Back to the Future

On technology and the writing life

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | February 2012

At work on a story the other weekend and feeling trapped inside my four walls (as well as my head), I packed up my laptop, stuffed a couple of books in my backpack and headed out for Café Sperl. Perhaps the change of locus would snap me out of my stupor. Sperl is a great place to work: It’s quiet (no canned music) and commodious, with a pleasant staff, just attentive enough without getting in the way.

It was still early, not quite 11:00 on a Saturday morning, and to my delight, the protected corner table in the elbow formed by the glassed- in foyer was free.

I moved in, spreading out on the upholstered banquette, plush and pleasingly worn, that soaks up whatever sound hasn’t already drifted up past the brass chandeliers to the ceiling six metres above. I scanned the menu; the food here is unusually good for a café and the coffee excellent.

It also has free WiFi.

Writing in 1959, Friedrich Torberg, the great chronicler of the Viennese Kaffeehaus of the inter war years, mourned the passing of the literary cafés in the city that was again his home. Why had writers abandoned them, he wondered? Was the coffeehouse responsible?

"The fault," he decided, "lies with technology, that has formed an eerie three-leafed alliance with politics and sociology. It’s because today’s writers write literature directly into their typewriters – which one cannot take along to the coffeehouse [too heavy and too noisy]; that they dictate their radio scripts to a secretary, whom one also cannot take along to the coffeehouse either (at least not for dictation)"; that producers, directors and editors all want to be visited in their offices. And, he pointed out, "they all have a telephone at home as well as the office, so don’t need to receive free calls in the Kaffeehaus. "

How times have changed. Today, my "typewriter" is a MacBook Pro, powerful and silent, that connects me instantly with staff and stringers, as well as the magic library of the Internet. My telephone is in my pocket, waiting for words spoken, or texted when I don’t feel like talking.

For anyone who writes for a living, a Kaffeehaus is again the perfect retreat, where you can disappear for hours, eat and drink as much or as little as keeps one’s brain in gear and have the pleasure of human companionship that leaves you blissfully in peace. And get a lot of work done.

So, Herr Torberg, be comforted: Rather than signing the doom of the Kaffeehaus, technology may just have given it back its raison d’être.

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