No matter what your personal opinions of Jurgen Habermas (and if you don’t have any opinions about him at all, that’s fine by me), it is largely thanks to his theories that the historical coffeehouse is one of our most enduring symbols of critical conversation and rational dialogue. As many have detailed, the historical coffeehouse stands as a symbol of a kind of sociability, self-fashioning, and contact with the ideas of others that is central to public culture–and, in many ways, to the very center of what the humanities (for better and for worse) has historically stood for.
Fast forward to 2010. As Varnelis and Friedburg, Ellis, and others have argued, Starbucks has become a symbol for contemporary coffeehouse activity, and the rational discussion central to what the coffeehouse represents has been replaced by an assumption of personal space, eyes plastered to smartphones, fingers on keyboards, and generic decor, music, and often conversation. If the coffeeshop of the 19th century was the hotbed of rational debate and deliberation, the coffeeshop of the 21st century’s relationship to the digital humanities is less apparent but not less intriguing. Alongside some of the other spaces like libraries and museums that interest the digital humanities, coffeehouses are also populated by people producing writing and meeting to engage one another–at least this is the case in Gone Wired Cafe, the local, independent coffee house I’ve been paying attention to in Lansing, Michigan. With this in mind, I wonder, what can we learn when we pay attention to the contemporary digital writers who spend time in coffee houses? What can their habits, routines, and interactions with digital technologies help us understand? How can we learn from their use and arrangement of space and time?
I’m currently collecting video examples of work sessions of writers employing digital and social media writing during their work time in a local Michigan coffee shop. My goal is actually quite broad: to shed new light on the material and embodied movements that people make when they do new media and digital writing in their everyday lives, and to reflect on how these writing practices both affect and are affected by the material and affective states that writers inhabit. What do digital writers get out of a trip to a very material space like the coffee shop? Do they show up there for the caffeine jolt and free internet, or is something more going on that we should be taking note of? And, how do these activities relate to other kinds of engagement and spaces that we often associate with the digital humanities?
I would like to lead a discussion in which I highlight some patterns of activity of everyday digital writers in a local coffee shop, paying attention both to what these writers do and how they understand what they do. Writers working in the coffeeshop space often cite the space as an “alternative to home” where they have a blank slate of space where they won’t be distracted. These writers also show high levels of social media usage, spending quite a lot of time on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and connecting to communities that expand far beyond the physical space of the Lansing area. In turn, Gone Wired also hosts its own active Facebook fan page, and makes use of social media for outreach.
I would like to open up the discussion to what these kinds of activities and spaces might mean for the digital humanities, and how material spaces like coffee shops might be related to some of the spaces more traditionally associated with digital humanities work like museums and libraries, for instance. I wonder if the coffeehouse is a better contemporary symbol for the digital humanities than any of us has yet articulated. . .