Global coffee consumption has nearly doubled in the last 40 years and there’s no sign of that slowing. What’s changed is coffee culture.
According to historian Matthew Green, coffeehouses became associated very early on with civility and civil, sober exchange of information. If you went into any coffeehouse the tables would be strewn with newspapers and gazettes and political journals. You’d walk in and people would shout “what news have you?” You’d have to divulge a nugget of news or gossip, something you’d read, heard or most frequently something you’d just made up on the spot. And that was the real currency, you’d feed that in to the general buzz. You’d sit down and just start talking to your neighbours – you wouldn’t know them, half the time, but you’d just start talking about subjects of mutual interest. And it was bringing people together in these lively, convivial spaces where they could talk about whatever they wanted, unmolested from the authorities, from the states or the church or anything like that. So it heralded the dawn of free speech and discussion.
I love the vision of lots of strangers comfortably chatting to one another. When we are sitting by ourselves in cafes now it’s much more likely that we’ll retreat to our phones rather than strike up a conversation with the people sitting on the next table. I don’t think it’s because we’re worse people, it’s just a change in social norms.
And there is a difference between reading the news from a newspaper in a café, compared to a news app on your phone. Strangers will know what you are reading about in a newspaper (without seeming creepy) but not what you are reading about on your phone. This mutual knowledge provides an opening for conversation.
I wonder what it would be like to open up a coffeehouse today, where looking at your phone was banned?