It’s no new news that the internet and social networks have been likened to the Coffee Houses of the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Both originated as ‘open source’ information exchange forums for free spirited thought leaders to congregate demanding free speech and an environment in which to debate, philosophise and even set afoot plans for revolutions. It was in a Parisian coffee house that Camille Desmoulins stood on a table, brandished two pistols and shouted the famous phrase “Aux armes citoyens” just two days before the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
Yet by the early 19th century the bohemian and revolutionary stance of the Coffee Houses was being replaced by private clubs which demanded payment of annual subscriptions. The New York Times in 1874 described the London club scene at the time:
‘There is an extraordinary mania in London just now for starting clubs… It is curious to observe how certain streets are being absorbed in this way. A club is set up in one of the corner-houses, another soon breaks out at the other corner and by and by almost every house is found to be a club…. In short, the mushroom growth of clubs in every direction is one of the most perplexing social mysteries of the day. There are clubs for everybody, for gentlemen and shopkeepers… doctors and men of science… a red hot anti-Popery club… A club has also been got up for the “Ramblers” who are explained to be gentlemen who are either waiting to get into a club or who cannot make up their minds which club to try for”
So should it be of any surprise that following the trend we are seeing gated networks such as www.SmallWorld.com springing up? This exclusive social network appears to be aimed at the aspiring rich and those looking to gain status and describes itself as ‘a private international community of culturally influenced people who are connected by 3 degrees.’
It seems that money and status will always find a way of seeping into any space.
But a new type of forum has just emerged where potential inspirational thought leaders of our time can flock, debate and philosophise. We’re now talking a whole town! Yes, Malmesbury in Wiltshire recently made a bid to become the UK’s first philosophy town – because the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (author of Leviathan) once lived there. But what kind of set up is this to be? A Coffee House style bohemian free for all or organised ‘club’?
Angela Hobbs (a possible distant relative of Thomas Hobbes) explains when interviewed by the BBC how:
‘ “The idea was that the organisers [of the festival] want a professional academic connection to advise on the programme and on speakers and future events, marketing and publicity, and to generally use our network of contacts.”
She said Malmesbury was an idyllic setting for such a festival and had “that connection with a very vibrant, challenging period of our intellectual history, the end of the renaissance, the Civil War going on” through Thomas Hobbes.
“It’s hugely relevant at the moment when we are really wrestling with what kind of political set-up we want, how do we pay for it, what contributions are for what, what contributions are unfair, and what we want the State to do for us and what should we be required to do for the State,” Ms Hobbs said.’
So my question to the good citizens of Malmesbury is: “Are we going to be talking Big Society or genuine social revolution?”