Free wifi, digital work space, and public “privatism”

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Recently, I spent the day at a local restaurant – working.  And remarkably I was not alone.  Oh, lots of people came in and out through out the day to eat of course.  But many more hung out with their laptops, alone or in groups, and some even conducted business meetings, via cell phone or face to face.  Some stayed for a couple of  hours and a few others, like I did, stayed for the whole day.

I had breakfast, a couple of refills on my coffee, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack.  All in all, not a bad deal for the restaurant.  And the free WiFi, comfy armchairs, ubiquitous Muzak, and reassuring buzz of nearby conversation made for a congenial, if public, workspace for me.  Never mind that I have a perfectly convenient and well-equipped study at home and access to one of the stateliest libraries and a host of calm, quiet work spaces on campus – as I remarked to the server, sometimes it just feels more productive to be near people.  We chatted briefly and both of us commented on the number of customers who came in to work.

Working in public spaces is on the rise, for a whole host of reasons. Improved connectivity has let to increased telecommuting, for one thing.  Growing numbers of workers simply don’t work from a fixed office space anymore. Yet, given the opportunity, why do so many eschew home spaces and choose to work in public spaces?  Conor Friedersdorf, associate editor at The Atlantic, speculates that there’s “just enough” distraction, time passes more quickly, it seems more like play than work, and that we want, not only to be productive, but to look productive in a public space.  And perhaps, being social animals, we just like being around our own kind.

Social media research suggests however, that working in public spaces doesn’t necessarily lead to the kind of casual social  interaction, or “bridging social capital,” that promotes tolerance, resilience, and trust.  In fact, taking advantage of free WiFi, even in the convivial atmosphere of a neighborhood restaurant, can actually encourage “public privatism,” being immersed in a traditionally private activity in a public space, disengaged from social interaction, and ignoring the presence of others.  So, after texting a friend and taking a call (in the parking lot) from my sister (both forms of “bonding social capital”), shutting down the computer and being simply being co-present for lunch seemed a good idea – at least for twenty minutes.  🙂


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