In our ongoing conversation about tracking “negatites” (what you might have but ended up not doing–this is a riff on Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of the role of negation in human existence), I think we Cyborgologists may have hit on something. David’s post implied or begged the concept, I identified it, and Sunny explained how it relates to quantum physics. In a comment on Sunny’s post, David described this “Theory of Negatite Social Action (NSA, haha)” that we’re proposing as something “like the dark matter of social action.” I don’t know a lot about quantum physics, but I DO know a lot about political philosophy. So while I’m going to rely on y’all to fill in and/or correct me on the physics and big-data-tech side of things, I’m going to attempt to use some political theory to push these ideas forward and see where it takes us. Because this is genuinely an attempt (or an experiment, even), I’ve framed my post in the form of questions. Consider my answers provisional attempts at thinking through these questions.

1. Why do we care about negatites/dark social action? Why is it relevant now?

Here, I want to argue why I think explicit attention to negatites/dark social action is something that is likely to happen, if it isn’t already happening. There are two main motivations to monitor, track, and care about what people could but don’t do. 

The first reason is economic. Neoliberal capitalism is primarily geared to extracting further surplus value from what has already been exhausted by traditional means (mainly commodification and expansion of markets). For example, the 8-hour-day is as productive as technology and labor laws allow, so now we demand hourly workers commodify their affective lives (in what is called “affective labor”), and salaried workers are expected to be more or less permanently on call. Or, now that globalization has “flattened” the world, we Westerners look to our own history for new, increasingly “exotic” subcultures to appropriate–retromania has (apparently) replaced orientalism. As critical theorist Jeffrey Nealon explains, “the force of the new globalized economic Empire…doesn’t primarily turn outward in an expansive, colonialist or consumerist assimilation. Now, it turns inward toward intensification of existing ‘biopolitical’ resources.”

Eventually we will have exhaustively catalogued everything one does, and plugged this data through every meaningful algorithm there is. Eventually, in other words, there will be no “new” data to mine. So, once we’ve exhausted this data set, the only place to turn is to tracking and processing data about what one doesn’t do. What opportunities did a shopper pass up? What didn’t people buy, and why? Of the 3 routes Google maps suggested I take, which 2 didn’t I choose? Among my contacts, who don’t I talk to? What apps do I download and then never (or rarely) use? Of all the people who downloaded Magna Carta Holy Grail, how many of them do not own another Jay Z record (or, is it a “Jay-Z record,” since he hasn’t yet released a post-hyphen album)?

So, theoretically, it’s plausible that at some point there will be a compelling profit motive for big data to catalogue and process our negatites. In a way, this information would be meta-metadata, an even more abstract layer of information implied in all the data outlining the conditions of our actions (where we were, with whom, when and for how long, etc.) How will this impact our understanding of what it is to be a “self,” or what it means to “do” something, to have agency? How will it impact our social relations? Our sense of social or ethical obligation to other people? Our use of media? Relations of production & consumption? Once prosumerist business models are fully leveraged, how will people try to extract surplus value from not-doing, opting out, disengagement, and other negatites?

The second reason is epistemological–it has to do with our understanding of what counts as “knowledge” and how knowledge works. Perhaps we want to pay attention to this type of “dark” action because we now have the conceptual and technological tools that allow us to recognize, observe, describe, and catalog it? Conventional epistemologies treat knowledge as known content–knowledge of something. However, content isn’t particularly valuable anymore–you can find any bit of information you want with a simple internet search, and writers, designers, musicians, and other creative types are pretty much expected to give away their “content” for free. As the PRISM scandal revealed, not even spies care about content anymore; they care, instead, about processes, especially relational process. (I argue this more extensively here.) That’s why PRISM monitored metadata–how you communicated to whom, not what you communicated. In this piece I argued that PRISM-style surveillance treats information like overtones or harmonics–it didn’t gaze at images, it tuned in to resonances among various bits of data.

And this concept of resonance and harmonics brings me back to Sunny’s post from last week, which expanded on my initial comment about negatites. Quantum mechanics, as Sunny explained it (and I’m relying on this explanation, because I know nothing about theoretical physics), uses the concept of a wave function to describe something like negatites:

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).

Conventional European epistemologies seek to know the “single ‘real’ observed state” of a thing. Like quantum mechanics, neoliberal epistemologies seek to know the wave function itself. Big data, after all, is designed to help governments, banks, and companies to predict and compare probable outcomes, like consumer behavior or stock performance.

Psi is the symbol for the quantum wave function. Psy is the Korean rapper.

How do we observe or monitor the wave function itself? Not by panoptic gazing, but by a process somewhat akin to hearing. Physicists use probability density algorithms to describe wave functions. When graphed, a probability density algorithm looks like a sine wave. Guess what else is a sine wave? You got it–sound. A sound is composed of a tone and many, many overtones or harmonics, and is irreducible to a single “real” observed state. A sound resonates. So, perhaps there is no longer need to “reduc[e] all possible states to a single ‘real’ observed state” because we can, with the instruments provided by big data, interface directly with the wave function itself? Besides acousticians and physicists, guess who else trades in sine waves and probability density algorithms? Big data. Statisticians stole the terminology of “signal” and “noise” from acoustics, after all.

I know this epistemology point is not as developed as it needs to be (I feel like I have all the dots, but I haven’t yet adequately connected them). Statistics, quantum physics, acoustics–they all share the “wave function,” and this wave function seems to be central to perceiving and manipulating “dark action.” Perhaps the wave function is the conceptual tool that makes “dark action” real for us; it works analogously to developing chemicals that make a photographic image reflect light that most human eyes can see.

2. How does “dark social action” work? How are negatites social?

Thankfully, I don’t think I need to reinvent the wheel here. I mentioned in my comment on David’s original post that I got the concept of “negatite” from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being & Nothingness. It makes sense, then, to turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (her response to/critique of Sartre’s text) to flesh out the social and political functions of negatites.

For Beauvoir, the world–the material, concrete world of stuff which is inseparable from the ‘social’ world of history, ideas, and values–is the cumulative result of human action. Each time I choose to do something I simultaneously choose not to do a number of other things. I’m continuing to write this post, even though I should be heading out the door to the gym, or letting the dog out, or checking my Twitter feed, etc. To exist as a human means positively realizing (positive as in present rather than absent) these negatites as not-accomplished. They are just as real as actions that I did concretely accomplish because they impact other people, the environment, things…what I don’t do shapes the world just as much as what I do do. So, it’s not just the one “real” objective state that affects the world, and thus other people.  All the un-collapsed (to echo Sunny’s terms) negatites tangibly impact and influence “reality.”

The current shape of the world, or my current situation in the world, is the positive realization of negatites. Negatites exist as not-having-been-actualized. To use an example from Sartre, if I choose to stay home and care for my elderly mother instead of enlisting in the military to fight the Nazis, this choice to not join the military has positive (positive as in “present” rather than absent, not as in “good”) effects on my immediate world, on my mother’s life, on the lives of those with whom I might have served, on the environment, on the wear and tear of my mother’s house, etc.

Negatites are social because they affect the world, give it shape and direction. “Each individual project,” Beauvoir argues, “is asserted through the world as a whole.” My positively realized negatites–what I did yesterday, or what I did five years ago–contributed to crafting a very specific material/historical situation today; this situation determines the range of my present possibilities, and the present possibilities of lots of other people–what you could perhaps call imminently-realized or yet-to-be-realized negatites. As Beauvoir puts it, “one can reveal the world only on a basis revealed by other men. No project can be defined except by its interference with other projects. To make being “be” is to communicate with others by means of being.” But for Beauvoir, human being is fundamentally negative–human existence is, in her view, like the uncollapsed wave-function. So, “communicate with” others not just in what we do, but also in what we don’t do. Our positively realized negatites tangibly affect others, just as others’ positively realized negatites tangibly affect us.

I think it’s important for us to mash-up/bastardize both Beauvoir’s existentialism and object-oriented ontology (if these are unfamiliar terms, don’t worry, you can understand my claim without knowing how it fits or doesn’t fit in the history of Western philosophy; if you’re familiar with them, check out the footnote). Both human subjects and non-human objects have negatites. How can an object have negatites, if objects don’t make decisions? Well, objects affect other objects, and in their multiple, contingent relations amongst one another, objects’ effects combine in unpredictable ways to produce unanticipatable results. This isn’t quite the “butterfly effect,” mainly because that, as I understand it, describes the exponentially-unfolding consequences of what did happen. This NSA theory is trying to describe the perhaps imperceptibly vast consequences of what didn’t happen (or, more precisely, positively realized negatites).

And what big data is trying to do, perhaps, is make perceptible these imperceptibly vast consequences of what didn’t happen. They’re just variables for which we can control. The more negatites we can quantify and plug in to our algorithms, the better our predictions will be.  It seems like big data is invested in predicting whether you’ll choose to stay home with your mother or enlist and fight the Nazis.

From Beauvoir’s perspective (which I’m not entirely sure I agree with on this matter, at least not yet–I need to think it through more carefully), the problem with this attempt to control for all negatites and make all outcomes ever-more-reliably predictable is that it voids ethics. As she argued in 1947,

It would be utopian to want to set up on the one hand the chances of success multiplied by the stake one is after, and on the other hand the weight of the immediate sacrifice. One finds himself back at the anguish of free decision. And that is why political choice is an ethical choice: it is a wager as well as a decision; one bets on the chances and risks of the measure under consideration; but whether chances and risks must be assumed or not in the given circumstances must be decided without help, and in so doing one sets up values.

The decision to care for mom or fight the Nazis is an ethical one because in choosing you posit the chosen action, and all it implies, as more valuable than the other one, and all that it implies. Family or nation? The life of one person you love or the lives of many you don’t and will never know? Perhaps we could use some data to predict when mom would die with or without your help, and compare that to what the chances of the allies defeating Hitler are with you or without you in the army…But Beauvoir’s point would be that values and probabilities are not collapsible or reducible. This isn’t a bet, a calculation made based on the odds, it’s a choice made based on the values you have determined to be most important. The fact that you love your mother a lot makes it really mean something that you’d choose to enlist in the resistance over caring for her–Hitler must be one evil dude. The fact that Hitler is such a world-historically evil dude means that your love for your mother must be tremendous if you chose to stay home and care for her rather than enlist in the resistance. Perhaps the underlying point here is that neoliberalism wants us to see all decisions as bets (as matters of risk-management), because human capital (being a winner) is the only real value that matters? And to more efficiently maximize our human capital it needs a better understanding of our negatites, as well as our positively realized actions?

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To sum up my thoughts on this question, “NSA” theory is an attempt to think about the social implications of positively realized negatites. Or, from another perspective, NSA theory would describe social action as a wave function. In traditional Western political theory, it’s very important that people recognize themselves as living in the “real” observed state of things: it’s important that we know if our experiences are real and not merely dreams (as in Descartes), that we’re really eating steak or remembering experiences we really had (as in the Matrix and Blade Runner, respectively), and that we’re not duped by ideology(as in Marx). Perhaps NSA theory would posit all these ‘realities’ as equally real–some just seem more ‘real’ because things like white supremacy interrupt our ability to observe the “reality” of some of the wave’s oscillations/harmonics/permutations/properties/etc. Understanding social action as a wave function might help us imagine alternatives to what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” the ideology that there is no alternative to contemporary capitalism. If there is no one single “real” observed state of society, then capitalism couldn’t be the only possible reality. So, as easily as NSA might be co-opted by big data capital, it might also be a productive resource for critiquing it.

So, whew. That’s a lot. I’m going to stop for now. What I’ve tried to do is open out this idea of “Negatite Social Action” for further discussion. I’ve taken some conceptual tools from philosophy and pushed them about as far as I can take them. Next, at least for me, come some concrete examples; it’s time to turn away from straight-up theory and start theorizing through something that’s actually going on (or not going on, as the case may be!). And though I’m definitely happy to talk theory with y’all, I would really appreciate it if those of you who are more familiar with the physics, the tech, and the sociology of this to chime in with some specifics, either to reinforce or (even better) to complicate what I’ve proposed here. And I do hope you will push back–these are all fresh, undeveloped ideas that need lots of refining.


Robin is much less verbose on Twitter as @doctaj.