coffee, community, and the meaning of progress
Since the Inquirer published a list of Indie coffee houses in Philadelphia, I've slowly but surely been making the rounds. How much I've learned about Philadelphia, I don't know, but I've learned a lot about generational change, in this and (presumably) other cities. To wit:
1. The biggest improvements in America over the last generation are (i) the increased acceptance of interracial relationships and (ii) the improved quality of espresso, not necessarily in that order. What is significant about these developments is that--unlike, say, gentrification of neighborhoods or the overthrow of Arab dictatorships--it's hard to think of a downside to either trend. Presumably, there's some same-race couple or some second-tier coffeehouse that was displaced to make way for progress: but this seems a small price to pay for the overall improvement in question. Indeed, since many interracial couples appear to meet and hang out at Indie coffee houses, the two developments may even be related, which suggests the possibility of beneficial interactions that may yield still further improvements.
2. The most significant negative development, by contrast, is plainly the rise of laptops and other portable devices. On recent excursions, I have regularly witnessed rooms full of intelligent, attractive, and serious-looking coffee drinkers, all of them buried in their laptops and none of them paying even the slightest attention to the person or persons next to them. Every once in a while, as if in some kind of B movie, two people will look up from their computers and smile or caress one another--I actually witnessed a shoulder rub at one daring location--but then just as quickly return to their screens. It is possible, of course, that these people are engaged in social networking on their computers, perhaps even initiating the very interracial or other relationships (or else planning the new coffeehouses) that are referred to in item 1., above. But what is the point of going to a coffeehouse, the very symbol of modern community, if you are going to ignore the other people there; and what does "community" even mean in this context?
I suggested, half jokingly, that the barista break in to the wifi link once an hour and require the patrons to change locations in the hope of making new friends and breaking out of lethargy: something like the radio stations that used to warn beachgoers to rotate their bodies each hour and avoid sunburn. But by then, my coffee was finished; besides, I had to check my Blackberry.