As part of its year-end double issue (sadly, no crossword this year), The Economist suggests that “coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries:”
WHERE do you go when you want to know the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments? Today, the answer is obvious: you log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffee-house. There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.
The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like today’s websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint. They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee-houses displayed commodity prices, share prices and shipping lists, whereas others provided foreign newsletters filled with coffee-house gossip from abroad.
Coffee-houses were centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation. Collectively, Europe’s interconnected web of coffee-houses formed the internet of the Enlightenment era.
The kinship between coffee-houses and the internet has recently been underlined by the establishment of wireless hotspots which provide internet access, using a technology called WiFi, in modern-day coffee-shops.
Such hotspots allow laptop-toting customers to check their e-mail and read the news as they sip their lattes. But history provides a cautionary tale for those hotspot operators that charge for access. Coffee-houses used to charge for coffee, but gave away access to reading materials. Many coffee-shops are now following the same model, which could undermine the prospects for fee-based hotspots. Information, both in the 17th century and today, wants to be freeand coffee-drinking customers, it seems, expect it to be.