Preface: Read the book first 😉
The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson is a science/speculative fiction about a man named John Fisk, whom gets caught up in the whirlwind of a new, emerging social order.
The affinities, a group of 22 technologically and scientifically engineered social groups, were created by a man named Dr. Meir Klein, a social psychologist whom discovered the ‘socionome’ through a fictional scientific field call ‘teleodynamics’.
Klein names twenty two affinity groups, and they are all reserved only for those who are preselected to belong to such groups through rigorous psycho-socio-technical testing.
A collection of neurological, psychological, and sociological data are collected from social actors and entered into a computer program that has an advance algorithm that sorts patients into different affinity groups that are based on essential qualities of the individual that the actor has no control over.
John Fisk is chosen for Tau—one of the largest affinities.
Just as a precursor to this review: Wilson has embedded so many layers of academic and creative work into this novel. I am only able to focus on a particular dimension—algorithmically engineered social groups.
Once a person joins an affinity, they get drawn in by some psycho-social force that creates bonds stronger than family and a fierce loyalty akin to wolves.
The book begins, following John who is suffering some sort of ambient existential crisis. This character does not belong to his family, his school, nor to his friendships. He is lacking an essential quality that most humans long for: belongingness.
Once he joins Tau and attends his first meeting, he is immediately hurled into a cult like loving embrace with the other Tau members. A sense of belonging emerges so strong that I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced.
Here is the central problem: How do you engineer social relationships to address one of the most prevalent symptoms of late-modernity—loneliness and anomie.
Wilson’s story explores the power of computer algorithms and social technology to augment and engineer human interaction. Such social engineering has the potential to create a perfect group dynamic powerful enough to accomplish anything. Including bringing about a sense of purpose that dissolves the problem of social anomie.
Though ‘teleodynamics’ and the ‘socionome’ are works of fiction, such algorithms already play such a large role in our lives.
These are the algorithms that organize and structure how we use most social media applications. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tinder utilize complex algorithms that mediate, and sometimes exert control, over our interactions with each other.
This phenomenon is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually disguised, and made invisibile, in complicated electronic devices.
It’s easy to get bedazzled by the spectacle of affinity groups. The beginning of the story leads us to follow lonely John Fisk get carried away by the social bonds created in Tau. He is no longer lonely. He has found a sense of belongingness that his broken family was unable to give him.
However, as the story progresses we get to see snippets of a dystopia burning away at the overall spectacle. Not everyone can get into an Affinity. After testing, many are turned away as their psycho-social profiles do not match any of the 22 affinity groups.
They are rendered outsiders. In a move that is reminiscent of eugenics—these outsiders are put into a seriously disadvantaged position as affinity groups ignore their concerns.
Twenty two utopias are formed and they close the door on anyone who doesn’t belong. Furthermore, the hyper-loyalty begins to make pan-affinity tensions as affinity groups begin to push against each other for supremacy.
We are left with a sense of anomie and a lack of belongingness. The very issue that the Affinity groups, constructed by Klein, were supposed to elevate.
There are many layers of inter-personal and inter-group conflict that emerge out of these tensions. The affinities are battling secret battles against each other, not so different from gangs; the politicians of the state oppose the fiery emergence of affinity based governance; and those who don’t belong are asserting their right to belong.
The affinities change everything from the most micro social interactions to the most macro global politics.
However, once this new form of algorithmically engineered social groups take root in the social and economic infrastructures—they are here to stay. Everything is different. Eventually the technology for testing people for affinity groups becomes affordable and public.
Coders and social scientists begin to experiment on alternative affinities. Or at the very least, innovative ways of using algorithms to structure relationships. And of course, like everything on the Internet—an open source version emerges to deal with all those who don’t belong. Everyone left behind.
This project is led by an organization called New Socionome. A decentralized and open-sourced activist group trying to create access to affinities for everyone.
In the end, the social landscape is changed for good and it is uncertain what the future will look like. This book is a useful tool and a powerful story that engages with the developing tensions surrounding emerging algorithmic relationships that are silently shaping the lives of millions.
Wilson’s work also explores the existential issues of belongingness in a society where family bonds are becoming fractured and falling into a state of anomie. This existential angst that can be elevated with technological assistance. Though he is careful to portray that such assistance is not a perfect, utopic solution.
Science and speculative fiction have an immense power to explore issues between humans and technology. The Affinities does a great job at this. Oftentimes, algorithms are silent mediators of our communication. So silent, that no one seems to notice their prevalence. It’s stories like this that draw attention to a problem that has existed for over a decade.