So, it looks like we humans may have a few more years to go as the smartest beings on the planet, before being overrun by ubiquitous sentient robots. Some may question my assertion based on recent election results in the UK and the US, but I digress.
A recent experiment featuring some of our best-loved voice-activated assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, clearly shows our digital brethren have some learning to do. A conversation between two of these rapidly enters an infinite loop.
There are around 55,000 coffee shops in the United States. Almost a quarter of this number (11,600) belongs to the Starbucks chain. That’s an awful lot of lattes and frappuccinos. My home town, Boulder, has around 250, which for a small city of 100,000 is a substantial number, and luckily, for the most part, they’re gloriously independent and funky.
Coffee shops, coffeehouses and cafés now encircle the globe like rampant dandelions. But before the increasingly homogenizing effect of chains like Starbucks (in the US) and Costa Coffee (in the UK) coffee shops played a key role in the social fabric of our urban jungles. For hundreds of years coffee shops have been places to read, meet and discuss issues of the day.
Records show the first coffeehouses appeared in Damascus and Egypt in the early-16th century. Patrons gathered there to discuss politics, to listen to their local storytellers and musicians, and, of course, to drink coffee. While coffee shops are often denigrated as symptoms of urban gentrification or as remote office locations for armies of gig economy workers, others call them home — they’re still, after all, places for refuge, conversation and real social interaction. Save me a skinny latte!
From the Guardian:
It’s a bright February morning at the Proud Archivist (now the Proud East), a coffee shop facing the canal just off Kingsland Road in London, and regular Matthew Green is greeting the manager as if they’re old friends. Their cheerful interaction rises above the low din of the subdued crowd, some of whom are chatting, most of whom are typing away on laptops.
The fact that the Proud East is one of about five similar cafes within a five-minute walk in this Dalston neighbourhood brings to mind the fact that, in the past decade or so, the words: “There are a lot of coffee shops opening up around there” has become a precursor for: “There goes the neighbourhood.”
But if Green – who as well as being a regular is also a coffee historian, earned his PhD from Oxford and leads historical coffee tours around London – had his way, coffee houses like the Proud East would help facilitate something entirely different than gentrification: meaningful interaction.
One can almost imagine Green walking into a late 17th-century London coffee house and uttering the salutation that, he says, was de rigueur: “What news have you?” Today, it’s fair to say that’s been replaced by a more modern (and loathed) version: “What’s the WiFi password?”
However, as the coffee shop has become a byword for what everyone hates about urban change and gentrification – first come the creatives and their coffee shops, then the young professionals, then the luxury high-rises and corporate chains that push out original residents – it’s worth asking if that charge is fair. As the function of the coffee house in London has evolved over time, was its early iteration so radically different than the ones many of us type and sip away in today?
To hear Green tell it, there have been three major spikes in speciality coffee culture in the UK over the past 350 years. The first began when a Greek man, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffee house in 1652 against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard near Cornhill in London. That sludge-like coffee, Green says, was in keeping with the Turkish proverb: “Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.”
Over the next 50 years, as the coffee house became a popular alternative to taverns and alehouses, they also became something else: a place for London’s “coffee house politicians” to air their grievances. One could argue that these intelligentsia and knowledge economy workers – Samuel Peyps and Sir Isaac Newton were regulars – were not too dissimilar to the types of freelancers and creative class workers we find in places like The Proud East today. But instead of ranting on Twitter or in the comments section of newspapers, Green says patrons of London’s early coffee houses revelled in the novelty of boisterously voicing their opinions to their (almost exclusively male) companions.
You know something very creepy is going on when robots armed with artificial intelligence (AI) engage in conversations about nuclear war and inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM). This scene could be straight out of a William Gibson novel.
Video: The BINA48 robot, created by Martine Rothblatt and Hanson Robotics, has a conversation with Siri. Courtesy of ars technica.
Italians are famous and infamous for their eloquent and vigorous hand gestures. Psychologist professor Isabella Poggi, of Roma Tre University, has cataloged about 250 hand gestures used by Italians in everyday conversation. The gestures are used to reinforce a simple statement or emotion or convey quite complex meaning. Italy would not be the same without them.
Our favorite hand gesture is fingers and thumb pinched in the form of a spire often used to mean “what on earth are you talking about?“; moving the hand slightly up and down while doing this adds emphasis and demands explanation.
For a visual lexicon of the most popular gestures jump here.
From the New York Times:
In the great open-air theater that is Rome, the characters talk with their hands as much as their mouths. While talking animatedly on their cellphones or smoking cigarettes or even while downshifting their tiny cars through rush-hour traffic, they gesticulate with enviably elegant coordination.
From the classic fingers pinched against the thumb that can mean “Whaddya want from me?” or “I wasn’t born yesterday” to a hand circled slowly, indicating “Whatever” or “That’ll be the day,” there is an eloquence to the Italian hand gesture. In a culture that prizes oratory, nothing deflates airy rhetoric more swiftly.
Some gestures are simple: the side of the hand against the belly means hungry; the index finger twisted into the cheek means something tastes good; and tapping one’s wrist is a universal sign for “hurry up.” But others are far more complex. They add an inflection — of fatalism, resignation, world-weariness — that is as much a part of the Italian experience as breathing.
Two open hands can ask a real question, “What’s happening?” But hands placed in prayer become a sort of supplication, a rhetorical question: “What do you expect me to do about it?” Ask when a Roman bus might arrive, and the universal answer is shrugged shoulders, an “ehh” that sounds like an engine turning over and two raised hands that say, “Only when Providence allows.”
To Italians, gesturing comes naturally. “You mean Americans don’t gesture? They talk like this?” asked Pasquale Guarrancino, a Roman taxi driver, freezing up and placing his arms flat against his sides. He had been sitting in his cab talking with a friend outside, each moving his hands in elaborate choreography. Asked to describe his favorite gesture, he said it was not fit for print.
In Italy, children and adolescents gesture. The elderly gesture. Some Italians joke that gesturing may even begin before birth. “In the ultrasound, I think the baby is saying, ‘Doctor, what do you want from me?’ ” said Laura Offeddu, a Roman and an elaborate gesticulator, as she pinched her fingers together and moved her hand up and down.
On a recent afternoon, two middle-aged men in elegant dark suits were deep in conversation outside the Giolitti ice cream parlor in downtown Rome, gesturing even as they held gelato in cones. One, who gave his name only as Alessandro, noted that younger people used a gesture that his generation did not: quotation marks to signify irony.
Sometimes gesturing can get out of hand. Last year, Italy’s highest court ruled that a man who inadvertently struck an 80-year-old woman while gesticulating in a piazza in the southern region Puglia was liable for civil damages. “The public street isn’t a living room,” the judges ruled, saying, “The habit of accompanying a conversation with gestures, while certainly licit, becomes illicit” in some contexts.
In 2008, Umberto Bossi, the colorful founder of the conservative Northern League, raised his middle finger during the singing of Italy’s national anthem. But prosecutors in Venice determined that the gesture, while obscene and the cause of widespread outrage, was not a crime.
Gestures have long been a part of Italy’s political spectacle. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a noted gesticulator. When he greeted President Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a meeting of the Group of 20 leaders in September 2009, he extended both hands, palms facing toward himself, and then pinched his fingers as he looked Mrs. Obama up and down — a gesture that might be interpreted as “va-va-voom.”
In contrast, Giulio Andreotti — Christian Democrat, seven-time prime minister and by far the most powerful politician of the Italian postwar era — was famous for keeping both hands clasped in front of him. The subtle, patient gesture functioned as a kind of deterrent, indicating the tremendous power he could deploy if he chose to.
Isabella Poggi, a professor of psychology at Roma Tre University and an expert on gestures, has identified around 250 gestures that Italians use in everyday conversation. “There are gestures expressing a threat or a wish or desperation or shame or pride,” she said. The only thing differentiating them from sign language is that they are used individually and lack a full syntax, Ms. Poggi added.
Far more than quaint folklore, gestures have a rich history. One theory holds that Italians developed them as an alternative form of communication during the centuries when they lived under foreign occupation — by Austria, France and Spain in the 14th through 19th centuries — as a way of communicating without their overlords understanding.
Another theory, advanced by Adam Kendon, the editor in chief of the journal Gesture, is that in overpopulated cities like Naples, gesturing became a way of competing, of marking one’s territory in a crowded arena. “To get attention, people gestured and used their whole bodies,” Ms. Poggi said, explaining the theory.
The holidays approach, which for many means spending a more than usual amount of time with extended family and distant relatives. So, why talk face-to-face when you could text Great Uncle Aloysius instead?
Dominique Browning suggests lowering the stress levels of family get-togethers through more texting and less face-time.
From the New York Times:
ADMIT it. The holiday season has just begun, and already we’re overwhelmed by so much … face time. It’s hard, face-to-face emoting, face-to-face empathizing, face-to-face expressing, face-to-face criticizing. Thank goodness for less face time; when it comes to disrupting, if not severing, lifetimes of neurotic relational patterns, technology works even better than psychotherapy.
We look askance at those young adults in a swivet of tech-enabled multifriending, endlessly texting, tracking one another’s movements — always distracted from what they are doing by what they are not doing, always connecting to people they are not with rather than people right in front of them.
But being neither here nor there has real upsides. It’s less strenuous. And it can be more uplifting. Or, at least, safer, which has a lot going for it these days.
Face time — or what used to be known as spending time with friends and family — is exhausting. Maybe that’s why we’re all so quick to abandon it. From grandfathers to tweenies, we’re all taking advantage of the ways in which we can avoid actually talking, much less seeing, one another — but still stay connected.
The last time I had face time with my mother, it started out fine. “What a lovely blouse,” she said, plucking lovingly (as I chose to think) at my velvet sleeve. I smiled, pleased that she was noticing that I had made an effort. “Too bad it doesn’t go with your skirt.” Had we been on Skype, she would never have noticed my (stylishly intentional, I might add, just ask Marni) intriguing mix of textures. And I would have been spared another bout of regressive face time freak-out.
Face time means you can’t search for intriguing recipes while you are listening to a fresh round of news about a friend’s search for a soul mate. You can’t mute yourself out of an endless meeting, or listen to 10 people tangled up in planning while you vacuum the living room. You can’t get “cut off” — Whoops! Sorry! Tunnel! — in the middle of a tedious litany of tax problems your accountant has spotted.
My move away from face time started with my children; they are generally the ones who lead us into the future. It happened gradually. First, they left home. That did it for face time. Then I stopped getting return phone calls to voice mails. That did it for voice time, which I’d used to wean myself from face time. What happened?