Technology, especially wireless, is changing how people meet and work together. I wrote a post titled "Reading Buildings," a few months ago, where I wondered what libraries would be like if accessing of information became even less centralized:
What I find bizarre about all this is that when you walk into a Barnes
& Noble all the seats are taken, so it seems that "reading
buildings" of some sort have some demand. Maybe it’s the social setting
or maybe it’s the Starbucks. Actually, that could be the future of the
library: a big empty building that people bring their electronic books
to so that they can read and drink their coffee in a social setting…
While technology poses the potential problem of atomization,
it does pose an interesting problem for organizers and builders of
social spaces: what sort of emphasis should there be on technology?
Does bringing in technology, especially wireless, defeat the purpose of
common social spaces? Or is that the new goal? Many websites now
encourage meeting offline, but what are they to do once they meet?
This idea of wired (both connotations intended) social reading space has been on my mind lately—especially while ordering a double latte at my local coffeeshop. It’s not unlike Sustained Silent Reading for us big kids.
On the subject of reading spaces, Minnesota’s own Garrison Keillor (hereafter GK) churned up a local tempest in a coffee cup with a recent article called "21st Century Elements of Style." You may be thinking of those firebrands Strunk & White, but the "style" referenced in the title was more along the lines of advice from Dale Carnegie. GK writes in celebration of the print newspaper, the mainstay of all that is sensible, measured, and sober, the rock of civilization:
It seems to me, observing the young in coffee shops, that something is
missing from their lives, the fine art of holding a newspaper. They sit
staring at computer screens, sometimes with wires coming out of their
ears, life passing them by as they drift through MySpace, that
encyclopedia of the pathetic, and check out a video of a dog dancing
the Macarena. It is so lumpen, so sad that nobody has shown them that
opening up a newspaper is the key to looking classy and smart. . . .
A man at a laptop is a man at a desk, a stiff, a drone. Where is the
nobility here? He hunches forward, his eyes glaze, and beads of saliva
glitter in the corners of his mouth and make their way down his chin as
he becomes engrossed in the video of the fisherman falling out of the
boat. A newspaper reader, by comparison, is a swordsman, a wrangler, a
private eye. Holding a newspaper frees you up to express yourself, sort
of like what holding a sax did for Coltrane.
Of course, this mock-heroic ode to the newspaper reader contains a healthy dose of satiric hyperbole. It’s about style! It’s about being dashing! It’s not about actually reading the paper; it’s about the performance. Right. As if.
While it’s great fun to trash the Laptop Youth as mindless consumers of vapid content, be wary; those same laptop-wielding, coffee-sipping drones may be plotting their revenge, or at least a sardonic rebuttal. For instance, see the following fervid deconstruction of the article by Hulles, a blogger who frequents the coffeeshop above GK’s new St. Paul bookstore. The article’s characterizations strike a little too close to home for Hulles’ comfort, and he speaks in defense of his fellow wired patrons.
Once again my irony detector is beeping at me insistently. That person
over there at that table in the café (Melissa) is using the
unimaginably vast information resource that is the Internet to look up
structural material specs for her engineering homework. The person next
to her (Juan) is studying Japanese on line. The next person (Claire) is
not on line at all, just listening to MP3’s as she works on her
master’s thesis (she wants to be a writer, God help her). The person
next to her is downloading porn
never mind that person. Next to him is me, and I’m writing a blog that
I think is, all in all, not a bad effort for someone who is stupidly
content with a life regarded as intellectually empty and socially
inferior by Garrison Keillor.
But the real irony for me is that
when I’m sitting in the café writing this and reading all of your
blogs, I am participating in a vibrant social network of singularly
bright and interesting and talented people (you, duh, pay attention or
we’ll look like schmucks). This is the incandescent intellectual
community for which I so desperately yearned as I was growing up in my
small Norman Rockwell town reading local poorly-written newspapers
that, if they were the cornerstone of anything, it was maintaining the status quo.
Hulles also points out the "lovely irony" that next to the article is a picture of GK in full writerly mode, perhaps contemplating a dicey-but-crucial word choice, gazing intently at. . . a laptop.
What’s jubilant and funny and biting about this is that it so elegantly and fittingly demonstrates the consumer-to-creator Web 2.0 shift. This is the loveliest irony of all. Those pathetic drones may watch the occasional dancing-dog video, but they’re also active, alert, and whip-smart commentators who are cranking out Mencken-worthy gems between sips of coffee.
To return to Eddie’s question: Does bringing in technology defeat the purpose of social spaces? It may redirect the flow of conversations and interactions into unexpected channels, but judging from GK and Hulles, I’d argue that we’re not in imminent danger of plunging into isolation and atomization. It may look like everyone’s doing their own thing—parallel play in a large, quiet room. But there’s still plenty of social interaction going on, much of it spiked with good old-fashioned irony, biting wit, bullying, friendly persuasion, etc. The whole full-bodied gamut of human nature. As Hulles concludes,
The rest of us are doing quite nicely interacting and exchanging
ideas at 10 Mbs in our cafés scattered across the world.