Schüll argues that machine-gambling addicts become hooked on the “zone” that machines can take them to, in which the contingencies and inconveniences of human contact are eliminated, the pressure of being rational and entrepreneurial in one’s life is suspended, and money’s value is inverted. In short, it is a temporary antidote to the pressures of neoliberal subjectivity — the calculating, rational self who must constantly hustle and perform affective labor and prosume. Machine gambling is a procedure for converting those pressures into their opposite by indulging their logic completely. Something similar happens with social-media use, which converts the pressures of social exposure — the economic need for attention and the loss of privacy — into something that feels managed.
Both the compulsions of machine gambling and the compulsions of social-media checking, afford users a specific and limited sense of control over a very precise set of choices and then simplifying the possible outcomes. In Schüll’s words, these platforms let “individuals use technology to manufacture ’certainties.’ “ Certainties is in quotes because this type of technology use doesn’t allow us to determine outcomes, only to choose the occasions when we seek rewards. Schüll quotes a 1902 essay on gambling by Clemens France: “So strong is the passion for the conviction of certainty that one is impelled again and again to enter upon the uncertain in order to put one’s safety to the test … Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, gambling is a struggle for the certain and sure, i.e. the feeling of certainty.”
People gamble because they are seeking action, a managed set of risks that distract us from the uncontrollable risks of being in the world (of having an identity). Gambling-experience design, as Schüll details in the book, is about continual modulation of the player’s sensorium so as to maintain an continuous equilibrium between sensation, distraction, control, and enchantment. Schüll notes the asymmetry in the time horizons of gamblers and casino operators: casino operators take the long view and use the mass of data they collect to manage long-run profit. Gamblers, in seeking the “zone” of satisfactory play, pursue a “perpetual present tense” whose horizon extends only to the possibility of immediate gratification.
In a sense, the gambling transaction is a mechanism for trading the long-term view, expanses over which it is much harder to manage and sustain positive mood, for the short-term, in which mood is irrelevant and there is only reactive sensation. As Schüll puts it, machine gamblers operate by “affective adaptation rather than analytic leverage.” They are looking to manage feeling and hack their brain’s reward mechanisms, not pursue a Weberian rationality that might lead to steady gains.
Another way to put that is that casinos, as corporate subjects, don’t experience depression the way individual gamblers do, so casinos don’t need the compensations of the zone but can instead sell it to those who do. But they have no incentive to help anyone resolve depression, only to make it “productive” — that is, a guarantor of a predictable profit stream for the casino. So casinos collect data and develop technologies and environments to cultivate and nurture depression in such a guise that the depressed subject can’t recognize their depression for what it is. This is how escapism-driven, “experience economy”–driven capitalism works.
Social media works similarly, aiming to ensconce users in a total environment that ministers to their anxieties by stimulating them in a routinized fashion. The continuity social media supplies to users relies not on sensory nullification, as with gaming machines (or opiates) but on making connectivity ubiquitous, of being always on and responsive to our flashes of social curiosity and anxiety. Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? These continuous processes allow us to digest our memories, experiences and fears and excrete commercially useful information.