The End of Authenticity

Why do all coffee shops look alike?

Zander Nethercutt
Apr 25, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash

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Since being in Amsterdam, I’ve felt out of place, which must be karmic justice for all the times I’ve laughed at tourists in San Francisco. There’s something mesmerizing about watching waves of them wash over the kitschy, knickknack-driven economy of Fisherman’s Wharf or up winding, brick-laden Lombard street, past homes no one’s ever seen anyone walk out of. When I see those tourists, I feel compelled to get out of the car, shake them, and say, “No, not there. Literally anywhere but there.”

Now I wonder if I’ve taken their place. Am I doing the same in Amsterdam, sitting in a café whose authenticity I doubt less than Fisherman’s Wharf’s, but nonetheless displays the classic signals of an establishment bowed to the wants of the market, like a tree to wind?

As with most cafés, the wood on my table is dark and ridged and reclaimed, and the sugar in the sealable Ball jars on top of it is brown and raw and granular, like a handful of a young Sahara. The heart drawn on my latte begs for an iPhone and an Instagram filter like an urban center mural or a flower-headdressed Coachella-goer.

I see only one person with anything other than a MacBook, but even more telling: Everyone’s headphones are white. Books rest just out of reach on sagging shelving made of the same particleboard my dad and I used to outfit my sixth-grade locker, light and cheap. But the books on it look heavy and dusty, so it’s doing its job and has been for a while.

I find myself hoping that someone’s read those books, or at least intended to, because that would mean they’re here for a reason other than the aesthetic. But they look bone-dry and dusty like the top of the dresser in the spare room of my grandparents’ house, and they’re in a café, not a library. Next to those books are speakers from a different era that might still work but probably don’t. They certainly aren’t responsible for the music echoing softly off the walls — the same music, in fact, that plays not so gently in Apple’s AirPods spot and probably at least a thousand other cafés at this exact moment: “Down,” by Marian Hill.

Above it all, lamps clamped to frames rest askew, their cords scattered helter-skelter along the ceiling among bits of exposed ductwork, functionally functional but practically useless. There’s a skylight above and a garden out back and the light from both is more than enough for the entire place.

As you walk into the shop, there’s a sign to the right that says: “A day without coffee is like… just kidding, we have no idea,” which is clever, because it means they haven’t had a day without coffee in so long that they can’t remember what a day without coffee is like.

The two baristas — one man, one woman — look like this could be true for them (they work in a café, after all), and they’re pleasant, wearing neon watches and black everything else, tattoos on their arms and white Reeboks on their feet.

And the woman is beautiful — her hair white and her eyes blue and her smile welcoming and her English is flawless because of all the practice she gets taking orders from people like me who walk in unsure whether this is a local haunt or a tourist trap or a place for trapped tourists to escape and feel like locals. And it’s places like the last one that have gardens in the back with fountains or benches that people have been photographed on to look authentic, pictures laden with words strung into captions that, once posted, elicit public gasps and private groans while failing to calm the poster’s anxiety that this trip wasn’t living up to their projections of everyone else’s expectations of what the trip would be. Because that’s what matters.

As I sit, I can feel the shop wondering why I sit here judging it, unwilling to admit that a café might just be a café, or that this chair might just be a chair. And as I enter minute 100 or so, sniffing around for inauthenticity, it occurs to me that I’ve been doing this the whole trip, and perhaps my whole life, so intent on finding the hypocrisy or hidden agendas in everyone and everything that I neglect to simply take things as they are.

As a child, I would spurn recommendations from waiters and waitresses because I was convinced what they were recommending was either relatively more lucrative for them or close to going bad so they needed to unload it. Now I’m doing the same: analyzing the lamps and the chairs and the wood and the jars in an effort to make sure I’m not being played. Maybe growing up in a touristy area conditioned me, but then again, not everyone who grows up where I did does this.

As people filter in and out ordering food and coffee I realize that they may be doing it not because they’re trying to look a certain way or fulfill a certain aesthetic but because maybe they’re just hungry or tired, and I realize I have no idea what’s authentic and what’s not and I’m not sure anyone else does either. I know when something feels authentic. This café, after all, “feels authentic,” but in labeling it as such, I’ve begun the process of rendering it decidedly not. Something can be labeled “authentic” and remain so for a time, but only as long as the characteristics that make it so (reclaimed wood) are not then repurposed to sell more stuff or hire more people (exposed ductwork, Ping-Pong tables, etc.).

And of course, the cases of that happening are fewer and farther between with each passing day; the preservation of an authentically-forged trait, after all, would mean fewer flat whites Starbucks could sell, or a lower star rating on Airbnb. (God forbid.)

We appear to have reached a point where authenticity has become so marketable that the delay between a trait existing authentically and being identified and reclaimed by the markets is so small that it may as well not exist. It did not take long, after all, for large corporations to adopt the “exposed ductwork” aesthetic, a characteristic of startups not because it was cool or because it appealed to employees, but rather because the opportunity cost of covering up the ductwork would’ve been a month’s worth of runway.

The idea of authenticity, then — at once a result of availability and affordability, of budget constraints and relative scarcity — is eroded by the mechanism hailed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the mechanism that pits traits and ideas and aesthetics against one another and determines what works and what doesn’t, and sits at the heart of economics: markets.

Authenticity exists now only momentarily, swept up in hashtags and photographs that alert everyone else to what works so they might profit — until it no longer does, at which point there will be something else.

My question, then, is this: Is this shop’s aesthetic a response to the market, or did it originate here? And if it’s the latter, was someone else led serendipitously to this table, where they photographed it and shared it under some hashtag, like #LiveAuthentic, which — like a student council position, or high school diploma — probably used to mean something?

I am left wondering, too, if I am that person, or just another in a long line of them; if this essay is nothing more than a written version of the same aesthetic I observe in this café, a response to the market’s demand for pieces critical of the decided lack of authenticity in coffee shops the world over.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

And I may be. I am the only one in here taking photographs of the interior with a mind for how they’ll look in a post that will echo the other posts about the “post-authenticity era.”

But I’m taking the photos ironically, of course. I am not trying to share my “authentic” experience; rather, I am trying to show just how aware I am that I might not be having one. That way, no one can call me out on social media for not being “woke” or unaware that the café I thought I’d stumbled upon serendipitously was actually trending on Instagram back at the end of 2017 when Kim Kardashian came here and took selfies and then went and got high at a “coffee” shop down the street that is apparently “over” now. (In Amsterdam, “coffee shops” are shops that sell marijuana. Actual coffee shops are cafés. Yes, it’s weird.)

I am optimizing for insulation from criticism in the same way an Airbnb host or an Uber driver would optimize for five-star ratings: Don’t take risks. Play to the median. (And, of course, a five-star rating is, for all intents and purposes, the median.)

For Airbnbers: put out fruit bowls, have coffee available, and put reclaimed wood somewhere. As for Uber drivers, God forbid you try to strike up a conversation without first being spoken to or roll down the windows unsolicited. The nerve. The audacity. But this is reality of living a life dictated by the authenticity antidote: the market.

After sitting for a several hours, I decide to walk out to the garden behind the café to stretch my legs, the last of the caffeine and alcohol from the night prior stuck in traffic on the highways of my system. I duck under the doorway on my way out, careful not to trip on any of the bricks, between which creep grasses and weeds and bugs and dirt.

As I walk out into the partial sunlight, I notice a pile of wood, reclaimed, probably to supplement the sagging shelves up front. And I look around for a bench but don’t see one, just heaps of wood left out in the rain for too long and bushes that have been hacked back to give people a view of what isn’t really a view — or at least not one worth photographing. But I do anyway.

And as I do, I am suddenly conscious of just how bad all of this would look on Instagram, and am left to wonder if this coffee shop is bowed to wants of the market or determining them; if this coffee shop is a tree, bowed to the wind, or the wind, bowing the tree.

Zander Nethercutt

Written by

Medium columnist | mistaking correlation for causation since '94; IYI, probably | 🧓Chicago, IL | ✍️@ | email: zander [at] zandercutt [dot] com

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About this Column

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The internet is designed to give us what we want: validation, connection, thumbs-up, and animated hearts. But what are its hidden costs? In this column, Zander Nethercutt explores how tech platforms, advertising, and optimization influence who we are and how we interact.

The internet is designed to give us what we want: validation, connection, thumbs-up, and animated hearts. But what are its hidden costs? In this column, Zander Nethercutt explores how tech platforms, advertising, and optimization influence who we are and how we interact.

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