It is no secret that COVID19 has hastened the desire for social change bubbling under the surface. Over the past decade, reasonable debate has been thrown out the window. The current climate of toxic discourse about almost all facets of society is coupled with a rampant, unrelenting spread of fake news and “alternative facts”, resulting in an atmosphere of hyper-partisanship not seen since the interwar years (the 20s and 30s). The double whammy of the pandemic, as well as the economic crisis that comes with it, will surely serve to fan the flames. The unregulated social media industry has taken this even further, allowing individuals to live in alternate, sometimes completely fabricated realities. Everyone can remain distant and anonymous, without needing to take responsibility for what they say, no matter how hurtful, harmful or dangerous. How can we return to normalcy, common sense and reasonable debate? The solution is not that complex. One only needs to look at our recent past, to an idea which seems so trivial and yet is completely relevant to our current world. The café.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the café served as more than just a nice place to get a cappucino. These were the places where many people from all walks of life came to read newspapers, hear stories, and debate the issues of the day. Wether you were an aristocrat or a merchant, a civil servant or a street cleaner, in the café you were on the same level. Grievances from all sides were heard and debated. New movements for social justice arose on the back of common sense. Most importantly, human social connections were established. The café patron was forced to look in the eye of the person in front of him, see the pain in his eyes, hear the fiery passion of his ideals, understand his background and his opportunities (or lack thereof), and on many occasions, form a common census to better society as a whole. There was no anonymity, no fakery. What you saw is what you got. That person in front of you was a human being, not just a name on a screen.
How is this relevant today? COVID19 won’t last forever. A vaccine or some other kind of solution will be eventually found, and life will go back to normal. However, this pandemic has given us as a whole a unique opportunity to rethink the way we are doing things. As well as the toxic hpyerpartisanship that was mentioned above, the way we work will change. Technology has improved to a point where one doesn’t need to sit in a single “workspace” in order to get work done. One thing that will never change though, is humanity’s need for social interaction. Social media is not the solution for that. Once the pandemic subsides, the café is poised to make a comeback.
The café can be used as a new form of a modern workplace, where people from all walks of life can sit, work, meet, listen, and discuss. Since work routines will change due to the pandemic, and offices will become less relevant, a new social space for people to genuinely interact is not only possible, but critical. Just like those of the past, future café-goers would be able to hear the new grievances of our current society, on a level playing field. The echo chamber of our current discourse will be broken and the cacophony of angry voices, from late night television to the tabloid press, will fade. People will hear things that will make them feel uncomfortable, that will make them want to argue back, but that is the whole point. When you look at someone eye to eye and see his or her humanity, it is a lot easier to reach a consensus, or at least a level of mutual respect, then yelling profanities at some lonely troll on the internet.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we are poised to bring to life a flurry of new ideas on how to fix the ills plaguing our current society. The café can be at the forefront of not only being one of those ideas, but also enalbling other ideas to flourish through debate, mutual respect and cameraderie. The pandemic has affected all of us, so all of us need to work together to better humantiy. At the same time, it’s always a pleasure to have a nice cappuccino.