Friday, April 12, 2013

Together but not really together? New state of self in coffee shops

Beyond the free wi-fi, delicious coffee and nice environment, I’ve always wondered... why people still go to coffee houses if they are disconnected from what’s happening in the physical space? What is the appealing of going to a public place to be disconnected if you can just stay at home or in your room doing the same thing? As a long-time coffee addict and huge fan of coffee shops I have always observed this phenomenon and I include myself as the one who does the same thing most of the times except when I go with other people for meetings or to study.

The reading “Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self” by Sherry Turkle, it provides a sort of partial answer to this questions and I enjoyed reading her points about the "new state of self". It is interesting to see how the new state of self is present in a coffee shop when in one hand there is this physical self, let’s say the “coffee drinker” and on the other hand you have the “virtual” self the one who is deeply engaged in his/her wide variety of electronic devices (iPad, iPhone, laptop, Kindle). 

My guess about why people still go to these places, no matter if they are not “mentally” connected or fully aware of their surroundings, is that in some way they want to recreate the physical environment of what they are doing “virtually”. To give a better explanation, let’s suppose someone is having a Skype meeting with someone in Japan for business or to catch-up with a friend. This person in some way, unconsciously perhaps, wants to recreate the physical environment of that meeting to feel a sort of proximity to the person being far away. 

Another explanation for this phenomenon might be that coffee shops have evolved from places where people meet and interact by being physically present to places where individuals share some sense of community by performing the same activities (checking email, social media sites, writing papers, doing work stuff) but not interacting between each other like in early history of coffee houses. It would be the same as people working out in the gym, where everyone does their routines but no one might talk to each other. In some implicit way, people might be cheering each other and feel a sort of connection by seeing other people struggling to finish their workout. I often feel motivated when I go to coffee houses and I see other people with a bigger pile of papers or books to read than me. By seeing this and comparing it to the workload I have I feel kind of relieved some times. I also feel motivated to run the extra mile (literally) if I see other people keeping the hard work in the treadmill. 

While trying to find some articles that expand more on this evolution of the coffee houses as hubs for networking in the virtual world, I found an interesting post in one of the trendy social media sites: “Storify’”. Some of the points I took from this post are the vision of James Katz, a Rutgers university professor, who says that coffee shops and other similar places have become “physically inhabited by psychologically evacuated” (Faris 2012). In this post, it is interesting to read how some coffee shops owners who realized that people were so deeply immersed in their laptops and not interacting with each other, have started to include activities like jazz performances or poetry readings to rekindle the old spirit of coffee houses. In fact, as the post added, there are some coffee shops which shut off their wi-fi at certain times to promote more interaction and conversation among the people who goes to those places.

Here is also a short clip (only 2 min) of a speaker talking about the early beginnings of the coffee houses and how communication took place during those times. It would be good to discuss during class whether this evolution of coffee houses into more virtual places has more advantages for networking or not than the older model of coffee houses without technology devices. It keep us more isolated or more connected?

Faris, M. J. (2012, November). Alone Together? Coffee Shop Writers and "Isolation"?. In Storify. Retrieved April 12, 2013, from

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