Tea shops, chat and the world disclosed

Last weekend’s FT piece about ‘ideas conferences’ by James Crabtree in the FT, reminded me of a post I wrote over 7 years ago on Indian tea shops, the internet and blogging. The blog for Ideas Bazaar (version 1) is a spam infested mess which is a shame since it contains about 4 years of solid anthro-ethno-design-tech stuff. One day I might persuade it’s erstwhile technical creator Phil Gyford, of pepys.com fame, to help me salvage the content from in.

Anyhow, I’ve managed to find a copy of the post on the Wayback Machine and for three reasons it seems worth re-posting. First, I think it’s worth reviewing 7 years on. Second, I want to be able to find it again more easily. finally, it’s worth re-sufracing The Economist article – the Internet in a Cup – that originally inspired my post.

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So here it is:

Tea shops, blogs and the World Disclosed (19th February 2004)

Several blogs have commented on a recent Economist piece about coffee shops in London. Not the contemporary chains but the highly differentiated ‘penny universities’ that sprung up during the 17th and 18th centuries. Dan Hill picks up on the role these shops played in the formation of politics and more generlly as information nodes in London, Piers Young on the specific audiences or patrons that they drew, depending on occupation or outlook. Both highlight the sense that these shops tied views of the world to specific locations. They became physical manifestations of the public sphere. Informational nodes. I want to offer a cross cultural comment or two on these pieces about coffee shops with some notes about Indian tea shops.

During my fieldwork in Varanasi, north India (during 1996-7) I spent a good deal of almost everyday in tea shops. They share many, if not all, of the characteristics of the above mentioned coffee houses. My experiences in India provide, I think, a model how these shops operate may have functioned in the London of the past and a good route in to understanding online entities like blogs or social software.

Tea shops, as hubs of communication, discussion and media consumption, are much more than places to stop for tea. They are a place to pick up a piece of newspaper and with it some of the concerns of the day. Tea shops perfom a ‘world disclosing’ role, they are arenas in which ‘cultural scanning’ takes place. (Both these terms are from anthropologist Ulf Hannerz’s masterpiece Cultural Complexity, which contains a wonderful chapter on Viennese tea shops and the kinship of ideas and thinkers – Mahler, Freud etc – that inhabited them).

Indian tea shops, like their London relatives, attract different crowds. One I frequented was a hang out for Muslim weavers; another a staunchly intellectual and highly political hangout for supporters of the BJP. Across the road, Congress(I) supporters discussed poltics and affairs of the neighbourhood or state over the same hot, sweet tea. Elsewhere in town, in the more mercantile districts, the price of gold and the fluctuating demand for TV sets over the wedding or festival season dominated the convsersation.

Piers Young refers to the first edition of Tatler’s use of different coffee shop names as headings for its sections, since specific shops became associated with particular topics of debate and discussion.

All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under…Grecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’s Coffee-house.

Writing about adda in Bengal during its cultural rennaisance Poddar talks about adda, semi-private salons in which “all questions connected with local politics, social reform, education, literature, religion, metaphysics, jurisprudence, political economy, scientific outlook, theories of state and of society…” Be they category specific hangouts or more generalist penny (or rupee) universities the point is clear: tea and coffee shops act as access points to social information. They are, or were, joists in the information architecture of towns and cities. Rather like blogs onlines.

My formal interest at the time of fieldwork was the city as an infornmation space and I avidly followed the daily Hindi newspapers. Tea shops were where the news broke, but also where it ended up, being dissected issue by issue by the regulars at their tea shops. The newspapers in turn, refered to the tea shops as the charcha ka bazaar (the discussion markets), illustrating their pivotal place within the information architecture of the city. occasionally, what bloggers would refer to as a meme would emerge across the city and its conversation markets. This, the newspapers would note, was some that was burning hot. Think of this as like BBC iCan using emerging local issues and debates as journalistic fodder as they grow in scope.

As the Economist article points out, the discursive activity at these coffee shops was collective. Writing about the emrgence of the idea of nation, and imagined communities, in both of which the newspaper was central,Benedict Anderson referred to the individual nature of newspaper reading. But in the tea shops, and these coffee shops this dpoesn’t appear to be the case. Neither newspaper reading, nor the discussion this engenders, is “performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull” (Anderson 1983: 35). The single newspaper is shared, the stories or issues worked on as a group. In short the performance and poetics of discussion in tea shops reinforced the collective construction and deconstruction of opinions.

Tea shops, like their London counterparts of the past, are crucial in creating a public sphere. It is no surprise that the emergence of coffee shops dovetailed with the rise of organised political parties. In the Indian setting, tea shops are a primary location for the public political sphere. If you want to understand Indian politics, there are worse places to go looking. But these tea and coffee shops also link the domestic to the public, the private to the collective. As primary sites for the consumption of print media they provide a crucial means through which local stories, issues and events pass from the public sphere into homes. As sites for the congregation of ‘private people’, tea shops are where more domestic affairs filter into the public sphere. Ideas and news flow into, and out of these shops, carried in both directions by men.

The Economist piece ends with the idea of wifi giving contemporary coffee shops a renewed role as informational nodes in the public sphere. This is a contention first thrown up by the Kynance Community wireless project and one Petit Delice opposite Ben Hammersley’s house, but perhaps denied by the ridiculous pricing structure of wireless in places like Starbuck. The other direction in which this might go is in comparing the form and function, poetics and perfomance of debate and discussion in coffee shops and tea shops of the present, is blogs. In my thesis I suggeted that:

“As places in which perspectives and understandings are traded, tea shops are sites for the production and consumption of views on the world. Tea shops service a huge range of personal, social, political and professional networks, through which somebody like myself, with few contacts, little local knowledge and a desire to know what was moving the city, could become orientated. While tea shops provided me with an important window onto the world of Varanasi, they also do this for their more permanent customers too”.

Looking at the information jungle (from the Hindi, jungli: uncivilised and rough) of the internet, it seems to me that blogs are very much like the tea shops I hung out in. They act to civilise, or domesticate the wild. Taming information, rendering it meaningful through local, regional or national context, from the perspective of a neighbourhood and a community of interests. What are blogs if not ways of orientating youself on the internet. Semi-private salons in which either “all manner of questions concerned with…” or more specific issues are debated and discussed. Places where you can go to paricipate, vicariously or more fully, in discussion about the issues that interest you?

To summarise (incompletely), here are some of connections between blogs and tea shops or coffee shops. They:

– have low barriers to entry (you don’t have to buy tea to take part or post/comment to read/participate
– congeal or emerge around specific outlooks or perspectives on the world
attract fierce loyalty
– have a ‘owner-patron’ and audiences/customers who regard themselves less as customers more as members or even fellows
– are focal points in the public sphere: arenas where the pulic is both created and debated
– act as conduits though which private or domestic knowledge reaches out beyond its place of origination

Crucially, what many of the social software debates seem to lack, with a few exceptions, is any sociological or anthropological perspective. They talk in the abstract about communities and audiences and their dynamics without contextualising this in real world, offline examples. They present what is more often a quantity theory of networks, rather than a quality theory of networks and relationships. They lack any real sense of the nuanced, human, implicit, contingent nature of relationships and knowledge creation which is what a depth understanding of places like tea shops provide. I’d suggest that the London coffee shops of the past, and the Indian tea shops of the present, offer those seeking to describe the present and future of the online andsocial software, a vital set of examples through which to advance their understanding.

Oh, and if you’ve got to the end of this and would like to read more about tea shops, there’s an ethnographically rich and theory lite chapter from my thesis on them available here…