Who Knows Where the Time Goes?


Fiarport Convention, 1969I was thinking of the lines from that Fairport Convention song this week as we walked through Toronto on our three-day mini-holiday.

I can still hear Sandy Denny’s wonderful, haunting voice singing the chorus of that dreamy, sad song, as vibrantly as the day I first played the album, back in the late 1960s:

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

That song has stuck with me all these years, an anthem of the era, but strangely prescient. Who would have thought it would resonate in an entirely different way, 45 years later?

Denny died in 1978, a great talent whose life was marred by tragedy and addiction. Fairport Convention, an eclectic, always-changing and highly innovative group, seems to still be together with some of the original members. Denny herself was with them for only about two years in a time of great musical creativity and exploration for so many people, 1968-69.

What made me think of these lines was walking through Queen Street West last week, past the hip and the cool fashion stores; stopping at Steve’s Music store to browse – and being at least twice as old as everyone else on the street or in the shops, often old enough to be everyone’s grandfather.

It’s a young part of town, but in the 80s, it was a part we frequented a lot. Everyone seemed to be our age, back then.

I don’t remember growing this old. (When did they?*)

Most of the stores and restaurants we once visited weekly, if not daily, are gone. Those places where we shared a glass of wine, had a meal, laughed, talked with owners and staff, discussed politics, literature, science, culture, music with each other, co-workers and friends…. gone.**

I was a regular at Steve’s for a few years in the 80s – bought several keyboards, amps, guitars, pedals and more there. Now it’s all strangers, and no interest in the old guy looking at the stock. I don’t have enough tattoos or facial jewellery, I suppose, to make me a potential client any more. Just another old guy looking at instruments he can’t afford. Or play very well.

It’s not just the change in stores, or the change in staff. People change, too, in unpredictable ways. Navigating the new hip stores is like trying to figure out the rules of shopping in Kensington Market or Chinatown. It’s alien, unfamiliar. New, exciting, perhaps, but sometimes disconcerting and in a different language. And much, much younger.

Living in a small town, you don’t always realize the trends, the styles, the behaviour that mark and shape us. But a few days in a big city brings up you up to speed quickly. As I age, it gets more and more like a foreign country. Not hostile or alien, just increasingly different. And younger. Not much on the clothing racks for me and Susan. Not much at all.

First of all, everyone has a mobile device. Everyone. And they walk down the street talking on it, oblivious to the world. At first, it’s like a prequel to The Walking Dead: before people become zombies they become village idiots, mumbling to themselves, focused on their hands, not the street or crowds around them. Then you notice the Bluetooth headset…

Standing at an urban intersection in Toronto, waiting for the light, you catch snippets, one side of a conversation coming from all angles, several voices at once. Intimate, personal, business-related, casual – it seems the norms of privacy have dissolved into the technology. No one in this brave new world must worry about data snooping or confidentiality, at least from the one side of the conversations I heard. Certainly no one cares whether or not it’s polite.

But this inner communication, this connectedness with a distant person is shorn of the usual social and communal interactions that we need for a sane, safe and vital society. People focused on their mobile device walk into others, walk into vehicles, ignore traffic signals or the sometimes subtle signals of crowds. Remember the Matrix, everyone encased in immobile cocoons? They’re walking around the streets, glassy-eyed,muttering.

Very bizarre. It explains a lot, too: why civil debate has eroded among other things. How can you have a civil, social, human discussion of issues and events from behind a computer screen? Or on a mobile device, typing as you walk through the downtown?

You can’t. Technology has great potential to connect us, but equally to isolate us.

Part of the magic of the Sixties when Denny was singing that song was the creation of subculture communities, of the warm, human interactions along both common lines and common goals. The Sixties was about connections between people. The current era is about the disconnections, about the distances.

Technology in many senses is robbing us of the opportunity to create communities. Yes, you might argue that online communities have replaced the wetware ones, but my experience over the past few years tells me they’re not real communities any more than Facebook “friends” are real friends. They’re merely simulacra, or worse, deceptions.

So much of social media is filled with angry, frustrated, anally retentive people pounding away on keyboards in their basement over some imagined slight. Spider monkeys socialize better in their social networks.

It’s too easy to be angry, full of invective and insult, to be self-righteous, to be suspicious, and paranoid online. It’s tough to be friendly, calm, balanced, objective and fair. Even the media succumb to the passion to spout and strike out, rather than weigh, analyze and monitor objectively.

It’s like Peter Pan: trapped in an artificial world where you never grow up, never mature.

Society depends on maturity, however. It needs effective, balanced social interaction to survive and flourish. Interaction over mobile or static device is not the same as interaction with people. In fact, it’s hardly interaction at all; more like a series of monologues. Increasingly strident and blustering monologues.

You can see it when people are so absorbed in their iPhone or iPad that they walk into cars, buildings and each other. Their online interactions pale against the interaction with the grill of an automobile. Online interaction is distant, inhuman, displaced and very unsocial. Or antisocial. But easy – it requires no thought, no weighing of consequences, no consideration of others.

Similarly, our civic interactions have foundered on the shoals of technology: civil debate, the hallmark of a civilized society, has been shattered by bloggers and posters who comment from digitally afar. Angry, defensive, righteous and self-centred.

If not anonymous, they are yet estranged from the social, personal and civic consequences that personal, face-to-face, human communications are subject to. They don’t pretend to social niceties like manners. Let alone to facts. They only post to hurt, to attack, to disparage, to rage against the firmament and the fates.

Many don’t contribute to a solution, to the greater good, to the community’s betterment, just to their own self-image.

Attack is not constructive community interaction: it’s individual merely destructive. And that – sadly – defines much of the online community today. It’s like swimming with piranhas. Death by a million small, nasty bites by fish who never learned table manners.

It takes courage to talk with people, face to face. Everyone who runs for council, successful or not, knows the stomach-rumbling moment of having to speak to a crowd, to answer questions off-the-cuff, to stand in front of an audience, to defend your beliefs to strangers. Those who do so need the strength of their beliefs to get up and speak to the crowd. Those who don’t have the courage hide in their basements and fire off innuendo and unfounded allegation against those who do.

Such is the impact of technology: to distance us from both community and the civility that binds us into that community.

Even talking on the phone takes courage more courage than posting online. We’re several generations past the days when phones were new technology, and we’re accustomed to talking to one another as individuals – we’ve assumed the technology into our social interactions in a way that we still have not for online services. Talking on the phone is a conversation, a social interchange: posting a comment online is not.

Take elevators. We cram into them, stuff ourselves silently into the crowd and suffer for the journey. Susan, more socially mature than I, welcomes newcomers and converses with them. In our recent stay, a family of Brits engaged everyone in a conversation during the descent to the hotel lobby. That’s a special maturity, an awareness of the importance of social interaction and communication.

Online, do we have that maturity? To communicate without accusation, without rancour? To discuss with strangers without needing to impose our views, our ideas on them?

Not yet. I’m sure it will be, one day, when we have matured into the technology as we did the telephone. But not today. Today we’re in the alienated-bitter-angry-uncivil-impolite stage. A few years from now, I hope, we’ll have matured back to the civil-interaction level of communication we had in the early 1900s. Some of us, at least.

The oldsters among us – me included – wonder where the time goes, and with it where the civility, the manners, the social interactions went. Like Sandy Denny’s song, we wonder where all the good things went, leaving us, as she sings, with the dregs of winter.

I suppose my views on civil, mature debate are anachronistic among today’s petulant social media posters. Indeed, my whole conception of civility seems old-fashioned, out of place today. I was raised in a bygone era where to be a gentleman was a badge of honour, something to achieve, not disparage.

Like holding the door open for others, giving up my seat on public transit, saying please and thank you, letting another driver back out of a parking space on Main Street rather than pushing ahead for my own interests. Saying hello in a crowded elevator, saying thank you to the cashier and waitress. Offering to help carry another person’s burden.

These sorts of civility, the old politeness and manners I was raised with, the once commonplace courtesies, are old fashioned throwbacks to my grandfather’s or my father’s day.

Politeness, manners and civil debate are, it seems, dead, at least online. And if not quite dead, there are those determined to kill them. Long live the angry innuendo, the wild and virulent allegation, the defamation and the puerile nastiness. Hello, brave new world.

Who indeed knows where the time goes?


* Reference from Fiddler on the Roof. Possibly the best musical ever, although West Side Story might make an argument for that title.
** What happened to Bakka Books? I had so many good conversations with John and his staff about literature, writing, the future, scifi and fantasy… probably more culture than the zone could sustain… self-indulgent fashion does not like the creepiness of art and culture to intrude on its domain.

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