On smartphones: an excursus on coffee

I harbor a deep and abiding hatred for Keurig coffee brewers – the devices that deliver a single fresh-brewed cup of coffee in about a minute with the push of a button. To the many devotees of the Keurig whom I know, this confession may come as a bit of a personal affront; why, they might demand, should I expend precious energy resenting a machine that can perform such a miracle? As several of them quite sensibly said, when the coffeemakers first came out and I first began ranting about them: “Don’t get one then.”

My irritation, though, was not only with the sighs of neeeeed inspired by the coffeemakers in people who, weeks or months earlier, had been quite content not to own a thing they hadn’t imagined existed. Nor was it only with the inferior (but outrageously expensive) coffee produced, the bizarre noises that seem to be necessary for the Jetsons-like effect of the process, or the ecological disaster that is the unrecyclable K-cup. Rather, I have come to realize what my initially almost-unexplainable discomfort with the Keurig’s popularity really reveals: the Keurig, like any tool or technology, is the physical instantiation of a whole mess of assumptions. In this case, they’re assumptions about machines, about humans, and even about coffee which, to my mind, make the Keurig the culmination of the entire phenomenon called “late modernity”. Here are a few of them:

A machine should be designed to look nice and perform efficiently, not to perform well or to be easily understood and repaired. Watching a Keurig make coffee for the first time has an awe-inspiring effect precisely because we do not know how it works – and we do not want to know. In late modernity, we prefer and expect that our machines will work magic for us using mechanisms that are completely hidden, and would be inscrutable to us if they were not. In place of concern for whether a thing is well-made or even useful we have taken up an obsession with surfaces and “design” as exemplified by the impeccable tastemaking of Apple, Inc.

Individuals can and should expect to be able to choose between many options at any given time. The Keurig user never again has to share a pot of coffee with that one colleague who makes it way too strong. In fact, the brewer can be used to make any number of hot drinks: mediocre coffee, mediocre tea, mediocre cider, and mediocre hot chocolate can all be yours. Nor must anyone ever feel silly again, trying to make one cup of coffee in a large drip coffeemaker when she is the only one at the breakfast table. A large, shareable pot of coffee is really rather undesirable when everyone has her own preferences, schedule, and needs. I have been to a catered dinner where a line snaked around the room as an attendant made one cup of coffee at a time in an effort to offer more drink choices (at the expense of time for convivial conversation over dessert).

The laws of physics should be manipulated to minimize wait time. To make a good cup of coffee requires a certain (rather small) number of minutes which we refuse to acknowledge we “have”. We prefer to make a terrible cup of coffee by blasting hot water through a plastic capsule of powder. The value of technology is in speeding things up, not in making them “better”. Things can always be faster.

Throwing things away is preferable to cleaning them. From start to finish, the Keurig hides those pesky coffee grounds from us, containing them so there is no measuring, no spilling, and no ugly waste (that we can see). Compared with the value of being protected from our own waste and saving the time required to clean anything, the cosmic demerits of throwing out an impenetrable plastic capsule are immaterial. In fact, we have come to expect this of ourselves: “In the ‘nowist’ life of the denizens of the consumerist era, the motive to hurry is partly the urge to acquire and collect. But the most pressing need that makes haste truly imperative is nevertheless the necessity to discard and replace.” New moments, new desires, new opportunities require that we abandon anything old, bulky, or high-maintenance.

It does not matter where things come from. The powders in K-Cups bear only a glancing relationship to coffee beans, milk (for lattes), tea leaves, apples, or chocolate, but this is no matter. The authenticity of the ingredients or depth of flavor derived from “real” foods has little value compared with the ease of acquiring a similar, pale and limpid cup made from dried, processed, and imitation foods.

Coffee is a caffeine-delivery system. We don’t care much for the quality of our drink because the drink is only a means to an end. It is a surreptitiously-snatched “treat” to get us through an interminable day, or a substance we treat (with respect to caffeine) in a manner similar to abusers of wine, in Robert Capon’s estimation: “Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one’s system… With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation.” The addictive qualities of coffee, likewise, have come to overshadow the conviviality of the coffeehouse or the savored subtleties of flavor afforded by various growing regions and roasting methods, which historically made it so valuable. Demand for caffeine in coffee form has, in turn, driven prices down so that a labor-intensive luxury food has become a commonplace whose existence depends on the exploitation and degradation of workers who have, in all likelihood, never seen a Keurig.

By insisting that a machine for brewing coffee can have moral significance, I do not mean to condemn all instances of its use. It must be said that I harbor no animosity or ill-judgment towards Keurig users, and I readily acknowledge that certain situations or certain life patterns may make the Keurig a good choice of hot-drink-production apparatus. Moreover, like most people, I am quite willing to abandon all matters of principle in situations I consider dire, and will happily accept a cup of Keurig coffee on mornings when no other is available. I only wish to raise the point that it is worth asking questions before rushing to adopt an expensive space-age apparatus: What do we lose by being too busy for fresh-ground coffee from a drip machine or French press? Is the convenience of a K-Cup really worth the money ($40 a pound)? What exactly makes the Keurig so desirable, and what does that say about our way of life? And what is coffee really for? Though we have learned to regard everyday choices and the pursuit of real, full enjoyment as trivial, it might yet be important to return to Capon’s meditation on sin and human vocation:

“Wine is not – let me repeat – in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us…Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of His decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God… Poor earth, poor stars, poor flesh. Without a Giver, they never become themselves.”

By forever turning the ends of God’s good creation into means, by asking that machines hide work that can be enjoyably done by human hands, by prizing the choices of individuals over the complex rewards of sharing, does it not seem that we late moderns commit the sin of continually rejecting a priceless gift?

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