Walk into any coffeehouse or tea bar in America, and you will most likely hear a lot of ... silence.
Maybe the light clicking of keys on a keyboard. Some soft music being provided by the establishment. Occasionally, a pair of people seated at the same table talking in hushed tones. But very little in the way of conversation, discussion or exchange of ideas.
It sounds and feels a lot like a library. People are most often studying, listening to their iPods, working on their computers or reading--and usually doing so by themselves. The dude sitting next to you in his comfy Starbucks chair might as well be a thousand miles away--his mind probably is. And so is yours.
We have become a Nation Of Laptop Zombies.
It wasn't always this way. In the times of our Founding Fathers, coffeehouses and taverns were hotbeds of political talk, animated discussions about the topics of the day, and even the meeting places of revolutionaries.
But today, our technology is isolating us, teaching us to burrow deeper into our own created worlds, ignoring the people near us in order to talk to someone or something far from us.
We build bubbles around ourselves, while claiming to be more "interactive" and more "connected" and more "engaged". Are we fooling ourselves? Are we allowing technology to take our lives over, instead of augmenting or supplementing those lives?
(Maybe, maybe not--my next column, paradoxically, will be about technology's ability to make us more social, not less. But, context is everything, I guess, and life is nothing if not paradoxical.)
However, there is a mini-movement afoot here in Oakland, California, and across the bridge in San Francisco, to disconnect from our machines and reconnect to each other. Places that had become nothing but Computer Cafes For Web Surfers have minimized wi-fi, removed electrical outlets and encouraged talking, in an effort to make their businesses more social, more friendly and more welcoming.
The Art Of Conversation has become a lost kind of art. Perhaps, if this counter-trend happening in The Bay Area expands and grows, that will change, and we will do more conversing, more talking and have more authentic personal experiences with each other.
We are after all, first and foremost, social animals. And we ignore that basic fact of our biology at our own risk.