in Britain generally follow the Starbucks model and have only counter service. Generally I find this fine, but when I am working on my computer in a large cafe containing a substantial number of people, it is less so. My laptop is too valuable for me to leave it alone on a table for even a short time while I go to the counter to get another cup of coffee. This is a circumstance when some table service would be a really good idea. It would reduce the nuisance factor for people like me, and it would also I think quite dramatically increase the amount of food and drink being sold to people using the WiFi service.

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