Breathless prognostication has emanated for years from both the entertainment industry's slide rule and Armani suit contingents, all about how technology is going to change our media-consuming lives in wondrous and, perhaps, terrifying ways.
For ink-stained wretches who toil in print, or those who still like the feel of a newspaper in their hands, these forecasts have primarily fallen into the terrifying category, which brings to mind the "Twilight Zone" episode in which people are deemed obsolete.
Based on anecdotal observations, however, the tyranny of technology may not overwhelm us as quickly as anticipated; in fact, there is ample evidence in any average neighborhood that things may not be changing quite as fast as we have been led to believe.
Or, put another way, God bless Starbucks.
That's right, the company that made the world safe for $3 coffee drinks and taught America to speak an elaborate language more complex to the uninitiated than Urdu (tall equals small? Grande is medium?) is but one of the venues offering a beacon of hope for those who aren't quite ready for all their existing low-tech diversions to go the way of the buggy whip.
At the root of this paranoia is the less-than-charitable assumption that younger generations have no patience for reading newspapers, and prefer to garner information--assuming, that is, they care a whit about anyone's problems but their own--from television and the Internet. Weaned on video games and MTV, these soda-swilling creatures possess the attention spans of mosquitoes, we have been told, and demand the kind of instant gratification served up only online. No wonder the 24-hour news channels' screens have become busier than the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour, running scrolls of information across, down and sideways.
Admittedly, Starbucks isn't a place where everybody knows your name, but its every-other-corner locations (nearly 4,000 of them in the U.S. alone) represent gathering spots where people young and old can be seen poring over the newspaper every morning, staring at articles in a manner that can only imply they are actually reading them.
Although this might not sound like cause for celebration, that simple act shouldn't be taken for granted. Consider that these Starbucks patrons leave their houses when they could more inexpensively make their own coffee and buy (or bring with them) a newspaper they could just as easily read at home.
Although there is a dearth of hard data to underscore how Starbucks fits into people's hunger for social interaction, the Seattle-based chain clearly welcomes the notion of providing customers with such a haven.
"That's what Starbucks is about, that experience," says Mark Sacks, publications product manager for the company. "It is sort of an oasis in the middle of the day. We want people to come in and sit and enjoy their newspapers."
A spokesman for the Long Beach-based Specialty Coffee Assn. of America says its members (including Starbucks) paint an equally encouraging picture.
"Everybody's reporting that business is good, if not better, than last year at this time, saying the shops are full," says Mike Ferguson, marketing director for the association, which represents various links in the coffee food chain, including 10,000 to 12,000 retailers across the U.S.
Cynics, of course, might say coffeehouses have simply supplanted bars as a socially acceptable spot for singles (and marrieds who behave like singles) to people-watch, socialize and seek companionship. At least one screenwriter friend admits having spent many an hour during his single years conspicuously reading or writing scripts in coffee shops, hoping to catch the attention of actress wannabes.
Still, the coffee ritual is only one of the rebuttals to techno-geeks waxing poetic about how this device or that is going to fundamentally alter our way of life. After that grande latte with light foam, for example, pop into Blockbuster Video around 5 p.m. any Saturday to pick up a new movie release and witness the lines around the store.
Now think about that for a moment, and remember that a majority of homes now have access to pay-per-view, allowing consumers to punch up movies from the comfort of their living rooms without having to jostle with the unwashed masses and wait for the teenager behind the counter to scan their cards. Besides, aren't we all hurtling toward the rapturous day when the pipeline into the home is wide enough to turn our TV into a video jukebox, spewing out movies like a pitching machine?
For years, that has been the image of the future: a place where consumers enjoy fingertip control of entertainment options without needing to sit upright, much less leave the house. In essence, it's the next step beyond a memorable episode of "Friends" in which Chandler and Joey perched themselves in side-by-side BarcaLoungers and tried to see how long they could stay there without moving.