Book Review: Addiction by Design

“It was not uncommon, in my interviews with casino slot floor managers, to hear of machine gamblers so absorbed in play that they were oblivious to rising flood waters at their feet or smoke and fire alarms that blared at deafening levels. As the casino surveillance tapes showed, the activity can keep a group of gamblers unaware of their immediate surroundings, each other, and even a dying man at their feet….”You aren’t really there,” Mollie told us earlier of the zone, “you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.” ~ Natasha Dow Schüll

by Catherine Austin Fitts

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.

She is the author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, described by the publisher as follows:

“Recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from social forms of gambling played around roulette wheels and card tables to solitary gambling at electronic terminals. Slot machines, revamped by ever more compelling digital and video technology, have unseated traditional casino games as the gambling industry’s revenue mainstay. Addiction by Design takes readers into the intriguing world of machine gambling, an increasingly popular and absorbing form of play that blurs the line between human and machine, compulsion and control, risk and reward.

Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the “machine zone,” in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible–even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion. In continuous machine play, gamblers seek to lose themselves while the gambling industry seeks profit. Schüll describes the strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and “ambience management,” player tracking and cash access systems–all designed to meet the market’s desire for maximum “time on device.” Her account moves from casino floors into gamblers’ everyday lives, from gambling industry conventions and Gamblers Anonymous meetings to regulatory debates over whether addiction to gambling machines stems from the consumer, the product, or the interplay between the two.”

This is one of the most sobering studies I have ever read – another example of industry growth grounded in the fundamentals of creating and exploiting human addiction. Add machine gambling to the long list of industries – such as sugar, liquor, or entertainment and media with pornography and entrainment technology – that actively seek to create addictions in the consumers they serve.

Except they are no longer serving them – they are liquidating them. Indeed one of Schüll’s chapters on addiction is entitled, “Gambled Away: Liquidating Life.” The gaming industry is using powerful amounts of corporate capital, scientific intellect and digital technology to liquidate people, families and communities. And governments are getting a piece of the action.

Schüll has done an outstanding job of unpacking a complex topic. This is a significant research effort – thorough and well documented. The reporting is clear and well written.

Schüll touches on the implications of the experience with machine gambling for our growing interaction and dependency on machines – a sobering reminder of the challenges we face when interacting with powerful technologies that are managed by industries that profit from manipulation and liquidation.

As 5G mobile rolls out, supported by approval and growth of drones for commercial use, the global consumer is going to experience an explosion in virtual reality and other technologies that draw us “into the machine.” The machines we depend on for communication and interaction will also deliver powerful mind control technology and create every more powerful addictions.

Before finishing the last chapters, I took a break to visit Morningstar.com to do a search for a particular kind of mutual fund. In the following hour, I received several marketing e-mails from funds of that particular kind – for the first time that I can recall..

After all, whether a computer on the Internet or a video poker machine working off a chip, it’s not a machine – it’s a front. And the folks on the other side of it are very clever and very greedy. Because we think it is just a machine – we’ve not only let them in the front door, we’ve let them inside our hearts and minds.

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