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MONDAY, JULY 11, 2016
'Sorry. Were you talking to me?'
I'm guilty of it, too. Right now, in fact.

When I walk into a café and see rows of zombied-out laptop users, headphones further insulating them from the world of other people around them, I wish it all weren't so. Then again, I'm there to use my laptop, too.

What I'd like to see is people talking. Talking to each other. About the world. What I do see is people connected - not to the real world - but to the "world wide web". Facebooking, Hotmailing, Googling, downloading, streaming. For some reason it bothers me even more when I see people watching entire TV show episodes at their laptops. Maybe that's because they can do that at home and don't even need the internet for it. If you're going to go out with your laptop, I say to myself, at least get something done on the internet.

My own opinion is that in public people should be talking to each other. If you're in public you're fair game: anyone can talk to you. I just assume this. Of course, people have the right to be left alone if they want, but I assume by default that since you're out and about I can talk to you without you snubbing me. If you don't want to be bothered you can say so, and after that I'll leave you alone, but until then you're up for grabs.

Call me a romantic, but wouldn't it be nice to have a place where a lively, public discussion was always going on? Maybe I'm just not aware of such places. If anyone knows of any, let me know.

After all, I live on Commercial Drive, the café-district of Vancouver, where you'd think there might be a lively café culture. There isn't. At least I don't see it. Maybe people are just fed up with talking, and have given up on the idea of reasonable, popular political discourse.

In an article for his Republic of East Vancouver newspaper, The Nihilist Age, Kevin Potvin suggested that we all unwitting nihilists. He equated the neo-con nihilism of today's major powers (well, Bush-era powers) with the "whatta-ya-gonna do?" attitude of today's progressives. As Potvin put it, "Like the denizens on cafés on Commercial Drive...the neo-cons...also see no reason for themselves to vote or to go to church." And no reason, I would add, to have a serious ongoing dicussion about such things.

Earlier in the piece Potvin asked, "How is the typical Commercial Drive ex-professor any different from the typical ex-Secretary of Defense like Donald Rumsfeld, who saw so clearly the need to destroy the social order of the Middle East, beginning in Iraq, but who didn’t even think how to hook up traffic lights or run the water system in Baghdad on the other side of his nihilistic destruction?"

I'm sympathetic to Potvin's assessment, and I think the laptop-syndrome is a symptom of the larger, nihilist problem. The problem is that we tend to withdraw into out own private worlds, with the handy help of the internet, rather than connect with other people. True, the internet "connects" people, but often at the expense of the connection between you and the person sitting inches away. But what's the point in talking about things anyway, right? It's all fucked. (that's sarcasm.)

In the past, when the only technology that got between people was a book or newspaper, public discussion was much more natural. You read, you discuss. Today, though, you just surf and keep it to yourself.

The lively café culture of, say, Jean-Paul Sartre's Paris, actually played a big role in the development of French intellectual culture and, to some extent, French politics. I hate to think of all the Paris cafés today acting as traps for tourists looking for "authentic" Sartre hangouts, filled with laptop users and little discussion.

Other intellectuals, like the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, thought of the coffee-shop and reading-room culture of the 18th century as a sort of rational breeding ground for democratic culture. Today we think of the internet as the new democratic breeding ground. Witness the amount of political activism via Facebook, or Barack Obama's successful co-opting of the web-generation in his campaign and thus-far presidency.

But maybe I'm just a lazy whiner. Maybe there are lots of great discussions going on around the city and I just need to find them. Maybe I should check out one of those SFU Philosopher's Café thingies. And maybe I'll be excited and impressed by it.

However! What I really want is a place to go talk about serious and important things without having to pay $5 to be chained to a rigid (though interesting) topic of discussion, like with those Philsopher's Cafés. Actually, the fact that we have rigidly scheduled, topic-driven events like that is precisely because we have no ordinary, everyday, spontaneous outlets for public discussion. Seen that way, the Philosopher's Cafés are more a symptom of, rather than a cure to, sickly public discourse.

I long to open up an all-night café, perhaps laptop-free, called "I Am the A.M." It would be open from midnight until noon (or all day, despite the name). It would welcome - no, demand - discussion, and lots of it. It would be a hangout for the restless and techno-unsavvy, those craving in-depth conversation. It would also serve cheap coffee and biscuits, homemade soup, sandwiches and salads.

In my fanstasy café there would be impassioned debates, heated discussions, impromptu poetry and story readings, and, ideally, lots of politicians, writers, artists and activists dropping by to give - and get - an earful.

After all, doesn't democracy depend on communication between the elected and the electors? On face-to-face (not just Facebook) talks between those in office and those that put them there? Can there really be such a thing as a "laptop democracy"?



Another commercial that preaches the truth.

Coca-Cola Avatar Commercial



I use to be a socialite. I didn't mind getting to know new people or different lifestyles, it was interesting for an 18 year old me that was fresh out of high school. But then I got sick of mixing in all the small talk with my philosophical discussions. A little small talk to get to know someone makes sense to me, but an hour of it is dreadful. Even if I met a few friends of mine who wanted to break down philosophy and socialism over coffee, it only took one or two more people to join the conversation and make a joke, speak of their "day," an event, a silly movie, or anything outside of the talk and ruin the entire conversation. It's not that these topics themselves can't spawn into intellectual discussion but instead what happens is that soon everyone will want to give their opinion on an event or movie, with equal humour and less analysis.

A great anecdotal involves you Hogan. Do you remember one of the first times we spoke? It was at the Canadian University Press conference. There we were, a group of 10 or so university journalists ready to discuss the heavy issues of the world. I believe I was making a point on Camus' work, and I remember really liking where I was taking the point because I had never thought of it before. All of a sudden we were interrupted by another drunk journalist who had something more important to say: Person X was so drunk by Y that they did the abnormal act of Z. I can't remember who variable X was or what drink Y was, or what act the variable Z represents. But I don't have to, because this phrase has interrupted me so many times that the variables have become trivial (just mere variables).

Zane, one of the people in the room, even pointed out scenario when he said: "Here we were having this intellectual discussion on Camus and existentialism and you had to come in and interrupt it with this drunk story." We all laughed. But more significantly, we never returned to Camus. Instead the silly talk took over the discussion.

Because in any generic group of people: silly discussions > serious ones.

And we weren't even a generic group. We were the writers of our respective universities. If the top commentators of academia have nothing of importance to say while locked in a hotel room for 4 straight days (we never picked up on Camus or any other philosophical debate in those 4 days), then what hope is there in a coffee shop? People in coffee shops are either there for the coffee, or if they're there to speak then they're just a social butterfly. Sure, there are quite a few times where a stimulating conversation occurs but it's neither consistent nor frequent enough. I don't frequent Commercial drive, but I do frequent many coffee shops on the North shore. In fact, I'm going out with a barista as a result and she'd confirm that I'm one of the regulars. Don't get me wrong, I've met quite a few interesting people there and the other regulars there don't shy from debates. That's one of the reasons I love visiting it. But many of the regulars there bring their laptops. Because at the end of the day, the conversations do not happen as frequent as they should. So we go online, to a site like this one, where I can be certain that there's a debate such as this one, with a friend who knows how to debate such as you. On my laptop. And guess what? During this whole time, I've only had one small interruption but I came back on to finish my thought.



Replying to Alamir:
Even though I know you don't like this phrase: Fair enough, Alamir.

And thanks, NatalieC, for pointing out my missing 'l' in the word "public". That's one typo I'm always trying to avoid (especially with the word "sickly" in front of it...yikes). Thanks again for catching (and correcting) me.

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