Tag Archives: Culture

Concentration in the Public Space

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappucino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centispiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle distraction. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians, hustlers, and, well humanity. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’f riends, John Leech, a writer and cartoonist for Punch, confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, would leave dead cats on his doorstep, broke his windows and threatened his life.

Bass’ Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—which numbered at least 1,000, including English violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italisn street entertainers, and numerous percussionists and minstrel singers from England, India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers.

Some stayed put—one Thomas Carlyle built a soundless room in his attic in Chelsea—but most moved out to the suburbs where things were altogether quieter. It’s not clear who won, but the first battle between knowledge worker and concentration had been fought.

The organ grinders have gone, but the knowledge workers are still around. But our search for a conducive work environment goes on.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-makingriff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Smanuel Johnson called them ‘penny universiteies.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home.

Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Now that is all changing. For lots of reasons. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realise they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

Starbucks cottoned on early to this. It started out just selling coffee beans or ground but realised that people lingered after their purchase, and so gave them chairs and tables and put in a coffee machine. As crime in the inner cities fell in the 1990s the middle classes wanted to get out of their homes and feel their way back into the city. And Starbucks was the place they went—familiar, safe, but further away.

Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it was, however: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free WiFi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. Here’s what I found from forums and surveys of users of places like Starbucks:

For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barrista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today (it’s also helped shape it.) It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of distraction. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Hoodiephobia, Or We Don’t Lie to Google

Boris johnson the knight

Does what we search for online reflect our fears?

There’s a growing obsession in the UK, it would seem, with ‘hoodies’—young people who wear sports clothing with hoods who maraud in gangs. Michael Caine has just starred in a movie about them (well, a revenge fantasy about them.) This Guardian piece explores the movie-making potential of this phenomenon.

Recently a female documentary film maker was saved from a group of iron bar-wielding “feral girls” by the bike-riding mayor of London (I’ve always wanted to write the headline for the story).

So is this “growing fear” reflected online?

Well, yes, it is.

Here’s what a graph of British people searching for ‘hoodies’ looks like:

image

As you can see, it’s been a growing interest, more than doubling in the past five years.

But it’s also showing a weird seasonal element. Interest drops off in the summer months, and then rises towards the end of the year. Every year for the past five years, searches have peaked in either December or November. The lowest point each year is June or July.

I don’t know why that is. One guess would be that in the summer attacks tail off. It would be interesting to see if there’s any correlation there with the actual figures on attacks. (Update: Commenters have rightly pointed out that the seasonal interest probably has more to do with online shoppers. Thanks, and sorry for not thinking of this.)

The Guardian piece quotes research by the group Women in Journalism back in March as finding that, among other things, 79% of adults are more wary of teenage boys than they were a year ago, and that the most commonly used descriptions of such boys in the UK press were ‘yobs’ and ‘thugs’ followed by ‘sick’, ‘feral’, ‘hoodies’ and ‘louts’ (PDF version of the report is here.)

Online, however, the trend is clearer: ‘Hoodie’ (light blue) is the preferred search term, and has been since late 2006, replacing the ‘thug’ and ‘scum’ of the mid 2000s:

image

I don’t know whether this is meaningful, but another word used to describe this perceived underclass of British use is ‘chav’, a term of obscure origin. Compare searches for the words ‘chav’ and ‘hoodie’ and you see this:

image

Clearly the word ‘chav’ (in red) was most popular—or one that people were hearing but not familiar with, and so needed to look it up—in late 2004. It has been in decline since then and has indeed been overtaken by ‘hoodie’ (in blue):

image

I don’t know whether this is meaningful or not. Wikipedia cites ‘chav’ as common parlance by 2004 (unfortunately Google’s data does not go further back than that, but the rise in 2004 is clear.)

I tend to believe that Google searches are as revealing as anything else about what people are interested in, or worried about—indeed more so than surveys, because people don’t lie to Google.

links for 2008-09-14

Queuing: Cultural or Economic?

Fascinating discussion on Freakonomics blog about lining up and how it varies from culture to culture. I must confess, after 20 years in Asia I’m still British and somewhat obsessed by queuing, and get very upset when it’s not followed. One commenter explains it thus:

There is a simple explanation for this. It is cultural. Europe doesn’t respect queuing because it is not central to their culture. Queuing is a British invented social rule. The British have a whole range of social rules that can range from common sense to obtuse.

Google Earth as Harbinger of Doom

Researchers are using Google Earth, the New York Times/IHT reports, to look for evidence of giant tsunamis, signs that the Earth has been hit by comets or asteroids more regularly, and more recently, than people thought:

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

Chevrons are huge deposits of sediment that were once on the bottom of the ocean; they are as big as tower blocks and shaped like chevrons, the tip indicating the direction from which the tsunami came. 

I love the idea that academics use a tool like Google Earth to — possibly — puncture one of the greatest myths of the human era: that comets only come along once every 500,000 years.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

There are a couple of other quirks to this story. The working group of misfits is cross-disciplinary — there’s a specialist on the structural analysis of myth in there — but only formed when they bumped into each other at a conference. How more efficient it would have been had they been blogging; they might have found each other earlier. (Perhaps they met before the blogging age; there’s a piece on the subject here from 2000.) 

The second quirk for me is that the mythologist (actually Bruce Masse calls himself an enviromental archaeologist) reckons he can pinpoint the exact date of the comet which created the Burckle Crater between Madagascar and Australia using local legends: 

Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

I love the idea of myths; I see them as a kind of early Internet, a way of dispersing knowledge using the most efficient tools (in those days, this meant stories and word of mouth.) We tend to think of myths as superstition and scare mongering, but in fact in many cases they are the few grains of wisdom that get passed on from generation to generation.  They often get contorted in the telling, the original purpose — to warn — sometimes getting lost. 

Like the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, most of whom were spared the 2004 tsunami because they “knew from their tribal lore that this was a warning sign to flee to higher ground”, according to Reuters. On the Acehnese island of Simeulue, similar lore, dating back to the 1907 tsunami, tells islanders that “if the land is shaking and shoreline is drained abnormally, they have to go to very high land.” Only seven people out of 80,000 islanders died. 

Based on this, the idea of trying to pin down the comets, the craters and the chevrons by exploring local myth makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that is being done alongside using something as modern, and as freely available, as Google Earth. I guess I’m just not happy about the implications for us current planet dwellers. 

Source: Ancient crash, epic wave – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune (graphic here)

An Appeal For Help

Fans of Loose Wire may possibly recall a column I did a year or so ago, when I tried to match quaint English placenames with computer matters, assigning the names to things that didn’t yet have them. Here are a few:

  • chettle (collective n) The debris, such as crumbs, dead insects and lint, that gets stuck inside your computer keyboard.
  • hordle (v) The noise a modem makes when it is trying to connect to the Internet. As in: My modem isn’t working. I can’t hear it hordle.
  • whitnash (n) The pain in your shoulder at the end of a long laptop-carrying trip. As in: The trip went fine, but I’ve got serious whitnash and need a bubble bath.

I’ve taken the liberty of re-publishing the piece as part of a holiday season blitz, part of which is for purely selfish reasons. Frankly, I’ve been less than happy that these words have not, for the most part, entered mainstream usage, so I figured I needed to give them a boost. I have therefore submitted the above three to Harper Collins’ new Living Dictionary/Word Exchange project, where folk are encouraged to put in their own suggestions for entries.

Of course, that it was I who assigned these words their meanings may not make me exactly an objective chronicler of the language, but as the editor in chief of Collins Dictionaries, Jeremy Butterfield, points out in today’s Guardian, “Things change very quickly now.  Words can establish themselves within a month.”

So this is where you, o reader, come in. I’d like you to back my campaign by making your own submissions of any of the words (I’ve just done the above, but feel free to use any of the other ones) to the Word Exchange. You have to register first, but, trust me, it’s worth it. In exchange, you can tell your grandchildren you helped put Chettle on the map.

Grab Some Joe, Burn A CD

Burn and Foam.

Starbucks is now offering a service where customers can browse music on computers in their outlets and then burn a CD of the music they like. Using its own Hear Music brand, Starbucks has launched the service in its new Hear Music Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, Calif. The service will be extended to 10 stores in Seattle later this year. Customers can browse more than 20,000 full-length albums and hundreds of thousands of songs on 70 Tablet PCs.

I’m afraid the press release, though long on background, is short on specifics about how much the service costs, and what format the music is in. Founded in 1990, and acquired by Starbucks Coffee Company in 1999, Hear Music boasts a catalog of nearly 100 CD compilations, handpicking “songs from new and classic records to create CDs that help people discover music they might not hear otherwise”.

Valentine’s Day – A Humbug Approach

It’s that time of year, and the marketing folk are back with lame Valentine’s promotions.

My first is from Audible.com, where I must have registered at some point, because I got an email with the subject field ‘Someone has sent you a Valentine!’ along with the following message: ‘Get a special Valentine’s day wish (and a little gift) from Audible.’

The link turns out to be a pretty dull flash presentation, some annoying music that doesn’t stop when the flash animation does, and the ‘gift’ turns out to be a 20% discount at audible.com. Thanks, guys. No, really.

What is perhaps reassuring is a survey from Avantgo, which reports that the majority of folk prefer social introductions to finding true love. Actually I think they’re missed the point; although the survey focuses on preference for traditional dating methods –  only 4% ranked online dating as the best way to meet their Valentine — the fact that 14% of correspondents ‘claimed to be dating, married or engaged to someone they met through an online dating service or social networking site’ is an extraordinary statistic.

Think about it. Most folk don’t like to admit they use dating services, let alone online ones. So the fact that so many people have ‘fessed up is a surprising shift in attitudes. Second, assume the figure is much higher, because of the lingering stigma attached. So it could be as high as 20%. Now, of course, these surveys tend to revolve around early adopters (it was a PDA-based survey, whatever that is) so it’s skewed, but it’s still a significant proportion. The survey tells us that online dating has become normal.

It also, sadly, tells us that folk are using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to exchange presents:  ‘While men plan to give their loved ones traditional gifts such as flowers, dinner out and chocolates, they are secretly hoping to receive an electronic gadget or CD/DVD. A third of respondents plan to spend more than $100 on their Valentine this year.’ Jeez! Do we really need another commercially exploited occasion to prod us guiltily into buying presents? Heaven help us all.

If you do insist on buying stuff, here are some Valentine Panties with built in Internet error codes: “Our HTTPanties Valentine’s Gift Box comes with one pair of white “403 Forbidden” panties and one pair of black “200 OK” panties, packaged in our lovely “Hearts and Stars” heart shaped box. Makes a great gift!” OhmyGod.

I am beginning to see what folk like Joi Ito are talking about when they talk about corrupting holidays. Talking of Japan, the whole Valentine’s thing has gotten way out of hand, primarily because of the confectionary industry. Joi wrote a few weeks back: ‘in Japan only men receive chocolates on Valentine’s Day and that women receive their chocolates on “White Day” one month later. (This notion was introduced by the confectionary industry in Japan.) People are encouraged to give chocolates widely and these chocolates are called giri choko (obligatory indebtedness chocolates) in Japanese.’ Now it’s the handphone industry getting in on the act: Nokia are promoting their handphones in Japan by selling them in a Valentine’s box, along with some chocolates (Thanks Gizmodo and Boing Boing):

I’m never going to celebrate Valentine’s Day again. Ever. After I’ve bought the panties and phone chocs.

News: Ask Not For Whom The Cellphone Rings

 Sounds like an episode from Six Feet Under: the family of a deceased motorcyclist are suing a funeral firm after the dead man’s cell phone started ringing – from inside the coffin.
 
A Belgian newspaper, Gazet van Antwerpen, is reporting that the night before the funeral the family gathered at the undertakers for a final private farewell when they heard ringing from within the sealed coffin. Several distressed members of the family had to leave the funeral home whilst staff rushed to remove the cell phone.
 
The family is now suing, according to Cellular News, claiming that the undertakers were negligent in preparing their relative for burial.

Link: Harry Potter e-book pirates

  Harry Potter’s latest oeuvre is circulating on the Internet — as an e-book. Jerry Justianto, who runs a blog on e-publishing, has been tracking it and says it raises interesting commercial and ethical questions.
 
 
“It was available two  days after the official release.  That’s why it does not make sense for publishers not release a legal version.  People just can scan the printed ebook. The moral question is like this:  If I bought the book already can I read the pirated ebook for convenience?”