Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Coffee and the art of being unique

The other day I described friends reunited as a way to show you were different to others, and facebook as a way to show you were the same. The tug-of-war between the normal and the abnormal is coming to a head - a networked singularity that spins off into a bi-polar condition struggling to fit in while standing out.

The struggle to defend Totnes from a Costa outlet raises some useful questions. What is it to be "unique" in a world in which we are used to an economic force towards normalisation? Where should markets step in over local politics? Why is the coffeehouse so important to us, socially?

I must admit that the argument to "let the market decide" has lost favour with me in recent years. Markets aren't equal. Markets don't think long term. Markets don't care about art or aesthetic. Should we let the markets decide what our buildings look like? Or to rephrase, we let the markets decide what our buildings look like, and then we knock them down for being ugly.

There is something about "place" as a concept rather than a medium for getting about. "Place", with a capital P, can inspire people as much as simply allow them to circulate. In often the same way that people spend money to decorate their homes, public and common space is subjected to a smattering of "street art" intended to put some vim in where consumerism took over. Google know the importance of environment to inspire, and Yahoo! seem to be agreeing.

Brand Unvalue

But why should we define "art" as inspiring, and not the inherent fabric of the brands - the context - within a Place? What separates the artistic object from the artistic background, and why is one OK to leave to "the market" but not the other? What is it that makes the "colourful mixture of small and diverse shops" in Brighton's North Laine not just a tourist attraction to drive spending, but also something that makes you feel empowered as you walk through it?

Totnes has always been independent, with the Totnes Pound (part of the Totnes Transition Town project) standing as a symbol for that. The "area of value" inhabited by the Totnes Pound and a culture for independent coffee takes in much more than economic output - it includes a thirst for a sustainable set of skills (e.g. how to run a successful coffee shop), a pride in personal preference, and a form of resilience that comes from being able to marry these two together. In sum, it is about defining the value as you - whoever "you" is - rather than outsourcing value to the lowest bidder.

If early trade forced open global networks, instant communication has made these networks amorphous, like slow-cooked soup. Under instant travel, everything is everywhere and everything is the same - a muddy purple as you wash up at the end of art class. Identity becomes Identical.

The power to be unique is a vital part of existing within that system. Without an identity - a self-brand, as it were (though "brand" is too much of a prescriptive term) - the self gives itself over to this "miscellaneousness" and becomes part of the background entropy. Universal hiss, with little to do except provide a benchmark against which other entities can stand out.

Caffeine Co-construction

Constructing that identity is not in itself an independent action, and this is where coffee interjects itself. Not just coffee - tea, beer, even cheese can stand in, given the right context. But the important thing is that a physical object is involved, which is subjected to the laws of time and, in the case of coffee, thermodynamics.

If we could drink coffee instantly, why would we meet people over it?

The natural nature of the physical object - its leisurely cooling process, the interval required to taste and digest it - makes it perfect for setting a duration on a meeting. The power of coffee is to last as long as the human brain can make social and semantic sense of a conversation. A pint of beer should equally not be measured in any volumetric unit, but in conversational units.

This conversation is key to identity. Identity itself is merely a social construct. The body doesn't care about identity, just about food in and poop out. Identity happens when we realise we are surrounded by other people.

Embracing Costa or Starbucks or Nero's does little to boost the inspiration behind an Identity. This has nothing to do with the extent to which the staff go to know your name, or engage with the community. This has everything to do with you, as a customer, knowing that the Place you are sitting in is unique - in terms of brand, in terms of ambience, in terms of price, in terms of product.

In other words, coffee has nothing to do with coffee.

2 comments:

Ben said...

You feel empowered walking through the North Laine?

Scribe said...

Absolutely - I've exhibited photos there, I've sat and practiced Chinese calligraphy there, and one of my earliest memories of Brighton is going round North Laine the second time and wondering how there was so much stuff I'd missed. I'd claim there is not just a greater sense of community, but also of chaos, to areas like the North Laine, which frees the self up to experience the unexpected, rather than expect the familiar.

In other words, it feels like they run on different rules - experimentation is more important than survival. Enjoyment is more important than profit. That's not to say businesses expect to fail - most great ones don't, but freed of the idea that shops are merely the foot-soldier of the retail chain, independent outlets encapsulate the coming together of decision and effect: the person you're dealing with often has the power to change how the shop behaves - to give you a discount, to recommend something special, or to dig something out of the back. That's a massive effect on the "consumer".

So I feel empowered by the North Laine in the same way that I feel empowered by haggling, or at an unconference, or at a festival. The rules are bendable when you're face to face with the people with the power to make decisions, and that's a paradigm that clone stores miss out on - collaboration in the retail experience.