This is another excerpt from Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design, which is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read about contemporary capitalism — it’s about how managing consumer affect over time can become more important to capital than circulating commodities. The casino is a platform that players pay to work in. (This should sound familiar; it’s how social media and communicative capitalism and “prosumerism” also work.) 

Above is an especially sinister example, in which casinos surreptitiously monitor players as they play to detect when their willingness to keep gambling might be wavering, then send a service worker to raise their spirits with some just-in-time cruel optimism. The casinos detect when you might be pushed into genuine crisis, and then appear to assuage you back into your habitualized escape. “Luck Ambassador” is almost too perfectly Orwellian to be believed: It is the exact opposite of luck that sends them to you. They are more like an army of Nurse Ratcheds making sure there is no escape from the anesthetizing institution. (It turns out the Luck Ambassador program failed because people disliked the human contact that interrupted their communion with the machine’s “reward schedule.”)

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 cure 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.


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