We've also used it to balkanize ourselves. The Viennese coffeehouse is a communal exercise in individuality: As an Austrian friend noted recently, his compatriots don't go to cafes to socialize -- everyone goes to watch everyone else. This phenomenon doesn't quite work in America because cafes here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster cafe, a mom cafe, a student cafe.
Of course, there is one minor holdout against this trend:
With the exception of the ubiquitous Starbucks, where slumming and aspiration meet, we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.
That tiny exception of the ubiquitous Starbucks shows that there's nothing to worry about on this score. Only a handful of pretentious geeks hang out in these Balkanizing cafes. That's true, by the way: the indie cafe in my neighborhood only has liberal white people between 27 to 47 who belong to indie rock or hippie culture. At the nearby Starbucks, you see little kids up through grandparents, with the middle 50% being from about 20 to 50. You see Hispanics, Asians, and Middle Easterners regularly, and blacks too, though less so. It does trend liberal, but hardly. I'm as likely to overhear a group of queers talking about staging a kiss-in as I am to sit next to religious conservatives discussing how to honor God through their behavior. The sub-cultures you find in the indie cafe are all there, but most people appear drawn from the mainstream.
The only filter at work at Starbucks is for IQ, but that's true for all cafes, and I think it's much weaker at Starbucks. Indeed, trying to signal how brainy you are is one reason why insecure people hang out at the indie cafe -- "You know, people who only graduated high school go to Starbucks. They're not going to know about Feynman or Truffaut." It's important for smarties to stay in some contact with the left half of the bell curve -- especially ones who have naive views of how to help them out -- so Starbucks wins on that count too. (It would be better still to go to a sports bar, but I can't stand watching most sports.)
As for the most annoying trend among cafes --
Which brings us to the laptop. At any given moment, a typical New York coffeehouse looks like an especially sedate telemarketing center.
This is also less pronounced at the local Starbucks than the local indie cafe. I almost never see anyone in the indie cafe reading a book, and rarer still the newspaper. But using their laptop to check their email, refresh the NYT's homepage again, and follow Connor Oberst's pet hamster on Twitter? You bet. There's a handful of laptop users at the Starbucks, but they're a smaller percentage. Compared to the indie cafe, there are just a lot more people-watchers, socializers, meeting-holders, readers, writers, drawers, and lovers.
There's not much to do at an indie cafe other than sit around and signal. If you actually want to go do something, head over to the Starbucks instead.