Touch by Courtney Maum
Maum joins in the Revenge of the English Majors , with her latest novel. Obviously based on autobiographical experience in the “creative industry” and industrial design of devices and apps, Maum’s story is all too real to be satire. As I have said, these people self-satirize.
“Difficile est saturam non scribere.”
The story follows Sloane, a trend “forecaster” who is famous for once saying that having children is “ecoterrorism”. She is returning to New York City from France for a consulting gig at Mammoth corporation, maker of all things digital. Roman, her partner of ten years, has gone so virtual that he now eschews touch and is writing an article that turns out to be a declaration that sex is over.
As the title suggests, Sloane isn’t so sure about that.
Much of the story takes place in the high-pressure design process at Mammoth corporation. The designers are tasked with creating the next billion dollar consumer device or app, whether it makes sense or not. As Sloane becomes more and more convinced that the future is “personal interaction”, not more “connectivity”, her gig goes south fast, and lasts about a week.
““But what if we pushed this further”? Sloane asked, truly excited now. “What if it wasn’t an app? What else could it be?”
“Sloane watched eleven faces fall. People looked at one another uncomfortably, waiting for someone else to speak.”
“After a disheartening lag, Jared spoke up again. “Well then”, he said, shrugging, “That would just be life.”
“Everyone remained quiet, so Jared shrugged again.
““An no one would buy that.” “(pp. 170-171)
Of course, the rest of her life explodes, too. She has unresolved issues with her mother and sister. She tosses out Roman (good riddance!), falls in love. All in a few days. (Unlike certain people, Maum moves things along!)
I’m sure Maum had a jolly time savaging the barbarians who create more and more “addictive”, anti-human technology. One suspects that she has sat through many awful design meetings and seen many appalling corporate decision making. If this book is a bit of revenge, more power to her.
Parts of this book are sappy and sentimental, not to mention Sloane’s anxiety over the approaching big Four Oh. In this case, these family and personal dramas are actually part of the point: this is what real life is made of.
Sensei Maum makes some accurate observations about the corrosive effects of constant connection. This isn’t exactly new (e.g., see Sensei’s Greenfield and Turkle and Lanier and Kelley and Ebling. And so on.) . But Maum contribute with some extremely sympathetic portraits of the addicted, and a clear prescription for getting happier.
Her prescription: 1. Turn it off, 2. Be here, now, 3. Hugs.
I like her sketches of how industrial design might try to create, e.g., more hugs. And she forecasts a trend toward “disconnection”. This hasn’t come true, but it’s certainly starting to happen.
I can’t disagree, not one bit.
I myself have been beefing about the general gormlessness and anti-humanity of corporate digital design (e.g., this, this, this, this, this, etc.) As a historic note, I’ll point out that I called attention to this issue a long, long time ago, before iPhones or Bitcoin (but we did have high-speed nets and VR goggles).
“In the end, though, commerce is not culture, and digital communications are cold and impersonal. A home page is no substitute for a home or a hometown. If digital commerce does not offer support for a decent way of life, what good is it?” (Cain & McGrath (1995!), p. 39)
To sum up: I really liked this book, and not just because of the social commentary. It’s a nice little romance, well written.
I recommend purchasing the paper edition from a local (human) bookseller. Have a chat with the clerk when you by it. 🙂
- Courtney Maum,, Touch, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017.
- Adam Cain, and Robert E. McGrath, ““Digital Commerce on the World Wide Web”. NCSA access magazine.1995, National Center for Supercomputing Applications: pp. 36-39. archived at: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/46291
Sunday Book Reviews