Object 25

The Halls

2027, Liverpool, England

There are few things more quintessentially human than eating together. We celebrate with food, we commiserate with food; we renew old ties and create new ones over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Having good company while eating is something we can all enjoy — even the word 'company' originated from those who 'eat bread' together.

The object I'm sitting in front of represents that tradition perfectly — it's a very simple long wooden table, big enough for about eight or ten people sitting on either side. It doesn't come with any robots. It has no radio tags or resonance chargers or wireless antennas; in fact, it doesn't have any wires at all. It's just a table. Made out of wood.

This table sat in The Castle, a pub built in Liverpool, England, in 1948. The Castle changed hands a dozen times, gradually passing through ever larger corporations until the crash in the 20s, when it was bought and restored by a local family, the O'Reillys, at a fraction of its old price.

Rather than running a normal for-profit pub, however — a risky proposition given that many locals had grown used to staying at home and buying cheaper drinks — the O'Reillys converted The Castle into a subscription-based canteen. Guests were encouraged to pay in advance for bundles of meals, and while there were few choices on their daily menus, the pub more than made up for that in affordability, healthiness, and variety over time.

With predictable cash flow, no rent to pay, and strong ties to the community, they were able to just about make ends meet, although they did have trouble finding enough subscribers for the first few months. Over time, though, The Castle became a regular destination for many locals, who might visit once or twice a week to catch up with neighbours, meet new people, or simply get some healthy food.

In 2027, a popular caster from France featured The Castle in a piece about communal restaurants — which she termed 'halls' after classical monastic refectories and the collegiate system in Oxford and Cambridge — and triggered a mass movement that rippled across the world.

It's hard to pinpoint one particular reason why halls became so popular as a way of eating. One simple attraction was that the meals served at halls, being bought and planned in advance, could be freshly cooked from high-quality ingredients bought in bulk and delivered via UCS-FedEx. Another was that subscribers often helped with preparation and cooking. Many appreciated being able to learn how to cook in practice rather than through augmented reality (AR) or mimic-scripted tutorials, and it was common to see children getting involved as well.

Halls varied in size from dozens of subscribers to thousands, but the most successful tended to attract a few hundred reliable guests who would come a few times a week. This represented another of their strengths — the vibrant mixing of individuals and classes that occurred at mealtimes. While guests could, and frequently did, choose to sit with friends and acquaintances, smart hosts would gently encourage them to occasionally talk to new guests, something that they typically enjoyed and which helped to cement the community together.

Of course, not every hall could do this — some were just too small to allow for proper mixing, or had too homogeneous a group of guests. One popular way of tackling this problem was to offer discounted or free meals to travellers, or by arranging 'exchange' dinners. Another way favoured by more adventurous halls involved consensual AR environments. These environments joined together multiple halls around the world to form a 'virtually infinite' hall where physically sundered guests could mix and talk. This usually worked best when the halls co-ordinated their menus and even furniture, leading to more than a few halls adopting the same style of tables and chairs that The Castle had.

Today, halls are commonplace, part of a continuous tradition that extends back millennia to ancient Greece and Sparta. However, we easily forget how deeply alienated many people were from their neighbours during the 20th and early 21st centuries. It was an uncomfortable, unusual period that began with the movement of millions from the countryside into cities, sundering old communities, and ended with the development of new forms of local and virtual communities.

Halls speak to our strong need for social interaction, and for the ages-old idea that people will always need to eat — and they'll enjoy doing it together.