10th March 2000 at 00:00
If you're getting more hits from your percolator than your website, you need to get out more. checks out cybercafe culture.

If you believe that a relaxing cup of coffee at break time is the one thing which makes your job bearable, don't visit the Caffeine Blues website. It will confirm every bad thing you've ever heard about coffee, and provide you with a few more to worry about. Coffee can cause panic attacks, insomnia, depression, chronic fatigue, headaches, anxiety, poor concentration, palpitations - all the symptoms, in fact, that you've been blaming on Mr Woodhead, GCSE course work deadlines and Windows 95. Spend too long at Caffeine Blues, and you'll come away convinced that it would be safer to substitute your break-time cup of instant for a wholesome wrap of crack cocaine.

Caffeine is a drug to which the whole civilised world - and Italy - has become incurably and unashamedly addicted. Between us, we slosh back 400 billion cups of coffee a year - and would happily drink even more if we had the time or were in easier reach of a Starbucks or could stop our hands trembling for long enough to hold the cup.

For some reason, coffee has always held a peculiar fascination for those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of our free time in the twilight wastes of cyberspace. Indeed, from the earliest days of the Internet, one of the undisputed wonders of the World Wide Web has been an ordinary coffee percolator. It belongs to scientists at Cambridge who - for reasons best known to themselves - have been using a website to broadcast a continuous live video image of the contents of the coffee pot that sits in the corridor outside the Trojan Room, one of the university's computer labs. It is remarkable that they bothered to do so - but even more remarkable that over the years their site has received hundreds of thousands of visits.

It is, of course, only one of a mind-boggling assortment of sites devoted to "the world's most popular drink". There is everything from an anthology of pop song lyrics which contain the C word to a virtual gallery devoted exclusively to photographs of cups of you-know-what. Needless to say, there are also enough educational resources to enable teachers to spend the rest of their careers teaching the topic.

Since netheads seem intent on measuring their lives in coffee spoons, it should come as no surprise that so many of them should want to bring together the two great loves of their lives by setting up the network of cybercafes which now covers almost the entire globe.

Here, in addition to their fix of caffeine, wannabe surfers can enjoy fast food and fast access to the Net. Cybercafes range from the cosy to the corblimey. At the one extreme there is the Grateful Dead fan who has a couple of clapped out 386s and a tin of Nescafe. At the other extreme, there is the awesome extravagance ofthe EasyEverything chain. It currently has UK outlets in London and Edinburgh - but might well have taken over the world by the time this is published. Typically, the cafe at Trafalgar Square has over 400 state-of-the-art PCs at which punters can surf the Net, 24 hours a day, often for as little as pound;1 per hour - which is actually cheaper than they could do it at home. The caffeine, ciabatta and chat are optional extras.

Cybercafes attract all sorts. You will find the inevitable collection of pale-faced geeks, nerds and propeller heads who have modems at home but still feel that they should occasionally don their fabled anoraks and venture into the wide world in order to rub be-dandruffed shoulders with other carbon-based life-forms.

You will also almost certainly find a contingent of tourists who have twigged that an email is faster, cheaper and more reliable than a postcard. And you'll find a few level-headed customers who have realised that visiting a cybercafe when they need to email or shop on-line is cheaper than having to fork out for a PC.

If you've never used the Internet, or are nervous about doing so - or simply have an hour to kill - a cybercafe offers the perfect opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about. An hour online won't cost you more than a fiver; a coffee (choose Americano which lasts longer) will only set you back another pound;1 or so. Reduce the cost by going with a friend who can share the price of the computer - but I wouldn't recommend sharing the Americano unless you are really good friends. If you need help, the staff are usually pleased to offer advice. In fact, a cybercafe is the only place where you'll encounter a waitress who is willing to give you tips.

It's a shame, but most cybercafes are situated in city centres and aim at attracting the young and affluent. Ideally, there should be one on every sprawling housing estate and in every remote village where every Tom, Dick and Harriet, regardless of age or income, have a chance to get online. Fortunately, the government's ambitious plan to fund 1,000 ICT Learning Centres could go some way to meeting this need. It's up to individuals and voluntary organisations to work out how to set up a centre in their area and then apply for a share of the pound;650m that will be made available.

Although the DFEE might be prepared to cover the cost of hardware and training, it is unlikely to pay for coffee making equipment. I suppose patrons will have to make do with virtual visits to the percolator outside the Trojan Room in Cambridge.




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