What's brewing at Starbucks? A peek into the subtext behind the text of our lives

ST. PETERSBURG — Walk into Starbucks. Look around. The coffee grinder is grinding, the milk is frothing, and the barista is announcing a pair of half-caf lattes.

Here, in a place that has been replicated 12,000 times the world over, it is easy to believe that nothing is going on. At the tables, people sip, stir, chat. They peck at laptops, at phones, and at those devices in between. It all seems so ordinary, even boring.

But something else is happening here, in a place we can't touch, see, or even understand, in the mystifying netherworld where passing thoughts and deep yearnings get digitized and transmitted through the ether.

So much of life has become invisible. It's someplace between here:

Do you still have that pirate costume?

And there:

Yup.

We went to Starbucks, hotspot of caffeine and connectivity, and stood in the middle of the digital traffic jam. What if you could see what's in the air here?

• • •

See that guy in the corner by the window? That's 54-year-old Phil Nolan, tap tap tapping on his laptop. What he's really doing is reminiscing with a high school buddy about their first lovers.

The buddy writes: She was short, huge ---, lived in Imperial Point. It was nothing serious. We were just dating.

Phil keeps it clean. He's happily married, after all.

Look over there, out on the patio, the thin woman in the tank top. Stacey Donnelly, 40, is telling her husband to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer and get the second bedroom ready for his mother, who is arriving this weekend.

A few tables away, there's Eric Barcus, 24, visiting from Seattle. He's Google-chatting with a woman he met online a week and a half ago:

One thing I've always felt since I was really little is that I'd be shot at in my life time . . . And I'm scared/ I want to find a woman that understands that and can live with the fact that it might happen . . .

Here, people are wooing, scolding, debating and utterly boring other people in a dozen different cities and at least one other country.

But how does it happen? Where, exactly, does one mind meet another?

We went to the experts for an explanation. It has something to do with channels and codes and compression and routers and frequencies, yet knowing about all those things makes it no less mystifying.

"There are some fundamentally complicated things going on, which don't entirely match our expectations about the physical world," said Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

But here goes. Imagine a highway. When you dial a number, your call jumps onto a spot (channel) on the road and heads to the nearest cell tower alongside thousands of other calls. Somehow it manages to stay in its own lane though occasionally it may bump into another call (interference). At the tower, traffic cops (routers) direct your call to its destination, another cell phone. Once you connect, the traffic cops select a room (frequency) for you to talk. Meanwhile, text messages hitch rides on the freeway. E-mails travel a similar path, but sometimes they get broken apart and reassembled along the way.

If we could see all of this happen, places like Starbucks would glow like fireworks.

• • •

One guy inside the coffee shop is reading an e-mail from a friend in Russia and another is talking about her will to her sister in Pennsylvania. An art teacher is sending an e-mail to someone who has hired her to come to Hawaii for a week to teach her child art. A Bosnian woman is asking her son, who is at the University of Miami, to help her choose a new cell phone.

Experts who examine our habits say that in 10 years, the cell phone will be the primary way millions of people access the Internet and each other.

The Wireless Association says Americans text 343 messages each month on average, up from 119 three years ago. They spend 769 minutes (13 hours) on the phone and about 130 hours (5 1/2 days) online. All up, up, up.

How long before it's half and half? Half our lives with a cup of coffee and a friend, a movie, dinner, making love. And half our lives navigating the ether?

Already, we blow off our movie buddy in Tampa but spend more time trolling the status updates of a long lost high school classmate in North Dakota. Some say technology is rewriting the circuitry in our brains, making us competent skimmers, incompetent readers.

And what to think of 14-year-old Emilee Cox of Clermont in Central Florida, who twice last year sent more than 35,000 texts in a month? That's more than 1,100 every day. What did Emilee do with the rest of her time? Did she play soccer or sit through a movie from beginning to end? Did she sleep? If Emilee sits down at a Starbucks, phone in hand, to drink a hot chocolate or a Frappuccino, does she even taste it?

How close are we to becoming her?

• • •

Look at Nick White. The guy wearing the newsboy hat backward. The 21-year-old is trying to compose music on his laptop, but he doesn't focus. Instead he's texting not one woman but two. Cassandra wants to have a beer later. Andrea wants to watch The Office. How to choose?

He doesn't. Pretty soon he packs up his laptop and heads out to meet Cassandra for the beer, followed by Andrea for the TV show. Meanwhile, Stacey Donnelly has moved on from prodding her husband about housekeeping and is examining a text from a friend who wants her to pick up the Ed Hardy perfume at Dillard's, with the free bag that doesn't smell like patchouli.

And here's Eric Barcus again:

I'm positive I'd live thru being shot thou

That's the great thing

. . . when I'm shot ill be all rambo and people woulkd be surprised I lived thru it

At the condiments counter, DeLaran Withers, who plays in a band called Elysian Sex Drive, is talking animatedly while stirring half-and-half into her coffee. She whips her long hair out of her face to reveal a Bluetooth device in her ear. Seems there is a problem in the band.

"I sent her an e-mail saying this is what needed to be addressed," she says to the air. She walks out.

On the patio outside, there's another air talker. He has a water in front of him and he's gesturing wildly. It must be one hell of a conversation.

Excuse me, we ask, are you on the phone?

He shakes his head. His name is Jason Busciglio. He's 30. He has no phone. He gets his Internet at the library. He has never texted.

"I'm schizophrenic," he says, "so schizophrenics talk to themselves."

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

What's brewing at Starbucks? A peek into the subtext behind the text of our lives 03/28/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2009 4:40pm]

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