Thinking about Nothing: Stuff and Nega-stuff

I once read an article about the phantom traffic jams that seem to crop up at random. So there’s no accident or road closure, just a wicked knot that mysteriously slows you to a crawl, and then just as mysteriously lets you go. It turns out that, once traffic reaches a critical volume, it only takes one person stomping on the brakes to form that knot, and then it might take an hour or more to clear.

If you’re stuck in a jam like this, what can you do about it? The author had a ready answer: feed it space. I understood what he meant. Don’t crowd the car in front of you. But I also like how he put it. Feed nothing into the traffic jam.

Turning nothing into something, or turning inaction into an action, can be an extraordinarily effective brain tool.

In the semiconductor physics that govern things like transistors, scientists find it useful to talk about electrons, which are bona fide things, and “holes”, which are the places where electrons aren’t. Holes are notional particles of non-particle-ness, a convenient shorthand that comes about when we refer to the absence of something as something.

You can see this phenomenon many places. A vacuum is another example. The vacuum isn’t sucking things into it. The vacuum is the absence of pushing. But we find it convenient to talk about a vacuum as a thing that sucks. It’s not a logical flaw so much as a reframing that simplifies our reasoning.

My favorite example of positive negation comes in the energy industry. Imagine you’re running a power grid in Hotsylvania. It’s a scorching day in July and everyone has their air conditioners on. As more demand comes online, you have to switch on more power plants. What else can you do? As it happens, there is an alternative. Let’s further suppose that you’ve set up a demand management program in which customers agree to decrease their demand at your request. Here is the key insight: from your point of view as the system operator, a “negative power plant” that reduces demand is just as useful as a positive power plant that increases supply. They both do the same thing to the energy balance equation. And once you make this conceptual breakthrough, it’s easy to see that not building a new power plant is likely to be much cheaper than building a new power plant.

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, referred to unrealized energy efficiency as “negawatts”. It’s the amount of power you might NOT use. Negawatts let you reason about loss and inefficiency as a “thing”, such that you might be able to do something about it. He liked to say that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of negawatts. If you can find a way to make money out of inefficiency, then negawatts become a resource that can make you rich. We’ve got heaps of the stuff.

Lovins applied this logic to the U.S. car industry, pointing out that our big petroleum-powered cars represent a huge negawatt reserve. Using the geological terminology of the oil extraction business, he called this the “Detroit Formation.” If you can sell a more efficient vehicle, and these days it’s clear you can, then you can make a fortune by tapping into the negawatts buried deep under Detroit.

Thinking about nothing as something doesn’t really change anything physical. But it makes new thinking possible. I even find it useful in the kitchen. If I want to eat less, instead of moaning that I can’t eat anything, I make a positive message: I can eat all the nothing I want. I’m consuming nega-calories. Or to return to the story about how to fix the traffic jam, instead of saying “Don’t drive fast”, I can say “Feed the jam some lovely space.” Obviously the outcome is the same, but I prefer the second message. It matters because it makes a difference to my brain, and so it makes a difference to my behavior.

We almost always want to solve our problems with more stuff. But often the most effective solution is with nega-stuff.