Imagine a not too distant future in which there exists a café of the sort that you would expect to find in a trendy urban district where young professionals and aspiring artists gather to work, to socialize, and, of course, to be seen.
This café is different, though. There are no tables or couches; no bar stools or lounge chairs. There are, however, a series of numbered doors lining the interior walls. Above each door, a digital clock counts down from assorted and seemingly random times. Occasionally, a faint thumping can be heard, but it is indistinct and barely noticeable.
Customers enter the café and approach the service bar. They order a latte or an espresso or chai and they sign some papers. They pay while they wait for their drink, and, when it is ready, they take it along with a bracelet and a plastic card.
Drink in hand, they make their way to one of the numbered doors, swipe the card to unlock it, and they walk inside. Behind them the door closes and locks automatically. Outside, above the door, the digital clock above the door begins to count down from three hours. Inside, the patron sets his coffee down at a bare table and pulls out the lone chair. The acoustic foam lining the walls makes every sound palpable: the unzipping of the laptop bag; the placing, gently, of the ultra-slim computer on the table; the first few keystrokes.
A glance at the signal strength indicator confirms what has been agreed upon: no wireless signal. So too does a tug on the door handle: locked, from the outside. And it is as quiet as promised, except for the surprisingly audible thumping of the heart.
Clever proprietors had discovered that people are now willing to pay to be kept, for a period of time, in an enforced state of un-distractedness. Years earlier, certain applications had promised something similar. They offered Freedom from distraction by preventing a device from connecting to the Internet for a pre-determined period of time. But this extension of the will proved too easily circumvented. A more radical cure was needed.
Having signed the appropriate legal waivers, customers at Pensées were securely locked into their cells so that they may work, without interruption, on whatever task needed their undivided attention. The bracelets monitored their vital signs in the event of a medical emergency. Barring such an emergency, proprietors pledged to keep the door closed without exception. (Patrons were aware that cameras monitored the inside of each cell; only legal and legitimate work was to be done within, naturally.) It was not uncommon, then, for some patrons eventually to demand, by sometimes frantic gesticulations, that they be allowed to exit.
Such requests were always denied as a matter of course. It was for this denial of their misguided desire, after all, that they had paid their good money.
Those who came to Pensées, and to similar establishments, had discovered by then that their unaided will could not be trusted. They came to be productive: to finish their papers or work on their manuscripts and screenplays. Some came simply to sit and think. The more religious, came to pray or to meditate.
Such acts may have been possible outside the soundproof walls of Pensées’ cells, but this was merely a theoretical possibility to most. (Of course, those who ran Pensées never suggested that, even within the walls of their cells, the possibility remained thoroughly theoretical.)
Inside their cells, the experience of patrons proceeded along a surprisingly predictable path. With eager hopefulness they set up their workspace just so and launched, almost giddy, into their work. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, they would casually laugh off the urge they suddenly felt to check their smartphones for some incoming message or alert. They had no signal, they knew, but the urge persisted. They felt silly when they took out their smartphones to confirm what they already knew to be the case. Then, they put it away with a self-knowing smirk; or, rather, they set it down within view of their peripheral vision. No harm done since there was no signal, but, annoyingly, glances followed.
Between glances, eyes would flit toward that place on the screen were numbers in parenthesis would signal new items of various sorts that required attention. But there were none of these either, just as had been hoped for and paid for. But it was increasingly frustrating to catch oneself repeatedly looking anyway.
After a few minutes of this, work would resume, but in bursts punctuated by periods of wandering thoughts, random observations, and disjointed inner monologues. Perhaps decaf would be better next time. It’s hard to focus when a muscle twitches involuntarily. The inability to voluntarily direct one’s attention was bad enough; that the body would now prove equally unruly was dispiriting.
It was not unusual for some to then reach for their smartphones, almost unconsciously, and then to handle it as if it were their rosary beads.* Or they may stand up and pace about the cramped but comfortable cell, not yet anxiously, only to get the blood flowing before sitting down to work with renewed focus. And so they did, for a short while, before they began to wonder if it was not absurd to pay to be locked in a room. And how much time had gone by they wondered? The phone, at least, was still good for that – to register the fact that hardly any time at all had passed.
Some then grew anxious as they fixated on time, which advanced glacially. Silence, for which they had been willing, just minutes before, to pay, now seemed oppressive. No work was being accomplished, and most thoughts that were thought turned out to be depressingly banal; those that were not were disconcerting.
They turned to the camera and wondered just how serious the proprietors were about refusing to allow patrons to exit their cells. Quite serious, it always turned out, despite the desperate pounding of some. Anxiety attacks did not, according to the terms agreed to, constitute a medical emergency.
Some eventually fell asleep. Some went back to their desks to eek out some semblance of work so that they would have something, at least, to show for their ordeal. Others stared blankly at the door, straining to hear the gentle tone that would signal the end of their time in the cell.
When it came, some patrons exited hurriedly and others stumbled out, bewildered. A few tried to make a good show of it, walking off with whatever air of accomplishment they could feign. Most were seen eagerly staring at their smartphone waiting for it to come online. Surprisingly, every so often, there were some who walked away looking as if they’d learned something rather important. About what, exactly, it was never clear.
*An image I owe to Ian Bogost.