March 9, 2012

Coffee For All


Merchants introduced coffee to the European continent through Venice.  Once Pope Clement VIII ruled that it was acceptable for Catholics to consume coffee in 1600, the consumption and popularity of coffee markedly increased.  In 1645 the first coffee house in Europe was opened, in Venice.

Ideas require space for formulation, development and growth.  The European coffeehouse served as a real physical space that fostered innovation, and did so in direct competition with the university system.  In contrast to the universities, a widely diverse group of patrons frequented coffeehouses, with equal standing regardless of their socioeconomic status once they passed walked through the doors.  Indeed, posted rules and orders often included the pronouncement that "no man of any station need give his place to a finer man."

Historian Brian Cowan has described the European coffeehouses as "places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concert.”  In contrast to the taverns and pubs, there was no alcohol available in coffeehouses, which resulted in sober discussions.

Admission to a European coffeehouse was typically set at one penny; in exchange, the customer would receive admission, a cup of coffee and the opportunity to converse with other patrons on a wide range of topics to include politics, current events, history, and even daily gossip.  Indeed, historians typically associate the advent of the European coffeehouse with the subsequent development of the Age of Enlightenment.

There has been a great deal of discussion comparing social media, as a platform for exchange, to the European coffeehouse.  In particular, the real physical space for discussion that the coffeehouse fostered has been appropriately compared to the virtual space that social media creates, and the brisk exchange of ideas on a wide variety of topics that we see in this new domain.  The development of new insights and ideas cannot occur in a vacuum; innovation truly requires a space (real or virtual) for people to meet and for ideas to percolate and meld. Social platforms provide this space for active exchange and engagement, making for a powerful and apt analogy.

In our celebration of this paradigm shift, we must not cautious not to exclude those from the conversation those who lack access to participate.  Many of these people are from the most disadvantaged groups, including the elderly, disabled, minorities, and socioeconomically challenged.  Their contributions to this digital conversation, their capacity to enter this space of sharing innovation, may be missed.  Moreover, studies have suggested that those who are digitally excluded are more prone to recurrent health issues.

Internet use consists of a spectrum of access options that range from those individuals who have never been online, to those who have online access limited to dial up, or to those who only have access while at work.  We need to make a clear, conscious and concerted effort to identify and support local community access advocates including public libraries and librarians, community centers, and places of worship, which offer free internet access.  Additionally, our engagement and the digital content we create must be in a format that can be readily accessed and easily occur via mobile technology, given the growing role this form of access can play.  We must foster the development of access vectors that foster engagement for the disabled.  The potential impact of digital isolation on quality of life is profound.

Truly, everyone who wants a cup of coffee must be ensured a full mug.

Farris Timimi, M.D. is the medical director for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

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Coffee For All
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no man of any station need give his place to a finer man.

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