The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson
Published April 2015 by Tor Books
There is often a gap between the technologies that shape the world, and the ones that are often written about in science fiction. While authors in previous generations wrote about intergalactic travel and contact with alien species, new inventions like the birth control pill, advanced vaccines, and antibiotics quietly reshaped the relationships that humanity had with both the natural world and with our own bodies.
In The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson takes a look at one of those technologies that is reshaping society in the 21st century – the internet-based technologies we can collectively label “social media” – and looks at both how it is reshaping society now, as well as expending that reshaping into the future. Central to the novel are the eponymous groups, Affinities, that are created after a psychologist attempts to map out and profile personality and form common interest groups around them. Imagine you sign up for twitter, or whatever the next version of twitter is going to be, and the first step in the process is to take a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. You’re classified as, say, INTJ, and your timeline is then filled with nothing but other INTJs in your area. It is at first an idea that seems compelling – social media without having to worry about that racist uncle who posts conspiracy theories about lizard people, or that person that sat behind you in your grade 10 math class decades ago – as well as one that mostly any internet user could find relatable.
What makes the book work so well is that Wilson really does a good job of showing the benefits that groups like this would initially have: a chosen, tight-knit community, the sense of belonging that escapes so many in the modern world, and a way of identifying and understanding who you are. The dangers of this type of organization are just as real, as well – confirmation bias is a real thing, and one that leads many people toward extremism as they start to follow and listen only to people with similar mindsets and ideology, and Wilson makes sure to address those as well, rather than just present the Affinities as a utopian cure-all.
While The Affinities does a good job of exploring how social media will continue to expand and alter society; the one downside to this exploration is that it stays too focused on one Affinity, Tau, with only token development of the others. Given the plural nature of the book’s title, it would have been interesting to see it take a broader look at this revolutionary concept.
Overall, The Affinities provides an interesting look at the way social media is changing how society organizes itself, and manages to describe the possible drawbacks of this reorganization without falling into dystopia.