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BOOKS Left to our own devices

August 21, 2018

As more and more people seem to prefer the virtual reality of what they see on their smart phones and other technical devices to “real life,” it is easy to imagine a time when face to face encounters become irrelevant.

If you are getting all of your entertainment at home, prefer to order meals in from Seamless or Uber Eats, and have given up brick-and-mortar shopping in favor of Amazon Prime, your life can shrink to the size of whatever apartment or house you happen to occupy. You’re totally “connected” to a world you are no longer a part of.

The implications of the disconnected lives our devices have given us are critiqued and satirized in “Touch,” the Courtney Maum novel that was recently reissued in paperback by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Maum’s protagonist, trend forecaster Sloane Jacobsen, goes to work for the Amazon-like company Mammoth, to ramp up the wonders of self-centered Internet consumption, only to realize that touch and other forms of human contact have to become “the next big thing” if there is any hope for our sanity and our survival as a species.

“Visually and audibly, the world of today was designed to distract,” Sloane concludes. “Before you could give a name to your own feelings, there was something telling you what to think and want. Must-have lists in magazines...push notifications. How long until quiet trended? By asking people to cut the cord from their electronics, put handheld pen to paper, consider what it was they actually thought rather than parroting a think piece, they might find a way to their own brains again. And hearts.”

Our heroine faces stiff competition from Mammoth’s CEO, and her French companion of a decade, Roman, who believes real world sex is no longer necessary with so many online alternatives. But we cheer Sloane on in what often appears to be a hopeless battle against the almighty corporate forces of “progress.”

The creator of “Touch,” who lives in Litchfield County, has worked as a trend forecaster, but she shares Sloane’s hope that there is a certain faddishness to our obsession with technology and the Internet.

“I’m in a bit of an existential crisis right now,” Maum says, laughing, of the price she has been paying “for refusing to play that game of every two years buying a new phone (and laptop).”

“Most of my devices are seven years old and they are so out of date,” she adds of spending more time offline as a result. “I feel like I’ve been in a pretty good place with it, but I can have that icky feeling too...What if I’ve left my computer just when Oprah picks (’Touch’) for a new paperback book club? Which of course doesn’t exist yet.”

Maum has seen the effects of “100 percent dependence” on devices in her twentysomething family members and friends who don’t seem to be able to negotiate offline the way she did at the same age.

“I keep thinking, when I was 20 was I actually 30?,” she says of the way she negotiated her early 20s in France before the technological wonders of the 21st century. “I was living alone in Paris. With my (20-year-old) half-siblings now it’s all they can do to make an egg.”

The author was slightly appalled when her 21-year-old sister, who did her senior year in Amsterdam, reported meeting a nice Dutch boy on the Bumble dating app. “You don’t need a dating app as beautiful 21-year-old!,” Maum exclaims.

In the novel, Sloane meets with some resistance when she predicts the creation of businesses designed to make it possible for people to touch each other in a non-sexual, but Maum has witnessed the success of a woman she knows who came up with the idea of “hugging salons.”

“People were mocking her,” Maum says, “but now she has 18 offices with practitioners...It’s incredibly healing to be touched.”

Maum hopes that novelists will continue to make the case that the imaginative experience of reading a book is something that cannot be equaled even by the best, binge-worthy “quality TV” being served up by Netflix and Amazon. But, she agrees that even many professional writers will admit that they find themselves doing less reading and more watching of the latest streaming TV sensation.

She also believes people will return to life in the outside world after they eventually tire of experiencing only those things that can be seen on a phone or tablet.

“If you don’t engage with the world (and other people), what’s the point of having a body?,” Maum asks.

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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