The other day I passed a young woman who was texting and crying, bending intently over her phone as strangers brushed past her on the sidewalk. She had a snappy little brown coat, fetching shoes, a neat ponytail — a put-together girl falling apart in public. I was a block beyond her before I realized that it hadn’t even occurred to me to consider stopping to say something sympathetic or encouraging, to show a sign of feeling for a fellow human in pain. My normal first impulse — and, I think, most people’s, even in Boston — would be to make some sort of compassionate gesture, even if it’s just to ask, “Are you okay?” But this time any such instinct was overridden by technology.
It was a typical 21st-century moment in public space, with her phone and my iPod isolating us in hermetic little bubbles of privacy. She was connected to someone elsewhere — perhaps around the corner, perhaps halfway around the world. I was lost in an audiobook reading of James Gleick’s “The Information,” a virtuosic account of the rise of data that spans talking drums and computers, quantum theory and genetics, telecommunications and literature and philosophy. I had reached the chapter on the “difference engine,” inventor Charles Babbage’s Victorian calculating machine, so my head was filled with arrays of intricately meshing gears.