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. 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 OK?” 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.
I was also on the homeward-bound leg of an afternoon run at the time, and you might think that contributed to my indifference. But I don’t think so. I’ve stopped during a run for all sorts of reasons — someone asking for directions, an Orthodox Jewish mom asking me to turn up the heat on the sabbath. No, it was our respective investment in connections made through our devices — so, really, our attention to the devices themselves — that set the terms of this non-encounter. It wasn’t just my iPod that cut me off from the woman; I also balked at interrupting her intimate engagement with her phone.
I know these same devices connect us to the world in marvelous ways. I know that glancing anonymity has been a feature of city life for as long as there have been cities. But the 24/7 regime of screens and headphones changes how we think and interact in ways that we’re just barely beginning to perceive, let alone understand.
Later that evening, one of my kids asked for help with a homework assignment that required her to write a paragraph about a historical figure. I asked her to tell me what the problem was, but her gaze kept wandering back to the laptop she was using. She would start to explain, but then she’d start fiddling with the mouse, scrolling down, ostensibly trying to show me where the trouble was, but really just clicking around on the screen to get the lab-rat jolt of stimulation that it offers.
I could see that she had landed on a website that was worse than useless, one that had used her search terms to generate a stream of algorithmic nonsense. Merely pretending to be about her subject of interest, it existed only to lure her eyes to the accompanying ads. This was an opportunity to have a talk about evaluating the quality of material found online. But she was so far gone in her screen-zombie state, frustrated and yet still clicking away in the hope of finding some kind of worthwhile link to the woman she was writing about, that at the moment she couldn’t absorb anything any flesh-and-blood person said to her.
The education news is full of schemes to bring tablets and phones into the classroom, to package the Common Core curriculum in a series of apps, to reach young people by going where they hang out in gamified cyberspace. There’s money to be made in gadgetizing the classroom, but the rationale typically deployed in support of it is that teachers must accept that these devices are already an indispensable part of our equipment for living.
Still to be answered is the question of what kind of people this equipment is teaching us to be.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. He wrote this for The New York Times.