September 07, 2015

Summer Sci-Fi and Social Media Segregation

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

 Summertime is time for a little fun reading, and I have always been a sucker for science fiction. I recently read four sci-fi books, Robopocalypse, The Martian, On Such a Full Sea, and The Affinities. The Martian as a kind of updated Robinson Crusoe story and Sea is set in dystopian U.S. (”New China”) feeling the aftereffects of climate change, where the rich live in “Charters” and the poor live in work-cities. Robopocalypse is, well, self-explanatory.

Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities tells the tale of a corporation called InterAlia that sorts people into 22 “affinity groups.” These groupings reminded me of recent research on social media: how Facebook, Twitter, etc. can paradoxically limit the range of information and opinion we consume. This social media self-segregation, according to a recent Atlantic article, partially explains why some white folks don’t fully understand important events, like the Ferguson, Missouri story.

Without mentioning social media, I kept thinking of our Facebook-style segregation while reading The Affinities. The science behind the social sorting, “teleodynamics” is explained to the protagonist this way:

Our evaluations look beyond race, gender, sexual preference, age, or national origin. Affinity groups aren’t about excluding differences. They’re about compatibilities that run deeper than superficial similarity. Among people of the same Affinity as yourself, you are statistically more likely to trust others, to be trusted, to make friends, to find partners, in general to have successful social engagements. Within your Affinity you will be misunderstood less often and you’ll have an intuitive rapport....

At first, the idea sounds pretty good to our protagonist. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who think like you? (We call “ideological homophily.”) It sounds kinda nice! And yet, as the realities of an affinity-segregated society deepen, unintended social consequences emerge. The book is a meditation on diversity and social media without more than a cursory mention of either. (Not to give too much away, but the story develops further into a comparison of the traditional organizational structure of the Affinities versus a loosely networked system called “New Socionome.)

I could see this book, paired with this article on homophily and Twitter in a Sociology and Media class.

Science fiction (or as some call it, “speculative fiction”) is always commentary on how things could be, and a reflection on how things are. “Science fiction is not prescriptive,” quipped one author, “it is descriptive.”

Of course, there are lots of examples of how sci-fi links with sociology. The author quoted above perhaps looms largest in that intersection: Ursula K. Le Guin. The daughter of two anthropologists, Le Guin’s books are rife with themes relevant to the social sciences.

Le Guin’s classic 1969 book, The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, was written at a time of not just civil rights but the rise of the women’s liberation movement. It is about a planet of aliens called Gethenians, wherein people are both male and female. Such an arrangement creates a society wherein people express the biological and social characteristics of both genders, and interact without gender-based discrimination. In describing their culture, an Earthling (called a ”Terran”) states:

The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ....there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/ protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethnian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards “him” a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. It is an appalling experience for a Terran.

This book could be paired with West and Zimmerman’s article “Doing Gender,” wherein the sociologists demonstrate how we are judged based upon our abilities to successfully perform gendered expectations.

Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) includes at least two key themes for sociological reflection. The story is of the clash between two worlds—one based upon collaboration and collective interest, and the other based on competition and self-interest. Through the protagonist, a scientist from the former world on an exchange program to the more capitalistic world, we see comparisons on how these cultures approach different problems.

The second theme explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: how language shapes reality. On the more socialist world of Anarres, for example, the possessive case is discouraged: Instead of saying “you can use my handkerchief,” children are encouraged to say, “You can share the handkerchief I use.” Any expression of ownership is called “egoizing.”

And Wilson’s teleodynamics in The Affinities isn’t the only sci-fi pseudo-sociology either. The most famous one is in Isaac Asimov’s sprawling Foundation series, wherein a mix of sociology and history called “psychohistory” establishes a new society to usher in an era of intergalactic peace.

Clearly, science fiction writers dabble in the social sciences. LeGuin, Asimov, Wilson and so many others deal with issues of socialization, gender, race, urbanization, progress, identity, civilization, climate change, social status, boundary maintenance, human nature, the minute ethnomethodology of everyday life. They aren’t speculating about the future, but describing the present. Why not teach a course on sociology and science fiction?

This is not to say that science fiction writers are entirely fond of sociologists, though. Asimov’s The Caves of Steel opens with the death of a sociologist!


I have read quite a few Dystopian books. What is evident is how people are grouped together. The problem with this type of setting is people are limited to a certain crowd.

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