Cybercafe Society
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Apr 29 00:30:00 GMT 2004

Now that Fedex owns Kinko's, I really think they ought to consider buying Starbucks to constitute the ultimate 21st century cybernomadic infrastructure: 24X7 coffee, wireless broadband, and handy global shipping for roving mobs of socio-knowledge workers.

Starbucks is trying to be a "third place" for untethered informationistas by furnishing couches, caffeine, and WiFi. Kinko's pitches toward the independent operators who don't have offices full of copiers, or for the traveling infoworkers who want the hardcopy ready for their meetings when they arrive. What if Starbucks starts providing printers, scanners, and copiers? Or Kinko's starts serving good coffee and puts in a few couches?

I know little about any of those companies, except for what most people know – you can get a thousand copies, collated and bound, 24 hours a day in most of the world's cities; you can send a package anywhere and track it online from most of the world's cities; and in most of the world's cities you know you can find a decent if not great, expensive cup of coffee within a three block walk in any direction. But as I sipped a latte and logged on recently, I recalled that the humble coffee house played a central role in the history of the most important aspects of the modern world – constitutional democracy, institutionalized science, and capitalism.

Alcohol had been served in dark, loud, smoky, and most often violent rooms throughout Europe for millennia, but coffee was a new arrival, arriving in Venice and Amsterdam from exotic ports like Mocha, Arabia, just in time for the Enlightenment. In contrast to those places where alcohol was the preferred libation, coffee houses were quiet enough for genteel conversation, clean, comfortable, with good furniture and art on the walls. People from all classes gathered to drink coffee and, as coffee-drinkers are wont to do, converse, gossip, and debate. Different interests were served by different coffeehouses. Was the beginning of Europe's coffee jag not a coincident but a causative factor in the Age of Reason? Was the discovery of calculus, the systematic pursuit of scientific knowledge, the fundamental philosophy of citizen self-governance, a direct result of enough people sobering up in public places?

Europe's early coffeehouses and today's Wi-Fi equipped latte parlors both served as information and communication centers. In 1650, if you were interested in answering scientific questions by performing experiments and publishing your results, you wanted to be in London's Grecian coffee house, where Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley once dissected a dolphin and the members of the Royal Society sat to talk optics or anatomy.. In Amsterdam, merchants, investors, and seafarers were getting jacked up on the latest fruit of the Ethiopian highlands while plotting to loot Indonesia and share the profits through the first joint stock ownership corporation, the Dutch East India Company. Edward Lloyd's coffee house, a London hangout for sailors, shippers ,underwriters and others whose fortunes depended on the shipping trade, morphed into Lloyd's of London, the first insurance company, T London Stock Exchange started with a group of traders from Jonathan's coffee-house. And in Paris, the Café de Foy was where Camille Desmoulins jumped on a table, pulled two pistols, declaimed "Aux armes, citoyens!”and stormed the Bastille.

Of course, it's harder to storm the Bastille if your café is in cyberspace. But now that the Internet and all it brings has untethered from the desktop, and enterprises that sell coffee use Wi-Fi to lure the twenty first century equivalents of 17th century caffeinated intellectuals, will new ways of making knowledge, doing business, or running a government emerge, as it did three hundred years ago? I found at least one band of infosphere ethnographers who were beginning to research these questions: Eric Laurier, Angus Whyte, Kathy Buckner, in "An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise," note that "Cafes are places where we are not simply served hot beverages but are also in some way partaking of a specific form of public life. It is this latter aspect that has attracted the attention of social theorists, especially Jurgen Habermas, and leads them to locate the café as a key place in the development of modernity."

Laurier et al became regulars and closely observed a suburban UK café and analyzed the written and unwritten rules of conduct, the meanings of gestures, the complex ad-hoc society that emerged among the regulars. Clearly there is more than what meets the eye in the institution of the coffee house. Starbucks, which sells a 25 cent cup of coffee for four dollars, knows it's selling an experience. The caffeine just happens to be the psychosocial catalyst. But it's the human propensity to weave communications in neutral public places that makes coffee houses the site of such hyperactive innovation. In the world of always-on wireless devices and pervasive computing, the networked, unwired coffee house could be the perfect alembic for brewing the next social revolutions.

What do you think? Clearly insane? Insanely prophetic? Scenarios?