Those who go to Starbucks regularly (as I do) surely know that they can be obsessed with creating a mood, a vibe, an overall feel for the establishment. They purport to be a “third place” beyond home or work, a community hub where ideas can be bandied about and discussed.
But I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past couple of years: More and more of the Starbucks coffeehouses I frequent are abandoning one vibe for another, more specifically, they are clearing out the big comfy leather chairs to make room for long rectangular work tables. Instead of leaning back and crossing your legs to read, you now lean forward to plug in and work. In fact, you couldn’t lean back if you wanted to since the work stations don’t have chairs, they have stools.
I guess Starbucks isn’t a third place after all, it’s just an extension of the second one.
This trend is not altogether surprising, especially for those of us who have been watching the growth of technology—laptops and mobile devices in particular—for several years with increasing discomfort. I know, I know, I’m a Luddite for even suggesting that the encroachment into our human world of electronic machines may not be a welcome thing, but I am convinced my lack of enthusiasm is becoming more and more justified.
It used to be the case that mobile devices and laptops could free us up from having to be in the office to work (that was the claim anyway). But what that claim has actually done is turned our entire world into one big office, to the point that being unreachable is a cardinal sin. In a word, since mobile devices exist, you must own one. And when the mobile device you own buzzes, you must respond.
So is Starbucks really a third place? No, it’s not (and never really has been). But the coffeehouse’s failure to be that alternative to home or work seems to be something they are now embracing, along with the rest of society. Gone are the days when Starbucks tried to be “green” and “countercultural.” Starbucks is corporate, and they know it. And now their coffeehouses resemble a break room at Google.
If you can’t beat ‘em, I guess you join ‘em.