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Bloomsday, The Coffee House and The Network

June 16th is known as Bloomsday; it’s the single day, in 1904, on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses occurs. The day is commemorated around with the world with readings of the book and the hoisting of a pint or two.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

— Come up Kinch. Come up , you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awakening mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking, gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.

Joyce’s book brought to popular notice the idea of stream of consciousness literature. The term “stream of consciousness” was coined by the philosopher William James in an attempt to describe the mind-world connection as it relates the concept of truth. As a literary technique, it involves writing as a kind of transcription of the inner thought process of a character. In Ulysses, we find that stream rife with puns, allusions and parodies. Joyce was trying to capture another aspect of truth.

What challenged the reader of the day as avant garde and daring has become a relatively normal part of our network-connected lives.

Twitter has become a part of my daystream
– Roger Ebert

The stream of tweets flowing out of Twitter could aptly be described as a stream of collective consciousness. And so today, we think a great deal about various real-time streams and how they wend their way through networks of social connection. The water metaphors we use to speak about these things have roots in our shared history; they describe another kind of network of connections.

Stephen B. Johnson, in his book The Invention of Air, makes the case for the London Coffee House as an early prototype for the internet:

With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society. How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble— they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouses enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modern insurance company. …coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.

But the coffeehouse as a nexus of debate was only half of the picture. Cultural practice at the time was to drink beer and wine, and maybe a little gin, at every opportunity. Water was not safe to drink, and so alcoholic alternatives were fondly embraced. The introduction of coffee and tea as popular beverages had a significant impact on the flow of valuable ideas. Again here’s Johnson:

The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function— particularly for memory related tasks— during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked.

In our day, the coffee house connected to a wifi network has been an accelerant to the businesses populating the Network. When Starbucks announced that they would be introducing free 1-click wifi in their stores, it reminded me of Stephen Johnson’s descriptions of the London coffeehouses. The coffeehouse provided a physical meeting place and the caffeine in the coffee provided a force multiplier for the ideas flowing through the people. There was a noticeable change in the rhythm of the age. By layering a virtual real-time social medium over a physical meeting place that serves legal stimulants, Starbucks replays a classic formula. Oddly, there’s a kind of collaborative energy that exists in the coffeehouse that has been completely expunged from the corporate workplace. Starbucks ups the ante by running a broadcast web service network through the connection. Here we see wifi emerging as the new backbone for narrowcasted television.

As we try to weave value-laden real-time message streams through the collaborative groupware surgically attached to the corporate balance sheet, we may do well to look back toward Bloomsday and also ask for a stream of unconsciousness. It’s in those empty moments between the times when we focus our attention that daydreams and poetic thought creep into the mix. Those “empty moments” are under attack as a kind of system latency. However it’s in those day dreams, poetic thoughts and napkin scribbles that we find the source of the non-linear jump. Without those moments in our waking life, we’re limited to only those things deemed “possible.”

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