By Kenneth Justice
~ I was meeting with the owner of a coffee shop recently talking with him about coffee house culture, “The Internet really has killed community” he said, “When I opened up my first coffee shop ten years ago it was an entirely different feel. People would come in here all the time simply to hang out and meet people. It was like we offered an alternative to the bar scene for people that don’t want to get drunk. But now, well just look around, every person in here is glued to their damn computer and so disconnected from each other” he said
At times I feel like my articles sound like a broken record; community, connection, conversation; too often I write about the same themes and I wonder if I’m putting myself in jeopardy of losing readership. However, because every weekend I jet off to a new city to visit different coffee shops; I simply can’t ignore how much the computer and the Internet has changed the Western World.
Sure, I’m still meeting people; strangers, readers, fellow bloggers still come across my path and I count myself very blessed to make these connections; it’s been an incredible opportunity to meet so many different people and hear their stories and learn from their lives.
Yet……I’m often left with an empty feeling
I was having a conversation with a young man in Pittsburgh this past weekend; a late 20’s pharmaceutical engineer and transplant from the East Coast, he sat down near me and didn’t have a computer. Within 10 minutes of him sitting down he struck up a conversation with me and we ended up talking about dating, drinking, pharmaceuticals, his college years spent in Chicago, his dog and the dog walking service he pays for every day, and a bunch of other things.
It was a good conversation and the young man was a wealth of information about all things Pittsburgh. Yet half-way through our talk, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a young lady sitting alone across the room. She was one of the ‘zoned out behind her computer people’ and she had taken a moment to watch us. It was obvious that the young man and I didn’t know each other and for just a second I could see in the young woman’s eyes a sense of jealousy; she wished she was a part of our conversation. It was obvious that she wanted to walk across the room and connect; perhaps she had grown tired of looking at photos of random people on Facebook, perhaps she had grown tired of instant messaging a friend who was talking about the type of food they were having for breakfast.
The young woman wanted to connect…..but she couldn’t pull herself away from her computer. It’s possible she was too nervous to walk across the room and sit down with us, yet I have to ask; before the dawn of the 21st century Internet age were people as afraid to connect with strangers over coffee?
Isn’t that really what we are living in; the Internet Age? The rise of WiFi, social networking, blogging, and all things to do with the Internet. And who am I to complain; if not for the Internet you wouldn’t be reading this article and I wouldn’t be traveling to city-after-city meeting with fellow bloggers around the world.
The Internet is a marvelous tool; but just like other tools if we aren’t careful it can end up destroying the last remnants of unrehearsed community that still exist in Western Society. Henry Ford set out to make the automobile affordable for the average person. Yet in his quest to make quality affordable cars; the long-term impact was a massive spike in teen-related automobile fatalities, immense increases in pollution, and a death-knell to many cities where thanks to the automobile people moved to the suburbs by the droves turning many urban areas into ghost towns.
Every day I struggle with the themes in which I write about because on this coffee house tour the most obvious trend I’m seeing at every coffee shop I stop at is people who are sitting so close together; yet because of the Internet they are all so far away from each other. In some ways this disconnectedness I see at coffee houses is a good metaphor for many American families; parents and children who live under the same roof yet barely talk to each other.
For years, sociologists and psychologists have been talking about the breakdown in communication among families and among couples. Too many men spend more time with their fantasy football relationships then they do with their significant other. Too many fathers spend more time zoned out in front of the television then they do kicking a soccer ball around with their children.
I started this year long tour in Costa Rica during the first week of January and the differences between Latin America culture and the United States are immense; it’s much easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger in Latin American than it is here in the States. And while I could talk about their more laid back attitude, more openness to conversation and other elements of Costa Rican culture; the most obvious difference is that a very low percentage of Costa Ricans sit in public places with computers. It’s a lot easier to talk to someone who isn’t staring blanking at a computer screen.
Of course, I’ve written this an entire article while sitting at a coffee shop……so who am I to judge?
P.S. I’ll be in Philadelphia this weekend!
Categories: Culture & Society