Maha Atal ’08: Instant philosophy in the age of the cappuccino

Thursday, February 8, 2007

OXFORD, England – In a recent New York Times op-ed (“One Latte, Hold the Milk,” Feb. 3), Stacy Schiff linked our society’s grand(e)-scale consumption of caffeine to our unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Twenty-ounce coffee-cups, she says, are the necessary accessory for the age of 24-hour news. Coffee keeps us up all night to see the next day’s breaking headlines – coffee makes us impatient enough to demand the constant update. Starbucks is the symbol of the information age.

The coffee-drinker in me is gratified to have my addiction so highly spoken of. The historian in me cringes, however, when Schiff invokes the legacy of the Enlightenment. According to Schiff, the coffeehouse culture of Adam Smith and Samuel Johnson is about stimulating the mind to think faster and absorb more information. The Enlightenment’s need for intellectual speed reaches its apex in our own age, the era of Google and Fox News, when anyone can access “the truth” at any time.

However, something doesn’t seem right in calling Fox News the direct descendant of Enlightenment thought. In fact, though the great thinkers of the 18th century would be amazed by the Internet’s wealth of information, they’d be horrified by the way many of us choose to experience it. While they’d appreciate Starbucks for spreading coffeehouses around the world, they’d be appalled at the sight of a venti extra-shot latte.

The Enlightenment was not about amassing information, as much and as fast as possible. The Enlightenment was about taking the time to question and develop reasoned conclusions. Descartes’ “dare to know” and Locke’s “tabula rasa” were principles of knowledge, but they also carried an admiration for the way knowledge acts on the mind. It was the experience of debate, not a rapid hunger for facts that these philosophers revered.

The 18th-century coffeehouses were not purveyors of the quick-fix energy boost we associate with coffee today. The cafe was a place to hear news but also to encounter different perspectives, to challenge one’s own beliefs. Smith, Johnson and their peers were skeptics – and skepticism demands time.

That is not to say that Schiff is entirely wrong in seeing the Internet age as a worthy successor to the 18th century. The generation before us saw almost infinite possibilities in Internet technology. This was the generation that wanted to run at hyper-speed, who graduated college in the 1990s eager to take on 24-hour jobs in finance, the generation who made Starbucks the global giant it is today. Theirs is the vision of the Internet that Schiff is reacting to.

But Generation Y is already changing the rules of engagement when it comes to technology. Whereas the power of the Internet in 1997 rested on the shoulders of search engines like Yahoo!, the power of the Internet in 2007 lies with user-driven sites like YouTube, Facebook and Wikipedia. As Time magazine informed us in December, the Person of the Year is You, the public.

The success of Wikipedia does not stem from access to information – its predecessor search engines or fixed encyclopedias like Encarta were as good, if not better, at delivering hard facts. The buzz generated by Wikipedia comes from the way its content changes, from the possibility that truth is altered as different users interact with it.

In this, Wikipedia is a descendent of Diderot’s “Encyclopedie.” A collaborative project of Enlightenment thinkers from all over Europe, this was not a book intended to set in stone the limits of human knowledge – it was a collection of essays designed to explore the possibilities. Its articles raise as many questions as they provide answers, and for the philosophes, questions were the essence of learning. They lead us to continue the search, to research in the most literal sense.

What Adam Smith and his contemporaries would have found most exhilarating about the Internet would be the way it embodies this encouragement to continue searching: the device of the link. My friends and I often joke that Wikipedia is at fault for our procrastination: we sit down to look up one item and find ourselves darting from page to page for hours, picking up knowledge we never planned to seek out.

But instead of a distraction, I wonder if we shouldn’t see this propensity to follow the links, to “browse the Internet,” as the center of a modern-day education.

Ours is indeed a coffeehouse culture, but not, as Schiff believes, because we gulp lattes and frequent Internet cafes. Rather, the Internet is our cafe, a place where multiple viewpoints intersect and overlap. On multiple “tabs” of a Web browser, for example, we can see how the same event generates different truths in different newspapers and learn to suspect anyone who tells us they have the most authoritative version.

This skepticism, this endless questioning of the linked-in, would make Voltaire proud.

Maha Atal ’08 is the unofficial spokeswoman for Starbucks. She is spending the semester in the United Kingdom.