Thursday, January 17, 2013

Coffee Houses and Blogs

Now that I'm blogging regularly again, I am reminded of the coffee houses in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century London, which, much like the blogosphere, revolutionized the way the public consumes and interacts with information. For the small price of a cup of coffee, coffee house patrons could participate in the great social interactions of information exchange. Here's part of a delightful old broadside song from 1667 about the coffee houses. As you read it, think a bit about the blogging world.
You that delight in wit and mirth,
And long to hear such news
As come from all parts of the earth,
Dutch, Danes, and Turks, and Jews,
I'll send you to a rendezvous,
Where it is smoking new;
Go hear it at a coffee-house,
It cannot but be true. 
There's nothing done in all the world,
From monarch to the mouse,
But every day or night 'tis hurled
Into the coffee-house.
What Lily, or what Booker can
By art not bring about,
At coffee-house you'll find a man
Can quickly find it out. 
They know all that is good or hurt,
To bless ye, or to save ye;
There is the college, and the court,
The country, camp, and navy;
So great a university,
I think there ne'er was any,
In which you may a scholar be
For spending of a penny. 
A merchant's prentice there shall show
You all and everything
What hath been done, and is to do,
'Twixt Holland and the King;
What articles of peace will be
He can precisely shew;
What will be good for them or we
He perfectly doth know.
I wrote on my old blog: 
The coffee house revolution and the Internet revolution both changed the was we socially interact with information. In 1674, "The Women's Petition Against Coffee" argued that coffee made men idle and impotent, much as many women today feel about mainly-male online "vices" like online gaming, or the way we all wonder what we're doing spending so much time interacting through a screen. Individual coffee houses came to be associated with particular types of clientele: houses for literary wits, for learned scientists, for lawyers, etc. So people socialized and shared and interacted over the news with other people like themselves-- much like we tend to read the news stories that our own social groups share with us or read blogs by people who think more or less like we think. The fact that we can custom tailor our news exposure to our own interests is a source of both excitement and criticism; it helps us in the necessary task of filtering information, but limits the breadth of our exposure. 
The coffee houses, like the Internet, changed the way finance was conducted. Financial markets are markets in information. So it is important to realize that information exists in a social, political, and cultural context. It is how we interact with it; it is inseparable from its transmission. 

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