When you step inside the Faraday Cafe in Vancouver, it's like stepping into a black hole. You suddenly become unreachable.
The coffee shop is the first in the world to actively repel wireless signals, so it's impossible to get a call or a text or check your email. Instead, the cafe's creator hopes that you’ll talk to the friend or stranger next to you.
"I think that the proliferation of digital technology like smartphones has happened so fast that we haven’t really had a chance to have a conversation about the etiquette or the ethics around their use," says artist Julien Thomas, who designed the temporary cafe as an art project along with architects from Hughes Condon Marler. "I wanted to create a space outside of the media—literally outside of our access—so we could have a conversation about how we use technology."
The design uses a metallic box called a Faraday cage to block signals, and the architects worked to make sitting in a cage something people might actually want to do. "The material is actually quite beautiful," Thomas says. "It reflects light and shadow. I think there’s a lot that can be done with it. Instead of lamenting that you have to be enclosed in a cage, it can really be a beautiful space."
Though it might be getting more common to walk into a coffee shop or a restaurant and see a sign banning cell phones or laptops, Thomas wanted to take the extra step of making the technology impossible to use. "I wanted to design a space where you don’t have to tell someone to stop," he says. "The arrangement of the room and the materials allow people to effortlessly walk in and decide their own limits."
For those who can't stop looking at their devices, it's a temporary refuge. Thomas sees it as an example of how architecture and design can help make change when people on their own might not have been able to. "I think a lot of the bigger issues in the world we struggle with—things like climate change, population, peak oil—have to do with limits," he says. "I don't think we do a very good job of placing limits on ourselves."
Inside the cafe, Thomas asks visitors to leave snippets of their conversations in a "conversation jar," so others can see the value of undistracted discussions. At the same time, he's not anti-technology; the coffee cups have blank spaces asking people to write in what they think the world would lose without the Internet.
The cafe is just meant to get people to start talking about the issue, but it might eventually lead to some actual businesses.
"I was recently reading an article about the fact that in the age of ubiquitous cell phone coverage, when everybody can get a hold of everybody else, privacy is the new privilege," Thomas says. "There's a new camping hotel where people pay $4,000 to get away from everyone else. So there's potential for people to see this as a valuable space, whether it's in a cafe or in a meeting room in an office somewhere."