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Update June 2013: I wrote an Op-Ed on this topic for the New York Times, which draws modern lessons from the 17th-century concerns about the distractions of coffeehouses.

Here’s an extract from my forthcoming book (to be published in October 2013) on the prehistory of social media, from the Roman period to the present day. (A previous extract, about Martin Luther and social media, is here.) You know how you can easily lose track of time while checking Twitter and Facebook? And how people worry that social media is distracting people from doing real work (aka “social notworking”)? The same thing happened in the 17th century with coffeehouses, a new social-media platform where people went to read and discuss the news:

With the promise of a constant and unpredictable stream of news, messages and gossip, coffeehouses offered an exciting and novel platform for sharing information. So seductive was this new social environment — you never knew what you might learn on your next visit, or who you might meet — that coffeehouse denizens found themselves whiling away hours in reading and discussion, oblivious to the passage of time. “Thence to the coffeehouse” appears frequently in the celebrated diary of Samuel Pepys, an English public official. His entry for January 11th, 1664 gives a flavour of the cosmopolitan, serendipitous atmosphere that prevailed within the coffeehouses of the period, where matters both trivial and profound were discussed:

Thence to the Coffee-house, whither comes Sir W. Petty and Captain Grant, and we fell in talke (besides a young gentleman, I suppose a merchant, his name Mr Hill, that has travelled and I perceive is a master in most sorts of musique and other things) of musique; the universal character; art of memory… and other most excellent discourses to my great content, having not been in so good company a great while, and had I time I should covet the acquaintance of that Mr Hill… The general talke of the towne still is of Collonell Turner, about the robbery; who, it is thought, will be hanged.

Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.

When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?” he asked. “Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.” Similar concerns were voiced in Cambridge, where one observer noted that

it is become a custom after chapel to repair to one or other of the coffee houses (for there are divers), where hours are spent in talking, and less profitable reading of newspapers, of which swarms are continually supplied from London. 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?

Inevitably, the opposition to coffeehouses found expression in pamphlet form. The author of “The Grand Concern of England Explained” (1673) grumbled that coffeehouses had

done great mischiefs to the nation, and undone many of the King’s subjects: for they, being great enemies to diligence and industry, have been the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen, who, before frequenting these places, were diligent students or shopkeepers, extraordinary husbands of their time as well as money; but since these houses have been set up, under pretence of good husbandry, to avoid spending above one penny or two-pence at a time, have gone to these coffee-houses; where, meeting friends, they have sat talking three or four hours; after which, a fresh acquaintance appearing, and so one after another all day long, hath begotten fresh discourse, so that frequently they have staid five or six hours together in one of them; all which time their studies or shops have been neglected.

The coffeehouse bore, the know-it-all political commentator and the businessman spreading false rumours are all stock figures in the satire of the period. Another pamphlet, “The character of a coffee-house” (1673) mocks the coffeehouse as “an exchange, where haberdashers of political small-wares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the publick, with bottomless stories, and headless notions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets, and persons more idly employed to read them… The room stinks of tobacco worse than hell of brimstone, and is as full of smoke as their heads that frequent it.”

This has got to be the most unusual book review I’ve ever had: Paco Calderón, a Mexican cartoonist, has reviewed “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” in the form of a cartoon (left). As an occasional cartoonist myself, I think this is an excellent use of the art form.

Meanwhile, I am still on the road promoting “An Edible History of Humanity” with various personal appearances and radio interviews. This week I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and I was also interviewed by NPR affiliate KUOW in Seattle, in a wide-ranging conversation that also covered some of my other books.

While on tour I have been doing a fair amount of culinary tourism. In San Francisco I visited TCHO to pick up some chocolate (I wrote a story about the company last year), and went to Ritual Coffee Roasters to try coffee made with a Clover machine. I had a cup of Fazenda Kaquend, the winner of the Brazil Cup of Excellence competition. Normally I put sugar in my coffee to take the edge off it, but there was not a hint of bitterness. In Berkeley I had ice cream at Ici, which was also excellent. But I have to admit that my favourite discovery was that Anchor Liberty Ale was available on tap at SFO. It is my favourite beer. I am now in Iowa. Time for some corn.

UPDATE June 6th: After an on-stage conversation about my book at the Printers Row Literary Festival in Chicago with Mike Gebert of food blog Sky Full of Bacon, I asked Mike for a lunch suggestion, and we ended up going to Frontera Grill. Chef Rick Bayless is the dean of “white table-cloth Mexican food”, apparently. We had ceviche and tostaditas, after which I had poached eggs with masa boats, black beans and crumbled chorizo. With some Goose Island “Summertime” beer. A delicious and suitably American end to my tour. Thanks, Mike!

coffeesbOh, look what’s appeared on the wall in my local Starbucks! It has gone rather quiet in there lately, as people cut back on expensive coffees. (I have not, because caffeine is not something I can easily do without.) Evidently the company is looking for new ways to bring people in, and this is what it has come up with: you can book a table for a group meeting for your business, community group or club. I find this very amusing, because this practice — the ability to reserve tables — was one of the things that made coffeehouses such hotbeds of networking and innovation in 17th-century London. Most famously Lloyd’s coffeehouse, opened by Edward Lloyd in the 1680s, was frequented by ship captains, shipowners and merchants who went to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information in a regular newsletter, and his coffeehouse became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to reserve particular tables or booths at Lloyd’s to ensure that their customers could always find them in the same place, and eventually a group of them established the Society of Lloyd’s, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London.

So this move by Starbucks is a lovely echo of the golden age of coffeehouses. Another example is the use of Wi-Fi in coffeehouses to get your e-mail and read the news. In the 17th century, before street numbering, people would use coffeehouses as mailboxes, saying “write to me care of the Rainbow”, or whatever. They would also drop into coffeehouses to read newsletters, pamphlets and broadsides, which were available free to patrons. And coffeehouses, then as now, were often used as reputable and neutral venues for business meetings. (I went into all this in my coffeehouse internet piece, which grew into a whole chapter of my drinks book.)

The notion of coffeehouses promoting intellectual and commercial connections is in the air again as a result of Steven Johnson‘s new book, “The Invention of Air”. I haven’t read the book yet, but I used to write for Steven’s webzine, FEED, so he was an early patron of my interest in historical analogies. Several of his books also interweave old and new technologies, but whereas my thing is historical analogies, his is something like interconnectedness, if I had to choose a single word. He is also a proponent of the idea that video games are good for you, which makes him a hero in my book.

Two years after being published in America, my drinks book is finally published in Britain this week by Atlantic Books. Several people have asked whether the lack of postings here indicates that I am working on a new book, and the answer is yes — though my new role at The Economist means I have less time to write books than I used to. But the wheels are turning.

Over the summer CBS filmed a little segment about my book at various locations in London, including the Cutty Sark (where we discussed tea and rum), the Jamaica Wine House (a pub on the site of London’s oldest coffeehouse), an American-style diner (to talk about Coca-Cola) and even at home (where I held one of my water tastings with friends). Well, it looks as though the result is finally going to air on CBS Sunday Morning on November 27th. Goodness knows what they’ll include from all that footage. They even filmed me playing the drums. Everything takes ages when doing TV, but it was a lot of fun. Now, back to my Thanksgiving beer…

Today I went to a business lunch at Nobu in London, and I noticed that they’d changed the bottled water they serve. They used to serve Voss, a Norwegian water that comes in fancy cylindrical bottles, and which tastes much less pleasant than London tap water, at least in my opinion (in a blind tasting). But now they have switched to Fiji water. Perhaps they switched ages ago — I don’t get to go to Nobu that often. Anyway, this made me laugh for two reasons. The first is that in blind tastings, Fiji is the water that I find tastes most like London tap. So, I like it, but you might as well drink tap water. The second thing that made me laugh was that one of the people at the lunch, an American woman, said that friends had asked her whether London tap water was safe to drink. Of course it was, she said — this isn’t some developing country with bad water. Which is true, of course. But isn’t it odd how people in one of the richest parts of the world will pay through the nose to drink water shipped all the way from a developing country where they probably wouldn’t dare drink the tap water? (For an analysis of the economics of shipping water from Fiji, see Ethan Zuckerman’s posting here.)

My sporadic campaign against bottled water continued this week in The Guardian, on Marketplace, and on KQED in San Francisco. My Guardian piece was a good opportunity to take in some of the ideas (such as water taxes and “ethical” water) that were suggested to me after the New York Times Op-Ed appeared. I was also able to make it clear that if you don’t like the taste of your tap water, the next step should be to try filtering it, rather than simply giving in and buying bottled water.

So far I have yet to hear a good argument in defence of bottled water, and I’m not surprised, since there isn’t one. One industry executive suggested to me that the bottled-water companies are really selling “portable hydration” rather than water. But even if this were a good reason to sell water in bottles (drinking fountains also provide portable hydration, as does tap water in a bottle) this does not account for all the bottled water sold. Yes, people buy water in small bottles on hot days. But the bulk of the industry’s sales surely come from people buying big bottles, six at a time, in the supermarket, to drink at home instead of tap water. Surprisingly, nobody has yet advanced what I consider to be the best argument in defence of bottled water, namely that in a consumer-capitalist economy, people should be free to make dumb purchasing decisions: buying dodgy personal-fitness equipment from late-night infomercials, for example. This, of course, is the argument advanced by the tobacco industry. And it’s true: people should be allowed to smoke themselves to death if they want to, or buy water that costs 10,000 times as much as tap water but is really no different, but only if they have all the facts. In the case of bottled water, most people don’t have all the facts. I am doing what I can to remedy that, and if the e-mails I’ve received are anything to go by, people who have more of the facts think again about buying bottled water.

Now for the mea culpa. When writing the Guardian piece I found an error in my NYT Op-Ed. I wrote: “Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year.” In fact, these figures are not to provide water and sanitation to everyone, but to meet the UN’s target of reducing lack of access by half by 2015. I should have written, as I did in the Guardian: “The UN’s goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation by 2015 could be achieved for an outlay of around $11 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute.” Mea culpa.

Finally, I have to share a story sent to me by a reformed bottled-water drinker. When living in Paris with her husband, she used to keep a bottle of Evian in the fridge, and refill it from the tap when it ran low. One day her husband complained. “Damn it,” he said, “I wish you’d stop doing that. I can’t tell if it’s the good stuff or if…”. A funny look came over his face as he realised what he was saying, and after that they stopped buying bottled water.

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