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Surfing the Coffeehouse

C. John Sommerville on networking in 17th-century coffee houses.

The breathless journalistic reporting about the Internet is all meant to emphasise its utter novelty. Humanity, we are told, is faced with an unprecedented variety of information and information sources. It is the sort of reporting that one expects of a news industry whose profits depend on helping us forget the past, and orientating us to tomorrow's edition.

But if journalists were stronger on history they might be aware of a time in the seventeenth century when the public was faced with something similar. It was called the coffeehouse and it brought together a wide variety of information sources and the customers who could make use of them. Just as we are able to assemble our own news perspective from the sources now available, so they were doing in the Restoration.

Very suddenly, an information system based on scarcity gave way to one of abundance, transforming politics and culture. In exchange for the penny for the first 'dish' of coffee, customers found spread out on the large tables a number of things that could be pieced together to form a picture of the wider world. Like those who can access the Internet today, Restoration Englishmen (and sometimes women) took the initiative in seeking out information.

In the 1650s and 1660s, many people in London and leading provincial towns formed the habit of frequent, even daily, visits to the coffeehouse. For the proprietors of these establishments, taking in papers of all kinds was a way of attracting customers, since by some accounts the English had not quite got the hang of making the coffee.

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