Do (Coffee) Artifacts Have Politics? 🤔

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Thanks so much for all the kind responses to the SSOB posts! I always appreciate the time it takes to read my rantings and truly love the follow up conversations. I was really inspired to write more after my dear friend Grant ‘call that a knife’ Gamble responded, “how do we navigate the lack of public knowledge surrounding origin and processing to inform customers what they are purchasing (or looking for) without a face-to-face conversation?

This is a bit tricky as this conversation cribs heavily from the previous two dispatches, which were a transcript of my SSOB spiel. The tl;dr: we make a value proposition in coffee that people pay more for a cup. Ideally, then roasters pay more for green, farmers can make a living wage, and quality increases. We do it through things like spaces, latte art, and tastes notes. Such markers communicate different forms of value by saying this café is analogous to a chic restaurant, or this drink is crafted by an expert, or this coffee is special compared to the generic options. The problem? We are not restaurants, latte art is just one piece of the puzzle, and taste notes are plagued by dishonesty, confusion, and create a pass/fail test. SO! Grant demands, how do we better make the value proposition and help navigate origin (and its importance)?

I am going to break the typical Ask Lee format and go straight to the philosophy rather than the “did ya ever notice that?” So in the early Eighties, Langdon Winner writes “Do Artifacts Have Politics“. It investigates how “technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven” in nearly every aspect of life and work. For Winner, all of these varied objects and things around us embody the social and economic systems which created them. In other words, culture creates things, so things reflect culture. He proposes we ask: what ‘political properties’ do our ‘artifacts’ contain? Thus, I want to try to answer Grant’s question by asking this: how do the ‘things’ in coffee (cafes, menu, drinks, roasters, and so on) help or hinder the knowledge of origin?

We still might lack some clarity here, so I’ll start with one of Winner’s examples. He tells the story of Robert Moses who designed overpasses in New York in the 1970s. By selecting a low height for the bridges to Long Island, cars could pass through with ease but buses would never have clearance. Why? Well, economics meant that only rich (typically white) families could make the trip while those poorer New Yorkers dependent on public transit (often people of colour) would not be able to access Jones Beach. In other words, the concrete and steel generate “systematic social inequality” because it is designed with such consequences “prior to any of its professed uses”. 

It is worth stepping back to consider that the coffee industry has actively worked to erase the impact, awareness, and involvement of origin for the vast majority of its history. Dark roast can do an amazingly effective thing: take any green, erase its unique notes, and instill the universal charred and burnt flavours of the roast process. It benefits those seeking to buy the cheapest coffee because it is not about the coffee at all: it is about the bold, strong burn. If you look at campaigns that focus exclusively on the roaster onward there is an intentional erasure. Take for example, ‘American Roast’, ‘Vienna Roast’, ‘French Roast’ or ‘Italian Roast’. They all reference non-producer countries (yes, yes, I know California has coffee but) because it allows the entire experience of coffee to exist without farm. It means exploitation, colonization and inequality are left on the other side of the metaphoric Long Island bridge. 

Winner talks about factory owners who purposely switched to ineffective metal casing machines in order to break unions or Napoleon’s narrow Parisian thoroughfares intended to thwart uprisings and street revolts as ‘technologies with intended political consequences’. He contrasts these with those objects with ‘unintended consequences’, which lack “conscious conspiracies or malicious intentions”. Winner contends that the clearest example of this would be wheelchair users who cannot not move freely due to the design of “buses, buildings, sidewalks, plumbing fixtures and so forth”. Such systemic exclusion from public life “arose from neglect” and “redesign and rebuilding” is a just remedy. Against active and selectiveacts like union-busting or suppression of protestors, Winner suggest lack of wheelchair accessibility speaks to a larger cultural inequality. It is lessdirected but nonetheless both harmful and prevalent

To turn back to the cup: what would be some unintentional ways that we continue to suppress origin? Time for me to once again rag on the clipboard: menus, our menus are a disaster! The vast majority of shops still hold onto the ‘classic’ offerings handed down from Italian and French coffee history with some mix of espresso, cappuccino, latte, and macchiato. If there is drip it might be labeled ‘coffee’ or ‘filter’ and typically work as an addendum. If pour-overs grace the menu, they might be at another physical station or labeled something like ‘manual’ brewing. Thus far, no glimpses into producer, farm, region, varietal, processing, or story behind the cup. Instead, menus that tilt toward the preparation over source, suggest that most things should have milk by default, and create strange expectations of value through pricing (i.e. an extra espresso shot is only worth $0.50) 

What do I mean here? Well the more you consider the menu, the more disjointed the terrain. There is that first category of hard-to-pronounce drink names that do little to identify their constituent parts. They take up the most room and simply focus on ratio rather than source. Things like flat white or macchiato also mean something else at the shop down the road. There is that second camp in which ‘filter’ must suffer the embarrassment and discounting of simply being ‘coffee’ or the super appetizing ‘drip’. Both designations instill a lack of sophistication and, accordingly, deman a lower price point. Especially beside that third bunch: the monocle artistry of the pour-over. I actually like the pacing of pour-overs because it opens room for conversations of origin. But by literally shuttling them across the cafe space, to a back bar or kid’s table in the corner, it becomes a question of navigation: how do I order this? And by extension, why would I order this? It’s easy to forget the inside-baseball nature of coffee: none of this is user-friendly. It is incoherent and intimidating. 

So in this journey across the menu, where does origin actually appear? The most frequent appearance is clipboards but those carry the baggage of work and to-do lists. They are for doing warehouse inventory, not communicating the value of farmers and producers. Well, what about a verbal explanation from the barista? Potentially good, but if I am struggling to make heads or tails of a menu (“the f is a macchiato?”), while the regular behind me sighs loudly, I am not going to be able to take in much information about natural processing. The point I am digging at here is that our menus, the cog of the café, operate as an unintentional barrier.  As Winner writes, such instances are likely “not the product of a plot” but will still “favor certain social interests” and in this case, its chains that hope to continue the history of expunging or erasing origin.

To return to the original question: how do we navigate the lack of public knowledge surrounding origin and processing to inform customers what they are purchasing (or looking for) without a face-to-face conversation? I think we start by addressing history. I narrowed in on dark roasts here but there are lot of ways the ‘things’ in coffee hamper knowledge of origin. And akin to the bridges Winner discusses, it has been on purpose. So, step one: we recognize historical inequality in coffee and dismantle it. This means not working with importers or roasters who have c-market offerings, even if they are tucked in house blends or cold brews. It means striving for transparency and always nudging origin back into the conversation: give producers space to be seen and heard.

To those ‘unintentional’ effects, we need to adapt. Despite being inadvertent, Winner stresses that we need to think about the social effects of our tools. The default seems to be add more: a pour-over station, a clipboard, a lecture along with your change. However, it might be time to reinvent the industry by stripping down its elements and re-centering them around the story behind the cup rather than ratio of milk preferred by 17th century Parisian café-goers. There is an irony that minimalism now rules the interior design aesthetics of the third wave café but its principles were never applied to what we do and how we do it. Step three would be to re-build and why not crib from those who do a better job? Craft beer has managed to lower the barrier to entry and educate generally without the pretense or intimidation of coffee. Let’s take a peek at their playbook: make it fun, center the spaces around the product, and turn everything into a hop pun. 

As Winner states, it is always a “choice about whether or not to adopt something” and this is “decisive in regard to its consequences”. That is to say: each small element in the café, shop, or roaster is endowed with a political dimension and we should always seek ways to intervene and re-design in the name of equality


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila

One fun PS this week: Quietly has a website!