The cybercafé society

Cybercafés are likely to become hang-outs for the tragically sad if they don’t diversify and exploit hardware’s built-in obsolescence, while design teachers and typeface designers are learning that the technology is starting to dictate their methods, disc

On every chic street and every bourgeois block of New York City, a cybercafé has opened. It’s a strange phenomenon. Menus advertise cappuccino and cheap World Wide Web access. People sit and tap away silently at computers, alone. Cafés were supposed to be lively, noisy places of physical interaction. My guess is that these places are attractive to three demographic groups: those who need to get out of their claustrophobic New York apartments, but are too shy to want to do it without a computer; those who think it’s hip; and those who don’t have Internet access at home, work or school. In theory, then, the needs of the latter two groups will eventually evaporate as personal computers providing Internet access become cheap enough to be part of everyone’s home, work and school. Cyberspace will then be rendered tragically unhip. Then the cybercafé will become the domain of lonely hearts and eventually fizzle out through lack of business.

There is, however, an alternative scenario. If personal computers continue to be shipped with an expected life span of six months before they are obsolete, then people will grow weary of shelling out money to purchase the latest models, and a shrewd cybercaf̩-owner will see an opportunity to capture the market. The cybercaf̩ will start a thriving business renting out computers to people in the workplace or home Рand taking them in for repair or upgrade every six months as Microsoft introduces its latest version of Windows. In the UK, perhaps, it will be Radio Rentals or Granada that diversifies into this hungry new market, renting out Information Superhighway Interactive Compu-televisions to those wise customers who chose not to buy.

It’s a wonder that IBM and Apple didn’t think of this years ago. Office equipment leasing and service contracts are actually quite widespread in other areas of manufacturing. Pitney Bowes leases postage meters, Scitex/IRIS provides technicians to customers to service and upgrade its high-end printers and The Xerox Corporation has been leasing equipment for years, even designing its models so that key components from the old copiers can be re-used. Uncannily enough, equipment leasing is also the most environmentally preferable scenario. The obsolete equipment gets returned to its source and re-used or recycled to suit the profit margins of the manufacturer.

Obsolete technology has become quite a problem in the design business. In new media design, the youngest people know the most about the available technology because they’ve just learnt it all at college. By the time they’re 25, all the new media tools they used at college are obsolete.

Colleges have no option but to teach the latest technology because the design companies hiring new recruits want employees that are computer savvy. But knowledge of new media design tools comes at the expense of traditional hand and eye skills, since there is only a given amount of time in a degree course to learn things. The solution may be, as some design teachers here are suggesting, to make design courses a year longer.

In the field of typeface design the obsolescence problem is intriguing. Since the computer monitor is becoming as common a final destination for graphic design as the printed page, several foundries in the US are designing typefaces specifically for the screen resolution of 72dpi. In Emigre’s font Base, for example, character widths are dictated by pixel width, not by printer outlines. But as typeface designer Matthew Carter points out, designing fonts to cope with the problems of existing technology can be a hazardous occupation. “It’s not hard to hack nice bitmaps, but once the resolution changes you can throw them away,” he says. “We need to design things that will give you a good result now, for greyscale and for when we all have 200dpi screens.”

The other possibility is that typefaces themselves will become obsolete. Picture font designer Steve Zafarana says: “I read an article that suggested by the year 2020, 80 per cent of Americans would be illiterate, so I’m going to keep doing picture fonts.” Just imagine the scenes at the cybercafés, with people tapping away at keys marked with pictures, like the old hieroglyphics. This will just go to prove that the alphabet had been, as Carter puts it, “a temporary aberration.”

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