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Café Culture History, Part 5: The History of the Cybercafé

By Magda Romanska

Beginning in the 1990s, many traditional cafés began transforming into so-called cybercafés or internet cafés. The transformation once again reestablished the historical role of cafés as places of public discourse, information exchange and communication. Internet cafés provide internet access to their patrons, usually for an hourly fee. Currently there are two types of internet cafés: those that provide computer terminals with internet access, and those that provide Wi-Fi internet access only, to which users connect via their own computers. The first to install internet access in a café was Wayne Gregori, in 1991 in San Francisco. The concept (and the name Cybercafé), however, was developed three years later, in 1994, by Ivan Pope. Commissioned to design the ‘Towards the Aesthetics of the Future’ art event for the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, Pope proposed a café with internet access.

Following the event, Cyberia, London’s first internet café, opened the same year. Shortly thereafter, The Binary Café, Canada’s first internet café, opened in Toronto. Likewise, the same year, the first American internet café, The High Tech Café, was opened by Jeff Anderson in Dallas, Texas. A year later, in 1995, the CB1 Café in Cambridge was established. To this day, it remains the oldest internet café in the U.K. Shortly after its opening, internet cafés began popping up in major urban centers throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. Although their decor and clientele varied, reflecting local culture, cybercafés began developing their own unique variation of café culture while changing the way people began to communicate worldwide. The growth of internet cafés is credited with fueling the internet boom and communication revolution of the late 1990s as more and more people were suddenly able to communicate around the globe in an instant.

In 2008, the world’s first virtual internet café was released in Sweden. The virtual internet café functions similarly to the traditional cybercafé but is fully based on the internet. Instead of using their own computers on the internet, users can remotely control café computers. The virtual cybercafé permits users to have complete anonymity. Today, everyone can set up his or her own virtual cybercafé on the internet for private or community use.

Most recently, as internet use at home has become widespread throughout the West and North America, the use of internet cafés has drastically declined. Since more people now own personal computers, they no longer have a need for communal internet cafés. Many traditional cafés and fast food venues also now offer free Wi-Fi access, so internet cafés are no longer unique phenomena. Interestingly enough, however, whereas in the West internet cafés are becoming extinct, they are experiencing a second renaissance in many developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, where internet access is sparse. Often, internet cafés are a primary source of internet access for a local community, providing a shared-accessed model, which is more affordable than personal ownership. The function of internet cafés across the globe varies, reflecting the global diversity of internet café culture, from the entertaining-gaming model to the business model to the social and political model, when internet cafés are a vital source of connection in times of political upheaval.

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