Last Sunday Tom Standage had an opinion piece in the Review section of the New York Times in which he posits blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. as the modern equivalent of the 17th century coffeehouse. An interesting comparison, but the two are not really the same. I think that the coffeehouse was more conducive to the development of ideas through dialogue. Face to face is often better than typing by yourself on a keyboard or phone or however you post. Let’s look at what Standage says.
SOCIAL networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”
Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day.
Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England’s first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.
Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.
And he gives some examples.
But what was the actual impact of coffeehouses on productivity, education and innovation? Rather than enemies of industry, coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities.” It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his “Principia Mathematica,” one of the foundational works of modern science.
Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan’s, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd’s.
And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece “The Wealth of Nations” in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.
It seems to me that this is fundamentally different from a Tweet which is often sent out into cyberspace usually without response or any real conversation. It may or not be read. The object is to be clever or to publicize something longer one might have written, but, again, one has no way of knowing if that link has been clicked. Facebook, among my relatively small circle of friends, is a place to share picture, family news, and what you think of things. I don’t “friend” anyone I don’t actually know. (My blog posts are also on Facebook.) More often than with Twitter, there are comments and occasionally an interesting discussion which I have often wished we could be having in person. And this blog of many years is primarily a means of self-expression: It’s history of what was catching my fancy at a particular moment. FortLeft has, in rare moments, inspired some discussion and I have commented and had some discussions with other bloggers, but none of us have written the equivalent of the “Wealth of Nations” based on what we have written on our blogs – at least not the ones I follow. (And, yes, I know that several of you have written books and if you circulated drafts through you posts, I’d be interested to know how that worked out.)
First page from Wealth of Nations, 1776 London edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What is comes down to, I guess, is that I was educated at St. John’s College (Annapolis) where a great deal of what we did was talk. In the coffee shop, on the quad, in seminar, in class, in the dorms. As in the coffeehouses Standage describes a lot of our talk was of trivia and gossip, but we did talk seriously and express our opinions and had opinions expressed back at us. It is easier to refine an opinion when you are talking to someone in person and you have to explain it and defend it than it is writing stuff on Facebook.
Current Johnnies still talk.
What I do love about Facebook, Twitter, and live blogging is the speed at which one can get information, not that they create meaningful discussion. That may change. Standage points out
The use of social media in education, meanwhile, is backed by studies showing that students learn more effectively when they interact with other learners. OpenWorm, a pioneering computational biology project started from a single tweet, now involves collaborators around the world who meet via Google Hangouts. Who knows what other innovations are brewing in the Internet’s global coffeehouse?
There is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear. During this transitional phase, which can take several years, technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the lesson of the coffeehouse is that modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone. This kind of media, in fact, has a long history: Martin Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation casts new light on the role of social media in the Arab Spring, for example, and there are parallels between the gossipy poems that circulated in pre-Revolutionary France and the uses of microblogging in modern China.
As we grapple with the issues raised by new technologies, there is much we can learn from the past.
Who knows where technology will lead us? But we still need to talk – face to face. I’m not sure that digital interaction via any form of social media can talk the place of sitting with someone with a cup of coffee, glass of wine, over a meal or in a real classroom.
Photograph: Students at seminar from the St. John’s College Website.