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Digital-free safe spaces

By now, smartphones and laptops are a ubiquitous sight in Berlin’s cafés and bars. Yet some business owners have been promoting good old analogue congeniality thanks to screen-free zones – with varying degrees of success.

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The entrance to Shakespeare & Sons’ laptop-free zone. Photo by Dustin Quinta

By now, smartphones and laptops are a ubiquitous sight in Berlin’s cafés and bars. Yet some business owners have been promoting good old analogue congeniality thanks to screen-free zones – with varying degrees of success.

There is something depressing about row upon row of human beings plugged into their laptops and phones for hours, especially in public. Most of us feel varying degrees of dismay when we see them. And then there are those consciously trying to escape it. We all know neighbours who purposefully have landlines instead of smartphones, friends using apps helping them limit their “screen time”, colleagues who own a phone that doesn’t do much more than text. Doesn’t the comeback of the Nokia 3310 (aka the “brick”) signal one of the biggest purposeful regressions towards less tech since Rihanna chose a flip phone?

In Berlin, we even have a Radikal Anti Smartphone Front (RASF), a mini-movement dedicated to “love instead of like” that boasts a long ledger of media praise and several enthusiastic testimonies from (mostly young) Berliners. Their online manifesto states that “interpersonal communication is dying due to cat videos and mindless feeds of internet junk….” and continues: “We, the Radical Anti Smartphone Front frankly state: NO! No to ignoring present company in favour of digital conversation, no to narcissistic self-depiction and no to the further divergence of our society!” Digital abstinence may be harder than it seems, however – since November, RASF is on a break as one of its founders has left town and the other has accepted a demanding new job. No word on the reunion.

Meanwhile, convinced that something about having a no-screen experience is worth it, the owners of various bars, restaurants and cafés across the city have been attempting to off er ‘safe’ zones to their patrons. Take the bookstore/café Shakespeare & Sons in Friedrichshain. In addition to quality English-language books and excellent bagels, it’s had a computer-free room built in since day one, complete with a sign that threatens: “Don’t cross us on this. We’re brutal.”

We put signs on the tables, people took them off. Even when we try to tell them nicely that this isn’t a place for their laptops, they get upset.

Light pours in through the window, making this walled-off corner one of the nicest places to sit. “We’re a bit nostalgic for that time when you could walk into a cafe and read, maybe flirt, maybe catch someone’s eye from across the room,” says co-owner Laurel Kratovichla. But, apparently, people ignore the rule constantly and walk into the room with their laptops. “We put signs on the tables, people took them off. Even when we try to tell them nicely that this isn’t a place for their laptops, they get upset,” Kratovichla confesses.

Her clientele is mostly in their twenties and thirties, here to work on their computers in a place that’s neither home nor work. “It’s 2017 and of course you have to go with the times, you can’t alienate them,” she says. But to her, it’s a matter of respect for those other customers who come in just looking to sit and read. “I wanna kill people who watch television on their computers in here,” she says (twice). “Do your work, that’s fine, but bringing THAT level of alienation is on a whole new level. And because we’re a bookstore, it’s somehow antithetical to what we are and should stand for.”

Does she know of non-digital places, something 100 percent screen-free? “I’d love a place like that…” she trails off . Her husband and business partner Roman gestures to his own computer in the back offi ce, surrounded by books. “Of course it’s frustrating to see people staring into their laptops all the time. It’s like they live there. But you really can’t do away with all things digital. I need this for my work, and I suspect you’ll find that it’s the same throughout Berlin.”

But no-phone zones do exist. The high-end Mitte cocktail joint Buck & Breck was one of the first bars in Berlin to put a sign on the door with something along the lines of “Hide your phone, enjoy the drink.” It’s practically a speakeasy, the way it’s low-lit and enclosed. Between the darkly glowing bar, black countertops, and comfy conversational tone, it’s the kind of place where it feels classy to have a drink alone (albeit at a double-digit price for a gin and tonic). Steven the bartender explains the hidden-phone rule is part of their general vibe. “This is our idea of something analogue,” he says. “The world stays outside when you come in. You’re able to focus on everything that’s not your phone.” Not even texting? He shrugs. “Sure, as long as it’s not out on the table and we can’t see it. That would disturb the ambience.”

Similarly, at the “brutally local” Kreuzberg restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig, no phones or photos are allowed inside – “to preserve the atmosphere”, says owner and sommelier Billy Wagner. And while he’ll just keep his eye on a diner if they start to text, he’ll throw out someone who picks up a call. “Here, I want people to behave. Why are people so in their own digital zone all the time? Dining is kind of an emotional experience, I think. This should be about you, each other, and, yes, the food… but not your phone!”

He mentions a sauna in Berlin, Vabali, that has a sign about experiencing “digital detox” upon arrival by putting away your phone completely. “People could use more of this digital detox.” What about photos – can you really say you’ve had a 10-course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant if there’s no Instagram evidence? Naturally, the wine connoisseur allows some leeway: “If you got a really nice bottle, okay, take a picture of it. But respect the culture, the other people, the experience… We have a message on our menu that says ‘Please take memories, not pictures.’ But, sure, it’s not Berghain here. Things happen.”

It might be simpler for a cocktail bar and a fine dining restaurant to control the environment. For cafés, however, there are two sides to the problem. If you don’t allow laptops, you might deter a lot of potential customers (as at Shakespeare & Sons). But if you have no restrictions and free wi-fi, your floor could flood with laptops, filling the space entirely with the continuous clicky-clicks of typing. In the face of that dilemma, many places are going the hybrid route.

Take The Barn on Auguststraße, famous for great croissants, caffeine snobbery and what we believed was a draconian anti-laptop policy… until founder Ralf Rüller himself set us straight. “Our roastery took an approach five years ago to create an environment for our customers to slow down and be in our space, not cyberspace. So we had a media area in which laptops were restricted.” Just recently, though, they put in a bigger central laptop area, complete with outlets and wi-fi. Now, the only space prohibiting your 13-inch screens is by the windows at the front of the shop – “so that bypassers know they can come in to meet and talk to people.” Good intentions. Too bad that when we came back with a friend, the atmosphere was hushed and anything but chatty.

It seems that the number of these hybrid spots, places with limits on devices but not all or nothing, is on the increase. Silo Coffee (Friedrichshain) doesn’t want laptops out during kitchen hours (all day till 3pm on weekdays, and 5pm on weekends). The incredibly Instagrammable Happy Baristas (Friedrichshain) and Bonanza (Prenzlauer Berg) have moved to the “central laptop area” option similarly to The Barn. And too many to count have remained free of wi-fi, possibly to detract devices from the get-go. Kaffee Kirsche (Kreuzberg) is a personal favourite. “We just find it nicer when people talk to each other in here,” a barista told us.

Of course, what founder or employee would say “We just find it nicer when people can come in, plug into their laptops, and enter their own digital realm, free to ignore everyone and everything around them for the sake of their cyber-pursuits”? But no one needs to. Whether you’re a business expanding your digital bandwidth or you’re trying to offer an experience as unplugged as possible, people will do that on their own.