The Future of Technology Is Freedom from Technology
Maum’s latest novel explores the complexity of modern human interaction
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In Courtney Maum’s novel, Touch, Sloane Jacobsen returns to the United States from Paris, where she’s been hiding from grief about her father’s death for years. But when she accepts a job forecasting trends for the tech firm Mammoth (think: Google), she’s forced to confront her anxiety about closeness and her family, her strange relationship with a French performance artist, and her ideas about the teleology of replacing human interaction with machines. Sloane’s work allows her to peek inside the minds of the people who create and design tech, and she finds that while technology has made their lives easier, it has made even the tech creators at Mammoth long for old-fashioned physical contact — hand-holding, sex, the embrace of a friend. The author, an experienced trend forecaster herself, imbues Touch with this sense of longing for more tangible human interaction.
From the beginning of the novel, Sloane believes herself to be family-averse. “[S]he wasn’t a fan of being scared,” the author writes, “and it had to be petrifying to love someone more than yourself.” Sloane, like so many people, chooses isolation from her sister and mom rather than the uncomfortable reality of seeing them all the time, of having to confront the complication of her feelings about family and her father’s death. Maum uses Sloane’s discomfort as a synecdoche for so many consumers — she values privacy and distance; technology has allowed her to stay just far enough away from those she thinks she loves that she doesn’t have to suffer any messy feelings.
But Sloane is increasingly unhappy, which drives the plot and her personal discoveries. Her longtime beau, Roman, is beginning a personal crusade to change intimacy, having just “deliver[ed] lectures across Europe about the shifting paradigms of touch.” Roman dons a Lycra bodysuit in public that covers his face as a way of showing that the human body and human physicality are obsolete. He doesn’t believe in sexual contact, but instead celebrates an online world where there are no boundaries to fantasy. Just as Sloane begins to sense that the future of technology is freedom from technology, she finds herself in the middle of his one-man quest to shock and educate, to remove himself from the constraints of traditional physical union — and she’s not sure she wants to be there.
Maum excels at depicting the subtleties of human interaction in all its various forms, particularly the different types of tension in the workplace. Whether describing the interactions of Sloane and her boss or Sloane and her boss’ secretary — or the delicate power balance of pitch meetings — Maum uses subtext to delineate subtle distinctions. When Sloane — whose trend forecasting feels almost synesthetic, as Maum describes it — meets a like-minded coworker, his vitality forces her to confront the assumption she has that she and Roman will continue forward as a couple. Maum writes of Sloane’s idea-generating in much the same way as she writes of these relationships: The energy of each thing is at the center of her scenes, yet she manages to do this without making the whole thing ridiculous and woo-woo. One of the best qualities of Touch is how accessible Maum renders esoteric ideas.
“How long until quiet trended?” Sloane wonders, when confronted with Mammoth’s latest inventions and products, tapping into the yearning of both her peers and Maum’s readership. Her premonitions are nearly disastrous for her job in the tech sector. “People [are] going to pay to get close to other people.” It’s hard to talk about Touch without also referencing the ideas it champions — a celebration of intimacy and physical human interaction that are antithetical to the current technological boom.
When everything can be researched, debated, sorted, and organized for us online, when do we actually live? At one point Maum’s characters even lament the predictability of sites like Yelp that allow you to choose your own experiences. Maum — through Sloane — advocates for surprise. “[E]ven a disappointment is still a surprise…,” she writes. “I wonder if we couldn’t invent something that could restore the element of surprise to the way we navigate new environments.” Maum writes with longing for how things used to be, but also hope for the future. “There would be calm, again,” Sloane says, and the moment seems right for her ideas.
Maum’s Touch is the right novel at the right time, but this is not to discount the author’s skill in rendering well-paced scenes attenuated to the human condition. The author takes on technology and the current moment, but only as a backdrop to good writing. The setting facilitates Maum’s work, rather than becoming its center. What emerges from this book about tech is a deep sense that our salvation isn’t going to be found on a tiny, glowing screen. Touch is sure to leave you, like its protagonist, feeling “the reluctant budding of humanity’s best side.”