Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Coffee houses and creativity

In The distractions of social media, 1673 style Tom Standage provides an excerpt from his upcoming book “Cicero’s Web”. He points out that public officials and university authorities were very much against coffee houses, because they kept people from doing real work. According to one critic in the 1600s:

And the scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty. For who can apply close to a subject with his head full of the din of a coffee-house?

It’s that last sentence that I find particularly amusing. For who can apply close to a subject with his head full of the din of a coffee-house? It is precisely in the din (“A loud, unpleasant, and prolonged noise”) of coffee houses that I find I do my best work. In fact, coffee houses have a long history of being spaces where creativity tends to thrive. For example, in Claudia Roden’s Coffee, she notes:

Catering equally for the working and the leisured classes, [coffee houses] have tended to be democratic in character. As a French periodical of the 1850s entitled Le Café pointed out in its slogan: “The salon stood for privilege, the café stands for equality.” Coffee has been called the intellectual drink of democracy. In times of upheaval, coffee houses became revolutionary centers, encouraging the interchange of ideas and usually generating liberal and radical opinion. It has been said that the French Revolution was fomented in coffee-house meetings, and the Café Foy was the starting point of its mob spirit.

Coffee houses have been linked to intellectual activities for a long time:

The French coffee shop ennobled the ways of its frequenters by inaugurating a reign of temperance and luring people away from the cabaret. Today the institution is still one where everything is discussed and where people sharpen their wits in debate.

The influence of coffee houses was enormous on the political, social, literary, and commercial life of the times. They were the stage for political debate, fringe centers of education and the origin of certain newspapers. Insurance houses, merchant banks, and the stock exchange began in coffee houses.

There is just something about coffee shops that helps me focus. It’s the ambient noise. It’s the knowledge that I’m not alone, that there are people around me whose diverse lives are happening in the background. It’s the constant, nagging thought that some of those people might be the audience for what I’m making. It’s like working inside a contextual inquiry all the time.

Also, coffee is pretty great.