“No technology is perfect in its first iteration”
Article by William DEMUYTER • Published 15.09.2016 • Updated 15.09.2016
Robert Charles Wilson is a Canadian science fiction author. In his latest novel, The Affinities, he envisions a society in which algorithmic science allows the construction of social networks with a dramatic and unprecedented influence.
The Affinities is the tale of Adam Fisk, a young unemployed loner who, thanks to a scientific test designed by the Interalia corporation, finds the way to get his life back on track. The test Adam takes allows Interalia to assess, through algorithms, his physical and mental dispositions and to assign him an ‘Affinity’, a new kind of social network in which members are alike and which provide the young man with a sense of relational, professional, and financial fulfilment. Yet, as they grow in importance, the Affinities prove to be politically controversial communitarian interest groups, whose rules of existence have been defined by science.
How did you get the idea of “teleodynamics”, a scientific discipline with psychological tests using algorithmic solutions that categorize people and bring them together in Affinities to cooperate and work for their own interests?
Robert Charles Wilson : I borrowed the word “teleodynamics” from the work of cognitive scientist Terrence W. Deacon. Deacon used the word to describe the peculiar thermodynamics of life and what that might mean for an understanding of human consciousness. I pushed the concept way beyond those boundaries and tried to imagine what might happen if we had a genuine scientific understanding of human social cooperation—including the discovery of the distinctive “modes” of cooperation that enable the twenty-two Affinity groups described in the novel.
In your book, you don’t mention social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat, etc, and people mostly communicate directly or with what seems to be smartphones. Why?
Robert Charles Wilson : It just didn’t seem pertinent. I wasn’t interested in extrapolating the future of virtual social networks. In the world of the novel such social networks presumably still exist, but they’re running in the background, so to speak—it’s the new Affinity groups are driving a massive wave of social change.
Are we close to your futuristic presumptions ? Do you think it is possible to create real communities of interests not based on familial or geographical criteria ?
How would a profound scientific understanding of the nature of consciousness and sociality affect us? Robert Charles Wilson : I don’t think we’re remotely close to the kind of understanding of human sociality depicted the novel. But cognitive science is advancing daily. That’s what’s exciting about it. How would a profound scientific understanding of the nature of consciousness and sociality affect us? What new technologies would it generate? Might it give rise to a new politics, new utopian movements? What are the possibilities, and what are the dangers? Those are deeply interesting questions, and they’re an open playground for speculative fiction.
You raise the question of “drifting”[+] NoteWhich means you become more and more distant with your Affinity without knowing it. However, scientific data enable members of an Affinity to notice which person is "drifting" from their group.  from your Affinity. Do you think we are determined in our social interactions, and to what extent ?
Even if free will is in some sense an illusion, we need to ask how the illusion arises and what purpose it serves Robert Charles Wilson : I don’t know. Determinism versus free will is an ancient question, and I don’t presume to be able to answer it. Cognitive science suggests that much of what we think of as “willed” behavior is pre-conscious, that we are not as free as we like to think. But even if free will is in some sense an illusion, we need to ask how the illusion arises and what purpose it serves.
The social interactions you describe tend to a bad kind of communitarianism, to docility and to a violent competition between Affinities. Do you believe in a social system without tribalism, like New Socionome for example, a social system you describe as based on cooperation but with the common good as only goal ?
Robert Charles Wilson : The Affinities are a kind of technology, and one of the points I make in the book is that technologies evolve—no technology is perfect in its first iteration.
But the Affinities aren’t just a new brand of tribalism. For those who qualify, they really do deliver an unprecedentedly effective combination of social inclusion, diversity, and utility. The problem is that not everyone qualifies to join. The Affinity groups are, as one character describes them, walled gardens. Very nice for those on the inside, not so nice for those on the outside. New Socionome emerges as a radical alternative to that, an attempt to exploit the advantages without building the wall.
Your book carries an optimistic point of view, on the contrary of most SF stories. Why did you decide to turn things like that ?
Pessimism is too simplistic, too one-dimensional Robert Charles Wilson : It’s easy to write a dystopia. The challenges facing us in this century are obvious, and at the moment we don’t seem to have the will or the tools—the political, emotional, cognitive, or technological tools—to deal with them. But I can’t bring myself to embrace despair. Pessimism is too simplistic, too one-dimensional. I don’t know what might be around the corner. Climate change, yes; population pressure, yes; conflict over resources, yes; income inequality and the devolution of democracy and all the bloody consequences of that, yes—but maybe also a new politics, a new economics, a new way of creating and relating to technology. A complacent optimism would be absurd at this point, but optimism is also the fuel of radical reform: it can be potent, dangerous, daring. Maybe we need more of it.
- 1. Which means you become more and more distant with your Affinity without knowing it. However, scientific data enable members of an Affinity to notice which person is "drifting" from their group.
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