Coffee House Culture

The other day Starbucks announced it will now offer its customers a digital network providing free e-books, movies, and access to some sites you normally pay for such as The Wall Street Journal, as well as other gratis sites including The New York Times, USA Today, Apple's iTunes, etc. Of course, they are only accessible as long as you remain at Starbucks--presumably paying for drinks, pastries, sandwiches, etc. Starbucks also gets a share of anything sold on its in-store network.

So at Starbucks coffee houses you’ll be peering at your iPhone, listening to your iPod or reading on your computer. This is not Paris after all where you can buy a cup of coffee and stay at your favorite table all day working away on your masterpiece or coming up with the next big thing with your friends.

Whatever happened to those days of the coffee house culture? Do you remember them? Sitting around for hours dreaming up new ideas, talking about the latest new book, or new discovery in the lab? According to Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, a great many came during those coffee house conversations.

Johnson believes good ideas don't come from a lone genius working alone in a laboratory or at his desk. Instead, they frequently come from interactions between your colleagues and intellectual friends. He points to the coffee houses of Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. "People would hang out in this intellectual hub and have these free-floating conversations about all these different interests and passions.”

He claims Benjamin Franklin’s Club of Honest Whigs that used to meet at the London Coffeehouse when he was in England would hash over ideas that were instrumental in Franklin’s thinking. Johnson writes, "There should be a plaque to commemorate that coffeehouse. It was really a tremendously generative space.”

In Where Good Ideas Come From he describe these coffee houses as 'liquid networks” where people from entirely different perspectives gather together to thrash out whatever was on their minds. He cites several examples:

• Eighteenth century English coffeehouse where everything from the science of electricity, to the insurance industry, to democracy itself was discussed

• Freud’s salon “where physicians, philosophers, and scientists gathered to help shape the emerging field of psychoanalysis”

• Those legendary Paris cafes where writers, poets, artists and architects laid the foundations of contemporary culture

• The Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s where Johnson claims “a ragtag assemblage of amateur hobbyists, teenagers, digital entrepreneurs, and academic scientists managed to spark the personal computer revolution…”

The coffee house model of innovation has a certain romantic appeal to it. And yet I can’t help but be skeptical of the claims Johnson attaches to it. On the surface, of course, one imagines these were and continue to be settings for lively intellectual exchange. However, we have no independent record of what in fact was said during these exchanges. Nor does Johnson cite any evidence made by participants of the role they played in formulating their ideas.

I am not suggesting they aren’t sources of innovation. But what came first—the idea or the conversation? And if the idea came first, how was it further developed at the coffee house? Or if the conversation came first, what is the evidence for this claim?

A network can support a person’s ideas, can be a setting where they can be expressed, and where perhaps they are refined in the process. And they can motivate someone to continue their line of thinking or their research program. But do we have a record of any of this?

Perhaps I’m being pedantic. But those are the kinds of questions I always ask, especially given the importance Johnson attributes to the coffee house model of creativity. While it has enormous appeal and while the experience of being with your friends in those settings is often stimulating, I wonder if any of the innovations Johnson discusses in his book, were, in fact, “born” there. To be sure, they may have been discussed and perhaps clarified, but that is a different matter than origination.