I recently put out a call looking for places, events or venues that are creating wifi-free spaces, places where people can intentionally get away from smartphones and the distraction they bring into our lives, some time to cultivate the attention. One of the suggestions I received was a café in Paris called ‘Télescope’. On a recent visit to the city I headed over to Télescope, a small but rather lovely café in the first Arrondissement, near the Louvre. It is a place which clearly cherishes coffee, and the art of creating it. It has been run for the past 7 years by Nicolas Clerc, who sat down with me in a quiet moment to tell me more about he came to be running a wi-fi-free café. I started by asking him whether the lack of wifi was deliberate?
Yes. Absolutely deliberate, yeah.
Why did you decide to do that?
Focusing more on human interaction. It goes with an idea of taking more time for things. We do the coffee the ancient way, we do our own sourdough bread. We do a lot of things like trying to go back to different values maybe than the fast one of Google, wifi, phones, people arrive very stressed. When you’re in Paris everything is really fast. Here I would like people to be having a break from this. I think WiFi is very important to have a break also from.
Yeah. And how do you see it in practice? How do people react to it?
I see a lot of very angry faces.
Oh yes. A lot of “grrr, nowadays the world has to go with WiFi.” “Yeah, but look how angry you are when you don’t have the WiFi. I didn’t say stop breathing! I just said we’re WiFi-free.” Two reactions. First is “Fuck off.” They take their bag and they leave.
Yeah. One guy was really ‘Fuck Off!’ and I was, “Have a lovely day!” and some people say, “Oh no, no, I understand.” They close their computer, whatever. And then all of a sudden they start interacting with their neighbours. They’re like, “How do you do without the WiFi?” I see many times people interacting, and that’s fun.
Are there people who come here because there is no WiFi?
I’m not really sure.
People don’t come and say, “I choose this place because you have no WiFi.”
I never asked people, “Do you come here because we have no WiFi?” I can go to the other coffee shops that are with WiFi, they’re just like Mac stores. I won’t name them, but you enter places where everyone’s on the computer, and it’s not really friendly. Without the WiFi, without the computer. Look at this gentleman (he nods to a man on the other side of the café trying to butter a piece of banana bread while also texting and somehow getting it all wrong).
You saw the way he was buttering his bread with one hand, everything was falling, he was on the phone. He was doing nothing right. You’re not enjoying your butter on your bread. You’re not paying attention to what you’re saying. You’re drinking your coffee which is getting cold.
Not trying to pace things. Enjoy this, enjoy that, and then really pay attention to this. No, all at the same time…
What’s the balance for you? There’s something very precious about having places where you can go where that doesn’t happen, and you can get away from that, but it’s very hard to live entirely without that technology. How do you find that balance?
As I said, I’m 42, and ‘conservative’ sounds very not what I am, but I’m very classical. So I go to bistro, I go very often to Baratin. When I want to play golf, I go to a golf course. When I want to have a swim I go in the sea, or whatever.
One thing at a time.
One thing at a time. Also one thing is for one place. Some people are playing golf in the streets of Paris! Some people are having their coffee on the beach. Some people are using a coffee shop as an office. I wouldn’t go making a cappuccino in a library! You know, people would look at me…
So I can understand, like look at this gentleman (nods to another man, engrossed in writing in a notebook), I don’t know if he’s writing his memories or creating something, but I think things have a certain place. The places I go, they mainly do one thing. I never go in a restaurant where people are on their laptops. I don’t have this culture. When I need to work, I go in an office. My laptop in an office.
What do you think in the wider society we lose? Does it feel like we are losing something?
Yeah, we are.
What are we losing since the invention of the smartphone, do you think?
We are losing interaction. We are losing contact. I see so many people coming in. A couple. They’re both very beautiful, both very well dressed. They’re a bit like this, because they’re looking at what photo they could do to post on Instagram to show that they are happy.
Then they are sitting. They don’t know what to order. They’re going to take a latte because it’s going to look more beautiful on the picture, even though they don’t like milk. Then they’re choosing the photo. I see people for two hours being one metre from the other, absolutely not looking at the other, but telling the world how happy they are, or how cool their life is.
If I was filming you, and it was next to the picture that you’re trying to show, people would be completely sad for you. There’s something very close to that. They’re filling our life with emptiness. I don’t know if you have an Instagram account, or all those Facebooks and everything. You just spend your life scrolling.
Like when you were zapping on TV, it was already like you don’t get anything. But it’s a necessity now. I think Derrick de Kerckhove wrote a book saying that they took a guy, put electrodes everywhere on the body, and showed him a 10 minute movie with 30 second pieces of sport, politics, pornos, whatever famous movie, romance, violence, everything. The guy said so what did you think of what you saw? He say, “Nothing, it was absolutely nothing.” They say, “Okay, let’s look at the graphs of your body reactions.” The body reacted to each and every image.
That’s what we’re doing. It’s just this emptiness and we don’t learn anything from all those things, but we are spending a lot of time.
When you go out of here and you want to find other slow places, where else would you go in Paris to find an atmosphere similar to what you tried to create here?
The first thing I do when I go out from here, I go for a run, to try and get rid of the coffee, get rid of the noise, get rid of the hundreds of conversations or whatever. Then twice a week I’m going to Baratin which is another beautiful café run for 30 years by the same people. The chef has been there thirty years. The sommelier has been there 30 years.
Having an old idea of things to be well-made needs to have a certain continuity and not going two weeks here, two weeks, opening a thing, selling it, opening a bistro, a wine bar, a this, a that, and becoming and expert within six months. Nowadays people are becoming experts in six months and I enjoy looking at people doing the same thing for one or two or three decades. Absolutely mastering and becoming wise.
Imagine at the time of martial arts, people were black belt in three months and no matter how many push ups you do, at some point you’re going to get kicked and it’s going to be time to keep learning.
So you don’t have plans to open a whole chain of Télescopes all around the world?
No. No, no. But a lot of people are just asking, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “I enjoy this place.” I posted this morning a picture on Instagram with just the place and a little red heart, which is true. I arrived this morning and I was like, “I like this place.” Having a second one, I would become a manager. I would be, “Hey Pierre-Luc, can you work on this today? Did you hear about Tatiana? Who’s going to work… Oh, he’s sick…” and everything, and always managing teams of people that are caring a bit less or something.
Once I received a postcard from a woman saying I came two years ago to Paris, and I went back to Wyoming, and when I came again I was on the phone outside and you brought a noisette and you said, “If it’s ‘as usual?’” and this person was completely all of a sudden humanising. Like it unbalanced all her habits. She was not expecting to be not anonymous.
If you were speaking to somebody who was thinking to open a restaurant or a café or a club or something and they were thinking should we have WiFi, should we not have WiFi, what would you advise them? What would be the argument for saying just don’t bother?
I would say if you don’t care about money, go without! If you want to make a small fortune out of a big one, follow my path! I’m trying to think of the places with WiFi that I would value. I understand that people need to work.
When I went to New York in 2010, I just had my phone, I was in a café. I asked for WiFi just to look for the map for the next place of where to meet and a person says, “There’s no WiFi here.” The place was called ‘Grumpy’. I was like, “Everything makes sense.”
I didn’t ask this to be mean, or to stay with my computer to abuse it. It was just a little service because at the time the roaming was not that easy. So I can understand. That’s why here it’s not forbidden, it’s just a very limited, limited amount. Of course we’re listening to the music on the WiFi, but we named the WiFi ‘Cupidon. First they look, there is no WiFi ‘Télescope’ and Cupidon is the swingers’ club next door so nobody wants to ask!
Do you feel like you’re part of the resistance somehow?
Oh yeah. Very passive, but I’ve never been revolutionary. As I say, I’m very classical, but the wines I drink, the food I enjoy, the things I do, in a way the clothes I get, and everything, I want them to have a certain sense and a certain meaning. Resistance would be like somehow violent, but I really think that we can do better. That’s what they were saying at school. Oh you can do better. Which was true – I had always a ‘C’ – but I think the idea of we can do better is something we always should keep in mind.
Also it makes the coffee taste better, it makes things a bit better. I like it.
Thank you, thank you very much.