The first home computers date back to the 1970s, but they didn’t go mainstream until the 1980s. That was years before most people had heard of the internet, let alone connected to it. So home computers sat in studies and bedrooms, isolated from one another.
To the extent that content was shared at all between users, it was on cassette tapes swapped in school playgrounds – and laboriously uploaded via a tape-chewing cassette recorder. Most of the time it wasn’t even worth trying, because the various makes of computer were incompatible. Software that worked on one kind of computer would not work on the others because their operating systems were different.
When it became easier to share data and software – thanks first to the floppy disk and then the dial-up internet connection – the profusion of incompatible formats became untenable. It became obvious that one of them would emerge as the industry standard, unlocking the benefits of inter-operability and therefore acquiring unstoppable momentum. It was, of course, the PC format and Windows operating system that took the prize. Most of the rival systems withered away, rendered obsolete by the network effect.
At first sight, none of this would seem to have anything to do with the interior design of 21st-century coffee shops. But bear with me as I unpack a thought-provoking article on the subject by Kyle Chayka for The Verge.
Chayka’s argument is that posh coffee shops and similar upmarket venues are coming to resemble one another no matter where they are in the world:
“The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.
“It’s not that these generic cafes are part of global chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee, with designs that spring from the same corporate cookie cutter. Rather, they have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic.”
Thanks to social media, shared expectations can be created as to how high status social spaces ought to look. Needless to say, it’s not just coffee shops but also bars, restaurants, airport lounges, co-working facilities, hotels and Airbnb apartments. They share the same “hallmarks… of comfort and quality”:
“…a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet.”
But if social media is how certain cultural signifiers gain global currency, that leaves the question as to why we’d want them to do so. What makes the upper echelons of the knowledge worker class so receptive to a homogenised global aesthetic?
As Chayka puts it, “the homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless”. As with computers, we’re making the physical components of the global economy inter-operable. That of course includes infrastructural components like shipping, freight and aviation, but it also applies to the human environment of the places we eat, sleep and work while on the move. For busy business travellers, there’s no time for ‘getting used’ to these things, so they must be instantly accessible, effortlessly comfortable – and, therefore, immediately recognisable as such. Hence the requirement for a universal set of visual cues.
There’s a contradiction at the heart of globalisation.
Globalists regard themselves as champions of both ‘openness’ and diversity, regarding borders and barriers as the enablers of stultifying uniformity within nations. And they’re absolutely right – up to a point. To completely separate cultures not only stops people from experiencing more than one of them, it also prevents their fruitful interaction.
And yet lowering barriers also unleashes a dynamic that works against diversity. In the home computer market of the 1980s, the development of a convenient means of exchanging information between computers created a demand for seamlessness and therefore same-ness. The diversity of operating systems was drastically reduced as a direct result. If that was the effect of the free movement of data, then why wouldn’t something similar happen with the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour? When those start flowing across borders, a demand is created not just for the removal of the deliberate barriers, but of anything that gets in the way.
What an operating system is to a computer, a culture is to a city or country. In a connected, ‘open’ world there should, in theory, be more opportunities for cultural interaction. However, if the priority is the free flow of things whose value is primarily economic, then different cultures with all their discontinuities of language, law, custom, belief and symbolism tend to present an impediment. Which is why from coffee shops to trade agreements we see the development of global standards in which local culture is disregarded.
While globalists do indeed value both openness and diversity, any clash will be at the expense of the latter.