Today’s Coffee House?

I’ve been reading a book called Abundance, which details the multiple breakthroughs that promise to eliminate poverty in the world–if we humans deploy them wisely. There’s a lot of interesting information, and stories of human ingenuity are encouraging.

An interesting observation was that the Enlightenment was a product of the coffee house. According to the author, the practice of gathering in coffee houses and exchanging points of view–debating, discussing, considering alternatives–sparked the development of new philosophies, new ways of engaging reality. That diversity of perspective is also what makes cities important generators of new ideas, new inventions–as the author points out, the density of urban life also requires that we encounter people with different ideas, backgrounds and points of view, and it is that “bubbling cauldron” that incubates progress.

Then, however, the author made a comparison that may be too optimistic. He sees the internet as an extension of the city–a vast coffee house where even the most rural or isolated individuals can encounter the diversity of ideas and opinions that characterize the human family. And theoretically, that’s true. Those who actually seek out new and different points of view can certainly find them on line, along with information (and disinformation) about virtually anything. But as Eli Pariser pointed out in The Filter Bubble, the internet is increasingly being used not to explore new ways of seeing, but to reinforce existing prejudices.

If we use our new, marvelous technologies to construct “bubbles”–comfortable realities within which we encounter only those who agree with us–we might just as well be back on the farm.

We live in a time when we have access to marvelous tools. The question is: will we use them to encounter and engage with each other, or to construct comfortable silos that wall off those who are different, those who make us uncomfortable?

Progress is rarely comfortable.