Become part of 'the lovely machinery for living'

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This autumn I took the Canada Line downtown for the first time. Since I usually ride my bicycle to get around, I was unprepared for the experience of public transportation. The speed and efficiency of the trip pleased me, but not the attitude of my fellow passengers. That surprised me. Even worse, it saddened me.

Here's the scene. I arrive at Brighouse Station during early morning rush hour. Hordes of students are milling around downstairs. I take the escalator to the departure platform where there are more students, most of them held captive by their electronic devices. The train to Waterfront pulls in. The crowd stirs. People rush in to get a seat. But don't get me wrong—there's no pushing or shoving. It's just that the students are faster on their feet than the older travellers.

No sooner do the students take possession of all the seats than they tune out of the real world again, surrendering their attention to their high-tech gadgets.

It's like one of those images they used to print in children's activity books, labelled "What is wrong with this picture?" What is 'wrong' here is that 8 out of 10 people are hunched over their smartphones or iPads, unaware of what is going on around them. Unaware of elderly passengers trying to keep their balance; unaware of other travellers with heavy bags; unaware of – well, just about everything that isn't being conveyed to them electronically.

What is 'wrong', in short, is that there seems to be a lack of awareness of that mode of behaviour called common courtesy. The word courtesy has a venerable pedigree. It is linked to the word court, as in the court of a sovereign, where centuries ago standards of etiquette were developed that became the basis of our social behaviour - standards such as politeness, respect and considerateness in dealing with others. It was called "common" courtesy because it used to be a defining characteristic of civilized society, a norm of behaviour.

There's a line in a book by Margery Allingham, written around 1940, that I'd like to quote since it neatly expresses how intrinsic a part of life courtesy used to be. The protagonist of her story, sick with terror because suffering from amnesia, begins to regain his memory upon hearing a familiar voice, and suddenly "all the lovely machinery for living, like manners and introductions and calling-cards and giving up one's seat in the bus, began to whirr comfortingly in the background."

Recently I was on the Canada Line again. This time it was the middle of the morning, and my fellow travellers were mostly adults, with few smartphones or iPads in sight. There couldn't have been a starker contrast between the concern they showed the other passengers and the behaviour of the students in rush hour.

I wonder, will the new-age technology and gadgetry ultimately succeed in vanquishing our ability to relate to one another as human beings? Or will "all the lovely machinery for living", which has been running for so long, continue to run? I hope it will, even if it's going to take some people a while before they, too, hear that comforting whirr.

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This page last updated: December 15, 2011.