You were a trend forecaster yourself for many years, and still work as a corporate “namer” for products from makeup to pharmaceuticals to hummus to toilet paper. How do you anticipate trends?
Well, when it comes to naming products, you want a name with longevity. Something that’s either classic enough to stay timeless (“Cadillac”) or abstract enough to stay cool (“Hulu”). Names with too much personality (“Kiss My Face,” “Quikster”) can quickly feel dated. And then there are things you don’t see coming, like the Belgian chocolate maker who had been making pralines under the name “Isis” since 1923.
I don’t really work as a trend forecaster anymore, but it’s sort of like listening to a new piece of music for the first time and using your past experience to anticipate whether the notes will go up or down, whether the refrain will kick in early….you can train yourself to recognize patterns and expectations. Just like with a psychological thriller, if you keep yourself open to signs and cues (the soundtrack shifts, the shots tighten), you can guess what’s around the bend. There are a lot of aha moments in trend forecasting, too. Your intuition just starts to recognize objects, concepts, and colors that have breakout potential. I remember the first time I saw a stylish friend of mine with a Turkish towel maybe 7 years ago. Something about the object, it’s elegant simplicity, I thought—that’s gonna be huge.
In your career, have you ever forecasted something as ubiquitous as Sloane’s “swipe”?
No, definitely not! I’m seriously small potatoes compared to my protagonist. However, this past year, when he started running for President, I thought that Trump would win. There just seemed to be such an incredible force field of anger and fear running through our country, alongside a movement against intelligence and logic. When you backed all that with our culture’s adoration of reality T.V., I thought he’d be unstoppable.
But in general, I rarely worked for the kind of company that wanted specific forecasts, like what the next kale would be, or the follow-up to the platform sneaker. I worked mostly with French companies who forecasted behavioral changes very far out. So it really wasn’t about calling what was going to come down the runway next year. It was more esoteric—what would perfume smell like in 2020? I did make a prediction that people would start using makeup on their ears by then. Let’s see if it happens.
What trends do you foresee in 2017 and onward?
I’m absolutely positive that we’ll see the rise—or rather, the return—of slow communication. I think people will get really into letter writing, calling their friends on the phone, downgrading to dumb phones instead of smart phones, or even toggling back and forth between the two. I think book publishing will flourish—books are the perfect escape because when you’re reading a printed book, you can’t be doing something else. A printed book isn’t sending you a push notification or a text. And I think social interaction is going to take priority over social media for a while. I bet there will be a lot of salons and cultural clubs organized, people will be meeting in person more, gathering for a cause, scheming, dreaming, and I bet cell phones will be barred from a lot of these get togethers. And also in restaurants—I can see cell phone banning becoming a trend, the way that restaurants that don’t take reservations have cachet right now. I mention this in the book but I think penmanship will gain traction—I can imagine handwriting classes becoming a cool gift you offer someone. If that happens, then stationary and pens and all the accouterments of letter writing will trend, too. And I don’t think people are going to dump social media cold turkey, as many people are threatening to, but I do think they’ll be online a lot less. People will stop posting dramatic “I’m taking a social media hiatus” messages. It will just become normal to not be online all the time—you won’t have to declare it. It will take longer for people to get back to you via email, Facebook, or whatever, and it will start—like it used to be—to be quicker to reach people by calling them on the phone. We’ll see more protests and protest art than we have in America for decades—this is already happening. People will be using their bodies more than their keyboards. On a more trivial note, I think neon sunblock is going to trend, don’t ask me why.
Is the theme of premonition – whether it be through trend forecasting, dreams, or uncanny visions – that’s so central to the novel something you’ve always wanted to explore in fiction?
You know, it actually hasn’t been. This book started out being centered around another arcane pursuit: dressage. The main character was a prop stylist. That particular story turned out to be too difficult to write, but I salvaged the character’s job. I ended up turning my “prop stylist” into a “trend forecaster”—these professions aren’t dissimilar. Crate and Barrel was one of the first catalogues to start using succulents everywhere. Cacti tipped, and trended. Some prop stylist was behind that. But futurism wasn’t a career I’d always wanted to write about by any means. It’s all so internal, the process of trend forecasting. It’s so personal and woo-woo, and it’s also very private. Most companies don’t admit to using trend forecasters. It was a real challenge to describe.
As a trend forecaster yourself, do you share Sloane’s prediction about the future of physical contact, intimacy, compassion, and empathy? Are there any recent products, habits, or trends in which you see the return of “in-personism” (or anxiety about “in-personism”) manifested?
Oh, absolutely. I absolutely think “in-personism” is already trending. I really had to gallop my way across the finish line with this book—I started it nearly three years ago, and so many of the things I wrote about are already coming true. Like cuddling parties, and the “empathy bots.” There’s a Japanese product out there that is very similar to those bots: a holographic wife. And I’m positive that by the time the book publishes there will be a lot of people who have gone back to using flip phones that don’t do much beyond calling and texting. Punkt has a super stylish model called the MP 01 and there are all these basic flip phones for the elderly that could possibly trend because they’re ugly in a cool way. Their buttons are huge.
TOUCH provides some foreseeable examples of the way in which technology has allowed us to disassociate from reality. Do you think it’s possible to continue to innovate while diverting ourselves from what looks like a crash course toward apathy?
Definitely, the key is to recognize that in terms of our interpersonal relationships, we’re nearing total apathy instead of compassion. Actually, the Trump election reveals that apathy has won. So we have to course correct. The answer is not to abandon electronics, that would be absurd. But electronics, especially smartphones and apps, can be designed in a way that doesn’t suck out our ability to be unique and compassionate humans. The former Google employee Tristan Harris has done a lot of fascinating writing on this—on how applications can be re-programmed so they’re not such a time suck. Algorithms have to be revisited, too. What does it mean that we’re only seeing crowdsourced posts and news items in our social media feeds? What does it mean when we don’t have to expose ourselves to anything we don’t want to see or hear or touch?
What is it about Roman’s “neo-sensualism” and his provocative post-sexual treatise (and viral op-ed) that you think hits such a nerve with the general public in the novel?
I think his article hit a nerve with people who were looking for permission to opt-out from the slog of relationship maintenance. Because it is a lot of work, cultivating relationships with people, especially romantic ones. Online dating has essentially allowed us to shop for sexual partners, but even online dating is predicated on the idea that you will get off your couch and get dressed to go meet this person at one point, make conversation, try to be charming. For many people nowadays, that level of socializing is just asking too much. Roman’s stance on post-sexuality allows people to basically fall deeper in love with their own selves and bodies, and of course it’s true that you’re not limited to gender or race or body type if you’re going to live your life online. In that way, cyber sexuality can be freeing—you can be whatever you want.
What do you think drew Sloane to Roman? What did he once represent or embody for her?
I always imagined it as an intellectual attraction in the beginning, and the fact that sex wasn’t the motor of the relationship probably felt very liberating at one point. With both of them childless, they were allowed to put their careers first, and I do think that Roman has been very supportive of Sloane’s career, and covetous of it, too. I can imagine it being comforting to Sloane, knowing that Roman understands not just the way she thinks, but the way she rationalizes and processes information. The fact that a certain Middle Eastern spice was used on an omelet in a restaurant for example, that such a seemingly mundane detail would really linger in her mind as proof of some larger, oncoming trend, Roman would get that, whereas someone else might find such a way of thinking (and living) either indulgent, or neurotic.
How do you think the death of Sloane’s father has informed her decisions in life – and played out in her predictions?
In one way, it probably helped her because in cutting herself off emotionally from people, as she did after her beloved father’s death, she’s better able to interpret trends without an emotional bias. What I mean is that she’s more likely to be able to interpret a situation or a sign without her own emotions clouding her analysis. I think she’s cultivated a surgical approach to trend forecasting. Of course, this changes by the end of the story, where her emotions actually start to inform her forecasts.
Who is Anastasia? And why does she become so important to Sloane?
Anastasia is the driverless M-Car Mammoth—Sloane’s employer—supplies her with during her 6-month contract in New York. Anastasia is a modern compromise to the tech vs touch argument that comes up in the book: she is endowed with real human characteristics, and is, in effect, Sloane’s closest friend throughout most of the story, but she’s also engineered, she’s an electronic marvel. In a book that champions a return to “in-personism,” I also wanted to salute the ways in which technology has improved and enlarged our lives, hence, Anastasia.
Parenthood is another central theme in TOUCH. What does parenthood look like in a modern world increasingly at odds with compassion, empathy, and “in-personism”?
It would seem that we’re at odds with all these things, but the fact that we’re at odds with them, suggests to me that they will return. I do in fact think that there might be an increase in the American birthrate, soon. In theory, with the increasing disregard for the state of our environment and civil liberties in our country, you would think that people would be inclined not to reproduce. But I think we might see the opposite. Sex can be comforting, and (spoiler alert!) sex can lead to babies. Babies require compassion and empathy and physical contact to be kept alive. Raising a child can, in fact, force you to either hone or develop the skills to be more humanistic. Or it can break you into the fraction of the person you were before.
Although she’s been hired as an expert at the top of her field, Sloane encounters many instances of misogyny in her workplace. Do you think Sloane’s experience is unique to her? Do you think her prediction of a movement against electronics and a return to compassion and empathy is taken less seriously because she’s a woman?
I absolutely don’t think her experience is unique to her, and in fact I meant for Sloane’s experience at Mammoth to remind people of the prevalence of misogyny in our culture. I was thinking of Hillary Clinton a lot as I wrote this book. I was thinking how it often feels like powerful women are set up to fail, that there is an almost visceral need to see them fail, that people—women included—might not be as receptive to the idea of women succeeding as they pretend to be. Ultimately, I do think that even though he truly does admire her, and even needs her, Dax hires Sloane to inflate his own self worth. Her hire is a trap. And definitely, I think people are quick to discount Sloane’s ideas about a return to compassion and empathy because she’s a woman. She’s a woman who’s just being “emotional.” I don’t think people give female intuition enough credit. You’d never make fun of an animal’s instincts—in fact, the ancient Celts used white stallions as augurs. If the horses acted a certain way, they would call off a battle. But people don’t accord the same respect to female intuition. We’re just treated as “hormonal,” when in fact, the singularity of the female experience does indeed endow us with a higher sense.
The setting is an equally important element in TOUCH, which sees Sloane return from Paris to New York. How do you think both locations inform Sloane’s sensibilities and professional predictions?
Sloane does make several allusions to the fact that the atmosphere at Mammoth isn’t as “sensual” as what she’s used to in Europe, in that more resources are dedicated to production, marketing and sales than to research and creative brainstorming—the generation of ideas. At one point, she finds out that they don’t even run focus groups—they just mine data, which is very alarming to her. I think she’s shocked and made uncomfortable by how sales-focused Mammoth is, how their insights are quantitative rather than qualitative. On the one hand, that’s what makes Mammoth so impressive—they know the numbers, they only produce what sells. On the other hand, they never take risks, and they’re not looking at real humans for data—they’re looking at buying patterns and sales numbers, which aren’t the same thing. I think Sloane was probably quicker to call a trend in “in-personism” living in New York City than she would have been if she’d been working in Europe, which is why the setting is key to her predictions.
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