Welcome to the Machine - Surf Week


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Mark.

The voice on the other end of the line becomes hesitant, and a momentary silence ensues. She’s looking for the right words, and although a search for their meaning is elusive, she finds them.

“It’s more than a state of hypnosis,” Natasha Schull tells BTR. “It’s a kind of merging–becoming part of the process. These people feel like, in a way, they’re already ‘over there.’ Believe it or not, but it’s a physiological sense that they have merged with the machine.”

It’s an extension metaphor and some people, she adds, actually experience melting into it.

Schull works at MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society as a cultural anthropologist and associate professor. Two years ago she published her award-winning book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. The work culls together nearly two decades of astute observations and research from which Schull provides a stark yet fascinating commentary on human introspection through technological addiction. Her efforts explore a transient state that she defines simply as the “machine zone.”

So what exactly is a machine zone?

“It’s a state where the end goal is the state itself,” Schull explains. “It’s a solitary experience that is very rapid, and it involves repeating the same process over and over. You can apply it to gambling, which is where I first discovered it, but you can also apply it digital media.”

She adds that the phenomenon can be applied to various digital realms, from gambling or social media.

“It’s honestly all around us,” she says.

Following on the heels of her graduation from UC Berkleley, Schull quickly became interested in architecture and design. As she dug deeper into the field, however, it was unsettling for her that the main focus and priority of these studies was to sit human beings in front of machines for hours on end.

The more she learned about this intense technological relationship, the more the curious anthropologist realized she wouldn’t be able to truly understand what was going on until she started her own investigations.

So Schull did exactly that. She hopped aboard a plane to Las Vegas, embarking on a journey to study what actually occurs when the lines between compulsion and control, risk and reward, and human versus machine become irreparably blurred.

Her subject? Electronic gamblers.

For 15 years Schull studied these gamblers night and day as they took to the slot machines like a pre-programmed ritual they couldn’t help but return to. She discovered that the strange mechanical rhythms of electronic gambling are capable of ensconcing the players in a trance-like state, or machine zone, in which all day-to-day trifles, societal pressures, and even bodily awareness fade away.

Strangely enough, neither a sense of winning nor the lofty idea of a “jackpot” are responsible for sending gamblers into this peculiar state.

“At first I thought, ‘it doesn’t make sense, they must want to win,’” says Schull. “Then I kept hearing them say, ‘You know, it’s funny. When I win, I end up getting irritated and angry. I want the music to stop playing; I want all of the casino people to stop looking at me.’”

What she discovered was that these individuals would rather lose so that they can continue to play and remain uninterrupted in “the zone.” Riding on this mental state was more influential in keeping them in the game than the promise of a cash prize–winning caused the zone to be shattered.

For Schull, the next step was to question where the problem originates. Why do they want to disappear? Does it stem from the minds of the gamblers, or from within the machines themselves?

She moved from the casino floor main attractions onward into the lives of these frequent gamblers. Attending gambling industry conventions, along with Gamblers Anonymous, soon became instrumental in constructing Schull a better understanding of the unsettling phenomenon. She started to realize that addiction may not be the primary catalyst after all.

“It depends on whether you take addiction to be a bad thing,” she says. “Almost all of its forms are initially linked to behavior of survival: pleasure, eating, sex… and we need some of that as humans. But exploiting the need for flow, to be absorbed in something, is linked to survival but can quickly become a runaway state.”

In an attempt to determine who (or what) could be pulling the strings behind this exploitation, Schull turned to the machines themselves along with the institution that spawned them. In her book, she describes the manipulative and strategic calculations responsible for programming game algorithms and machine ergonomics. Even more subtle factors, such as casino architecture, maximizing feelings of ambience, cash access systems, and player tracking all culminate into a meticulously crafted experience that is designed to do one thing: maximize a player’s time on a device.

What she learned was haunting. There comes a point where you can no longer tell what the acting agent is–the person, or the machine.

Schull realizes that others, out of the machine zone, might perceive the situation with pity, viewing those who were in it as pathologically different souls.

“I tried to show that it’s actually a far-reaching spectrum of people. I would wager that most of us have entered the machine zone at some point. It could speak to a far-reaching set of experiences, whether that means Ebay auctions, phones, or iPods.”

Perhaps the most pertinent of all these modern beasts, Schull argues, is social media. Facebook photo-clicking, endlessly scrolling down Instagram feeds and Tumblr posts, even online games like Candy Crush, are part of the same process. Together they feed into a behavioral structure that doesn’t care how much it’s fed because it’s constantly available. The result often becomes a compelling reinforcement reward schedule of the most addictive kind.

While shocking, this revelation shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. According to ComScore, Facebook is responsible for consuming 11 percent of all the time spent online in the United States. It’s become commonplace for users to dish out upwards of 400 minutes a month surfing the site.

The human capacity and desire for absorption with digital media can be disturbing to some. But what can be done about a seemingly insurmountable force that’s now a staple in our current culture?

“These are not ordinary products,” says Schull, “because they tap into experience. It’s not something you buy, and it’s certainly not like a movie or show–which is finite. This is a constant process that can be infinite, and there is virtually no regulation on it.”

Schull believes that some sort of regulative body should be in place to better examine the effects of these online experiences. There is a fundamentally important step that must be taken first, however. Just as Schull writes in her book, it is necessary to understand how a product is designed and to study its subsequent effects before regulation can be considered.

She asserts that some individuals are already coming up with self-regulation principles out of desperation. Locking oneself out of the internet to get writing done, programming a phone to turn off at a designated time, and generally making the choice to shut off the machinery that compels and distracts. Such steps are beginning to surface in corporations and work places, and Schull hopes that they will one day also creep into public policy.

The bottom line is that, while some people are more susceptible to the machine zone than others, it is the medium that matters. Many people have approached Schull about zones for good, which has led her to consider new studies that could prove beneficial. Online educational loops and health tracking are two new practices that Schull is investigating. They are designed to cast habit-forming activities that are healthy, and provide methods of checking and collecting information on ourselves.

“The zones themselves are never inherently bad,” she explains. “Nothing is. They just need to be understood from both sides.”