Conversations in Cyberspace

An Interview with Daniel Sturdy of CB1 Cybercafe

CB1 is located on Mill Road, a short walk from the centre of Cambridge. Itís an area that might not be far in distance from the medieval spires of the Colleges but itís light years away in mentality, jutting up as it does against the solid working-class bastion of Romsey. Here, the fragrance of incense and exotic herbal concoctions combine seamlessly with the smell of fried fish and malt vinegar. Vegans in earth shoes shuffle past windows full of pungent kabobs. Used furniture shops share street space with fancy futons, mosques with churches, tattoo parlours with skin cream emporia, quick curry tummy aches with pasta flatulence. All this and bicycles galore. A perfect place for a bohemian cafť? The only question is: why wasnít there one before?

In Cambridge, though, nothing is what it appears to be. Even on a street like this, the power behind the scene is still the same colleges that once banished the railway station to the outskirts of town so their students wouldnít be tempted to make an overnight foray to the flesh pots of London. Itís just that these days they have to share their economic clout with the Science Park - Cambridgeís answer to Silicon Heaven.

For Britain, this is High Tech City. In fact, itís probably the most wired-up village in Europe. The Cambridge MP, Anne Campbell, has given the cityís reputation extra bumph by putting herself and the rest of the town on-line, setting up access points in the libraries and allowing anyone free use if they can find a place in front of the terminal.

These two primary aspects of Cambridge life have naturally come together at CB1, though itís hard to see at first glance. It looks innocent enough. Standing outside, peering through the plate glass, the place looks inviting. Plants, books, a broad mix of customers sitting casually at miss-matched wooden tables.

But, inside, itís more like a communal living room than a cafť. Thereís not much in the way of food and drink. Just the basics and few nice sweets from neighbouring Arjuna. Clearly people come here to meet and chat, not because they want a four course dinner. Maybe itís the poster about the Internet that gives the first hint. It talks about a forum to be held in CB1. CB1? Isnít that the postal code? And then you notice the computers stuck away in a quiet, little nook.

CB1 is, indeed, the first cybercafe in Cambridge. And it would have been first in the nation if it hadnít been for the college that owns the property being funny about the lease and hanging them up for so long that Londonís Cyberia beat them to it. Itís a sore point, but then, whatís a matter of days or weeks or even months? Unless you want to go down in the annals of history. Besides, the whole point of the Internet is that itís rewriting history, isnít it? At least the format.

But weíre here on a mission. Weíre meeting Daniel Sturdy, the proprietor. A friendly chap with a ready smile and a slightly balding look that puts us immediately at ease, seeing weíre part of a follicly stressed brotherhood.

Itís eleven AM, midweek, and the place is already buzzing. Not to worry. He fills a cup with coffee, hands it to us and then leads us down a flight of stairs to the Ďquiet room.í Never mind the faint odour of damp, here, at least, we can talk into the tape recorder:

BB: What was the idea behind CB1 and how did you actually get going?

DS: It stems from my background - which is academia. I was a research psychologist - researching psycho-linguistics - which is how I discovered the Internet and found you could do astonishing things. You could download the entire Dutch language, for example. I was researching statistical aspects of languages and I was just swept away by the possibilities.Ē

BB: When was this?

DS: Just over two years ago. I was studying at the applied psychology unit at Cambridge doing my post-doctoral research. And I was beginning to feel that I wasnít being stimulated by my fellow academics and that they werenít alive to the kind of research I was interested in and the possibilities that the Internet offered. I kind of got to the stage where I had to make a decision of whether to go on to get a lectureship and stay in academia or to make the break. You only get one chance to do something a bit off the wall. I thought, why not now? I always thought a bookshop/cafť was an ideal environment. I was surprised that people hadnít tried to make a go of it in England. I gathered it was a popular and successful idea in San Francisco, Dublin and Paris. So why not Cambridge?

BB: How did you see computers fitting in?

DS: At that stage I thought it just cost too much money to put the Internet in. But right from the start it seemed to fit in perfectly with the themes that I was looking for. Essentially, the thing Iím interested in is conversation, developing ideas through conversation with like-minded and unlike-minded people. Thatís how the idea of CB1 came about. You have conversations with authors through books - long dead authors. You have conversations face-to-face over coffee. And, it seemed to me, the Internet offered new forms of conversation that wasnít yet tested but promised a lot of very interesting possibilities. For example, an arena where you donít have all these assumptions about who youíre talking to. And I thought the three fit nicely - face-to-face conversations, conversations with and about authors, and conversations through cyberspace. We approached Cityscape, our local server, and got to know Tony and Bernard very well and they persuaded me that it wouldnít actually cost that much. My original idea was to keep the cafť going for a year or so, build a clientele and then plow the profits back into the computers. But Cityscape decided to sponsor us. They were willing to see it happen. This was a long time ago. We would have been the first cybercafe in Britain but the negotiations for the lease on this place, which is owned by one of the colleges, took so long that Cyberia beat us to it. Which is a shame in retrospect. But we were still the second. And, as far as I know, the only to incorporate a second-hand bookshop.

BB: What can you say about the people whoíve been attracted here? Does it fit the model that you had in your head when you first began?

DS: Not at all. There were a lot of developments that I couldnít have predicted. One is that we get used by students just as a place to come and talk and discuss essays - which is what I predicted. But the students donít tend to use the Internet very much because theyíve already got access to it. The kind of people weíve introduced to the Internet is almost without description. Unclassifiable. It ranges from a seventy-year-old couple who never used computers before to twelve-year-olds who want to download games. Iím slightly surprised that we never got swamped by Techies or nerds. Though in retrospect thatís not surprising since we donít offer flash connectivity. We donít have very fast lines.

BB: Then what kind of people are you catering for?

DS: We now position ourselves as somewhere you can take your first steps into cyberspace. People can realise that itís not intimidating. It has its place. Itís not frightening. In some ways itísmerely an alternative to a telephone. People come in with their E-mail addresses from their granddaughter in New Zealand, for example, havenít used a computer before and say, ĎCan you show me how to E-mail my granddaughter?í And we do. They see itís easy. And, we hope, they can appreciate its advantages without being swept away by the hype.

BB: So youíre not entirely focused on the Internet?

DS: We position ourselves very differently from the Cyberia model which is very much dependent on the Internet. Weíre trying to say, ĎWhere the Internetís useful, use it. But letís put it in its context.í

BB: I think CB1 would have been a successful cafť even if you hadnít put in computers. Because, firstly, youíre in a community that wanted a cafť - it was the right thing to do at the right time. And, secondly, itís a place where people feel comfortable. There are lots of people wanting to start cafťs who are depending on the Internet to sort of give them a speciality. The Internet still has an element of being new, being of the future, here in England. Whereas in the States itís gone past that. Itís been around long enough now that people are starting to look at it as a primary form of communication. In Europe itís still going through that transfer a lot of other communications systems went through in the past. If you went back a hundred years when telephones were just in the hands of a very few there might have been telephone cafťs. But, of course, that didnít last. And we might be getting to that point in England in another year or two. The Guardian, for example, has been doing a series of surveys, trying to get a handle on the medium. Theyíre finding out some interesting things. For example, though many people have access to the Internet, not that many people have access to it at home. On the other hand, itís growing at an enormous rate. They see a doubling of the population in the next year or two. The other thing thatís very interesting to me is that most of the people who pick up on the Internet have no idea in the world what they want it for - except the fact that itís here and it seems to be exciting. So thereís a lot of confusion at the moment. And one of the roles that an Internet cafť can play at this time is an educational one. In that respect, Iíve been very interested in the forums youíve had here.

DS: I agree completely with that kind of analysis. The home users are very, very small. One of the reasons for that is here in England local telephone calls arenít free. Iím not sure that access to the Internet will ever become as universal in Britain as it will in the States. So that, to some extent, one of the roles that we provide is giving E-mail access to foreign students in particular who have Internet access back home. We have about twenty American students whoíve taken out three month accounts. They were telling us that, back home, your E-mail address is more important than your physical address. Thatís the first address they give now. Itís become the most important part of their identity. Weíre a long, long way from that over here. We try to show whatís useful about the Internet and partly that means downplaying the World Wide Web. In the beginning, everyone asks us whatís the difference between the Internet and the Web. Thereís this massive confusion. And we say - look, the Internetís been around for many years. Itís been tried and tested. E-mail is one of the most fundamentally useful things. Itís fast and itís cheap. It puts you in contact with all sorts of people - forty million people, maybe. And we sit them down and they can mail their local MP, Ann Campbell, for example. Thatís useful. Surfing the Web is something that I think has taken the wrong turn over the last six months. Itís just business to business mostly and a lot of businesses arenít doing it very well. Theyíre just putting out information thatís better presented in straight text. The fact that itís on the Web doesnít really add anything to it. Our thinking is moving people away from the Web and pointing them at E-mail, encouraging them to use the Web to find E-mail addresses and then sticking them in front of dumb terminals. Moving them away from fast, colour monitors. Because, really, thatís not what they want. They come in because theyíve got relatives abroad who have E-mail addresses. They donít particularly want the Web.

BB: Itís interesting you say that, because I felt one of the services Cafť Magazine could perform is linking people up to cybercafe access points in various cities as a means of communication. For example, if someone is travelling around Europe. Just like American Express used to provide a function, these cybercafes could link people up with their mail or news or whatever. Sort of as a base away from home. The other thing is that cybercafes could really be a centre of communications. To provide that role beyond the Internet. E-mail could be the draw but they have to expand beyond there. I fear that a lot of cybercafes are using terminals just like juke boxes. Itís a nice drawing card but thatís it - just an incentive to get people in to buy coffee and sandwiches. Iím not particularly interested in that. There should be a different approach and this is something I think youíve really keyed into. But I donít think thereís a lot of cybercafes that see themselves in your model. Even though you can find hundreds of places that call themselves cybercafes. What does it mean? It just means a place that has a computer. Now that might be good if youíre looking for one - but itís like giving an address for a telephone box. If you need it, itís nice to have. But there are other aspects theyíre not taking advantage of, which are very important, and which go back to the original function of cafes as centres of communication - the place where newspapers originated. Especially in a period like this when people are so dislocated. Computers could play a role of isolating people from social life or bringing them together. In that sense, cybercafes could be very exciting.

DS: I would predict that very, very large cybercafes on a slightly different model from CB1 will be extremely big business over the coming years as companies realise they donít need central offices. As they encourage tele-working, I think theyíll find that people need social interaction. Businesses need the hierarchies, the gossip and the pecking-orders to function. It may be the case that cybercafes offer the place for social interaction which combines work but which is now spread across companies rather than within a company. My feeling about tele-working and large scale tele-cottaging, is that although thereís initial enthusiasm for working from home, it soon dissipates. You need the constructive input of seeing what other people are doing. A lot of companies havenít fully thought this through and may find themselves in trouble. Unless a social arena can be created.

BB: To make a slight jump from that, I recently read about a brewery thatís launching cyberpubs throughout the country. A cyberpub has already set up in Cambridge...

DS: Iím not sure itís a good idea. Theyíre doing it as something of a gimmick. But I think theyíll find that people get drunk and trash the operating system. Computers seems to fit in the cafť atmosphere much better than the pub. In my experience pub conversations can be stimulating and exciting but not all that often constructive.

BB: I received an E-mail message the other day from someone interested in setting up a cybercafe who lives in the rural midwest of America. It got me thinking about the role of cybercafes in rural areas where people donít have access to a lot of other things. We think of cybercafes as an urban phenomenon. But, in fact, its future might be in a different direction. Iíve gotten messages from people starting cybercafes in places like Africa where theyíre trying to get people involved in new communications systems. There is a function for the right kind of set-up in both rural areas and under-developed regions. It seems to be happening on its own. Thereís no plan. Nothing has really been written about it. Itís a very interesting form of anarchy which ends up developing its own sort of rules and procedures. Watching it take place, youíre forced to see things you never imagined would happen. But, getting back to you, how do you see your own future? I mean for a cafť like this. Do you see expanding, starting other cafťs in Cambridge or around the country?

DS: The original idea was to look at setting up in other cities. But we were overtaken by events. It just went crazy. We were getting six or seven E-mail messages a day from people who were setting up cybercafes and asking if we could help. We opened the end of January last year. We were the second in Britain. I think there are now something like fifty-four just over a year later. Thatís astonishing growth! To some extent, now, I think the best thing to do is sit back and see what happens.

BB: Although the reverse is starting to happen. I just got an E-mail message from someone in Harlow who wants to sell out.

DS: We went to look at it. I think thatís one where the terminals are there as a gimmick. Anyway, I donít know how much his heart was in it seeing that he sold out very quickly. Possibly one area of business weíre missing out on is business customers. Weíre seen as a down-market, bohemian, slightly amateur operation. And thereís some truth to that, seeing itís my first business and Iím learning the ropes. Iím making lots of mistakes as we go along. We appeal to the kind of person whoís looking for a relaxed, friendly atmosphere thatís not business-like and not particularly professional. But, given the structure of the Internet market, thatís where the money is. Thereís stupid amounts of money flying around for training people on the Internet. And theyíre charging five hundred pounds for day-long seminars when I could teach them all they need to know for three pounds in half an hour. A lot of it is just ripping people off. And I would like to point that out by setting up a more business-like extension, charging realistic rates and getting realistic things done.

BB: Where do you think the Web is going?

DS: I think the Web is at a fairly critical stage now where so many people are finding out about it and looking at it and may very well get turned off for life if it doesnít improve soon. I think the percentage of good sites - of which I count yours - is very small. And itís probably dropping as more and more stuff comes on line.

BB: Of course one of the problems in keeping a good site going is that you really have to be committed to it because youíre pretty much doing it for gratis. Itís one of the problems of keeping any site that isnít linked to an on-going organisation. On the other hand, the Internet allows us to get a readership without much of a cash outlay. So in that way, it can serve as a building process. But, youíre right, there is so much junk on the Internet, so much to swim through, that pretty soon you get inured. You donít expect anything.

DS: And your expectations for the standard of the pages and the reliability of the information - your guarantee of that is now worth almost nothing. I think several years ago, when the Web started, most of the information was good. Because most of it was put up by either academics or real enthusiasts. So you could be pretty sure that what you read was honest, straightforward, good, solid information. And the Web served as a dynamic, public encyclopaedia. Which isnít true anymore. I kind of wonder about the trust that people put in information on the Web because you no longer know.

BB: I would think the whole cafť idea questions the notion of trust in information. Especially information whose reliability comes from certificates - ĎI have a degree that shows...í - which the cafť in its role as Penny University has always opposed. It stood for the sharing of information beyond the institutions that tried to control it.

DS: But in a cafť you can test people straight away. You can say, ĎWhat do you know about blah, blah, blah...í You canít do that with Web sites.

BB: Thereís also a lot of anti-information that comes through, I suppose. Anarchy operates in many ways. Itís very difficult to come to any conclusions about it. But there is something else. Youíve linked, importantly, the electronic media with books. On the other hand, Iíve seen whatís happened in the publishing world. When I first came to England, a long time ago, I actually felt that the publishing industry was healthier here than in the States. There was a lot more diversity. A lot more ability to get what might have been classified as Ďfringeí material out. Itís certainly not that way anymore. Thereís been a closing down, a corporatisation of publishing thatís forced editors - if it hasnít forced them out of the business - to become business people. And the decisions about what is published are now taking place mainly in the sales departments. That has skewed the entire industry dreadfully. Which means that small presses could now come into their own again, as thereís a huge gap in the marketplace. But it also means that thereís all this information that needs to come out in another form than a book. Because books are just too expensive and too hard to distribute. You canít do it without a lot of money behind you. You can do it through the Internet, however. And that kind of publishing could be very vital and an important area of new information that canít get out in other ways. You canít go out and print a newspaper but you can do a magazine through the Internet.

DS: But youíve still got the quality problem. Unless Internet publishing houses develop where youíve got an Internet publisher with a reputation for publishing good stuff. I visit a lot of electronic magazines and electronic books. Weíve helped authors here develop on-line novels. But after a while you just think, itís too much time. I found a lot of rubbish. Itís increasingly difficult to know where the good sites are. And to maintain an understanding of where itís worth spending your time.

BB: So what are you saying, actually?

DS: Iím not sure that it wouldnít be a good thing if the flatness of the World Wide Web dissipates. That you know the sites you visit are peer reviewed, for example. That some parts of the Web split off. One of the problems I think with the whole hypertext model is the flatness of information. Youíve got no idea the priority of links. So you click a hypertext link and you find itís really just a footnote. While another hypertext link is taking up something very important. Thereís no schematising of importance of information. And that seems to be part of the single level of priority of information over the Web. Thereís no way of knowing whether a site is one of four pages in a really lavish, well-developed site or the only page. You just donít know until you explore it. And it seems to me that bringing back context into the Web will be an important development. This is one of the things weíre talking about - again, one of the things thatís developed through conversation in the cafť. Somebody said, ĎHypertext is all very well but it hasnít got context.í And weíre kind of playing off these two ideas. Unless you know something about how many pages youíve got to get through to finish the site, youíre kind of flailing around. You never know where you are. Whereas a book always provides you that. You just know youíre halfway through. Thatís useful extra information which the electronic media, as it is now, doesnít provide. I wonder if it wouldnít be a useful development to organise publishing houses on the Web where youíve got some kind of guarantee. A magazine like yours is moving towards that. But then itís one magazine among a huge number of magazines. If I search for electronic magazines, I come up with a list of ten thousand, maybe. Itís difficult to know without spending a lot of time going through them which ones are worth going back to. And while you balance the freedom of access with the ability for anyone to publish on the World Wide Web, I think you also have to return some of the accreditation and respect. Having broken down the institutional setting, weíre now in an area where weíve flattened the playing field so totally that you donít know what game youíre playing anymore.

BB: One of the games weíre playing, and one of the things I think is difficult for people like us to pick up on, because of our background, is the new kind of Ďliteracyí or Ďanti-literacyí thatís emerging. Youíre finding in places like New York, young people who are incredibly keen on the Internet and who are creating visually beautiful sites which have little or no verbal input. But they are providing information and the people who are connected to them are, I think, getting something out of it that I might not. It might be forming new ways of communicating that certainly people who are still connected to books are finding difficult.

DS: I see what youíre saying. But treating information as a homogeneous quantity in terms of bits, in effect, which is what the Web encourages you to do, is a mistake. Because information does have context. It does have hierarchies. And I think itís important that whatever the medium is expressing not to lose the idea of context. But maybe youíre saying that this is a context free informational medium. Maybe thatís possible. But I see my customers on the Web getting totally frustrated and either being overawed by the amount of information or just dismissing it because itís so much easier finding information from books. One of the things that the combination of books and Internet access enables us to do is to compare them directly. We might be having a conversation and a point of dispute comes up. Somebody sits down at the Web and pulls up Alta Vista or Yahoo and does a search and someone else goes to an encyclopaedia and races them. Well, the books have always won. Itís always been faster and easier to retrieve information from books. The only places that isnít true is for recent and late breaking news where the Web then does have the advantage.

BB: When I try to sell the idea of the Web to non-believers, I try to point out the research possibilities. But, to tell the truth, Iím not quite sure about that myself. I think, though, that any of us who come from the background we do are speaking out of two sides of our mouth. We recognise that itís an exciting new possibility thatís leading us in directions we canít really make sense of. The other side is a reasonable scepticism about what is possible and where, indeed, itís taking us. And, in a way, I think the important thing is to try to do with it what you can and to make good use of the aspects that you can make use of. In fact, in this way CB1 could be a model for what I think is a nice dove-tailing of interests. Certainly, it brings into account the kind of cafť thatís always attracted me. Never put down the idea of the Ďbohemianí cafť. Itís the life blood of places like Cambridge where there are very few spots people from different walks of life can get together causally and informally and talk.

DS: We try to point this out. And I do see that as our role. Weíre saying, ĎThereís this new medium or media, including newsgroups, electronic mail and the World Wide Web. Itís now becoming easier and easier to access. Youíve got public access at the libraries and youíve got access here. Letís see what we can do with it. And what I say to people when we do introductions is, ĎIf you find stuff that is of interest to you on the Net then surf. Carry on. If not, weíll try to find something more interesting for you. So we try to put it in itís place. We say, ĎIf itís useful, stick with it. You may come away saying itís not for you.í I think itís important not to forget that there are large numbers of people who totally misunderstand the Internet and think that it should be banned. Some surveys claim itís twenty-five percent of the population. Because all it does is give access to pornography and recipes for making bombs. There are large numbers of people who see this as an evil development. And weíre trying to persuade people who are swept off their feet by the Internet that itís not going to replace books. Just as we try to convince people who see it as a wrong turning that there is some good to it. So weíre very much trying to stand outside of this and show people what you can do. One of the things weíre encouraging, recently, is writing your own Web pages. If youíve got stuff you want to say, we can show you how to do it. Itís not difficult. Netscape 2 has an editor which makes it very, very easy to write your pages. And weíre trying to say, ĎLetís do something with it. Letís not just sit here and absorb information.í

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