Given that I write science fiction and fantasy for fun and occasional profit, it stands to reason that I have an interest in quantum mechanics. Given that I almost failed high school physics, it stands to reason that that interest has led to only the most rudimentary understanding of same. Nevertheless, a recent comment by Robin James on one of David Banks’s  recent posts led me to draw some connections to that exact thing.

David is talking about stores like Nordstroms, which, thanks to monitoring systems like Euclid, are likely to become ever more carefully tailored to sell things to the people in them, tracking customer’s movements and preferences like websites, and presenting a worrying picture of physical spaces marked by advanced, surveillance-driven forms of  behavioral control.

Robin’s comment on this post makes the provocative point that the next frontier in this kind of consumer tracking may theoretically lie not in the realm of what customers do but rather in what they don’t do. She refers to Sartre’s “negatites” – that every decision one makes generates an infinite number of things that one did not decide to do – as a conceptual tool with which to approach this idea and why it potentially matters. And this is what got me thinking about quantum mechanics.

For those who aren’t familiar with the ideas behind this, allow me – a person who barely understands them and is therefore hugely qualified – to attempt an explanation.

A fundamental element of the theory behind quantum mechanics is that outcomes at the subatomic level are produced when the wave function of a particular particle collapses, reducing all possible states of that particle to a single “real” observed state. In other words, a bunch of things are potentially true, and then only one is (a thought experiment exploring the more wacky angles of this is of course the (in)famous Schrodinger’s Cat paradox).

An offshoot of this is the wonderfully strange Many-Worlds theory, which holds that, while we perceive a single timeline within a single universe wherein a single set of things has occurred, there in fact exist an infinite number of real alternate universes that correspond to the infinite number of different things that could have happened but didn’t (this actually extends into multiple orders of infinity and at this point I just cannot even; a great explanation can be found here).

Aside from being cool, this is another conceptual tool that can augment an approach to the issues David is outlining. Again, as Robin suggested, technologies that allow for extensive consumer surveillance and the accumulation of massive amounts of data – which of course can then potentially analyzed by incredibly powerful algorithms – make it possible, at least in theory, to record not only what a consumer does but to record and analyze all the decisions a customer might have made but did not. Along with inferences about the reasoning behind these choices-not-made.

This obviously incredibly valuable data for any entity that’s interested in selling you something, but – as David points out – any form of surveillance and behavior tracking that can potentially translate into behavior modification is going to be of interest to people other than corporations peddling to consumers.

Being able to record and analyze what’s not done in addition to what’s done makes it possible to explore and exploit human behavior in ways that approach the level of quantum mechanics. We like to think of ourselves as the products of our decisions, and to the extent that our decisions help to shape the particular universe we perceive, that’s true. But we’re also a collection of negatite-generators, defined as much by what we chose not to do – things which are not simply absence but which are as real in themselves as what we’ve done.

Behavior tracking like the above – even if it exists only in theory as yet – collapses those myriad wave functions. Through observation, it makes all of the multidimensional possibilities that constitute us and our experience of reality something solid that can be grappled with. If it can be grappled with, it can potentially be controlled. Fundamentally this is about the effects of power – and power can work within multiple dimensions.

Of course, this isn’t literal, and again, the quantum element is only a conceptual tool. But it’s still significant that surveillance – and the large-scale analysis of data collected via surveillance – have the potential to subtly alter the way existence is given meaning. What’s troublesome about this idea is not only what it suggests about what effects new forms of spatial organization will have on us, but what it suggests about what and how every part of us could be seen and understood.


Sarah exists in multiple quantum states on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry