From Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design. 

What fascinates me about machine gambling is how it shows the way a project of self-actualization can become one of “self-extinction"— that self-actualization can be self extinction. 

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 distills those pressures and thereby converts them into their opposite (much as  extreme rationality becomes irrational; extreme libertarianism becomes authoritarian, etc.)

I’ve argued before that social media is a platform for building and exercising neoliberal subjectivity, but that seems inadequate to describe the way it’s also used as an attempt to mitigate and control feelings of social risk, as I addressed here. Social media replicates social vulnerability while distilling it within a venue where it can seemingly be played with; it takes the contingencies of sociality and makes them something we can interface with directly. Thanks to social media, we can believe that we control the time and place where we confront our social risks, our status uncertainties, our fears of exposure. (In fact, it may just make us less prepared to address those risks when they arise outside the social-media platforms.)

The compulsions of machine gambling resemble the compulsions of social-media checking, and the affects these behaviors are trying to contain, control, evoke, master, seem similar. But whereas, if Schüll is right, machine gambling is about mastering/escaping from the feelings brought on by economic precarity, social media use is about mastering feelings of privacy risk, social exclusion, coinciding fears of over- and underexposure. We don’t want to be “unwilling avatars,” yet we also don’t want to be excluded from the social realm as it is reconstituted in fluid, intertwined, networked platforms.

Schüll sees machines as offering a pure escape from the pressures of sociality: “The immersive zone of machine play, by contrast, offers a reprieve from the nebulous and risky calculative matrix of social interaction, shielding her from the monitoring gaze of others and relieving her of the need to monitor them in return.” Nothing could seem further from the realities of social-media use, which is built on mutual monitoring, lateral surveillance, calculated acts of sharing to build a personal brand, and so on. But that is precisely what makes social media a powerful way of mastering the contingencies of such surveillance — on social media, privacy fears are"distilled" into a near-absurd essence, concentrating them in a realm where they can be amplified, toyed with rather then ruled by. You can interact, alone, on your own terms, with a machine as a way of being social.

So the “zone” of social media is a paradoxical hybrid of the asocial, desubjectified zoning out brought on by fusing with a gaming machine and the action-seeking hypersociality of exhibitionists. Intersubjectivity is negated by the social-media platform, which gamifies social interaction and makes it something that one plays alone on a smartphone. Social risk and the scary contingencies of personal interaction are mastered by the platform’s transformation of other people’s unpredictable attention-granting behavior into the social-media game’s “reward schedule.”

People can zone out into rituals of checking for signs of having been noticed, which, by Schüll’s logic, helps cultivate our indifference to it. If we are truly trapped in an attention economy, then compulsive social-media use represents an attempt to devalue the attention currency, the way gambling devalues money, makes it useless for its customary purposes.

it is possible for a sense of monetary value to become suspended in machine gambling not because money is absent, but because the activity mobilizes it in such a way that it no longer works as it typically does. Money becomes the bridge away from everyone and everything, leading to a zone beyond value, with no social or economic significance. In the zone, instead of serving as a tool for self-determination, money becomes an instrument for “sustained indeterminacy,” as Livingstone puts it. Peter Adams clarifies the nature of this indeterminacy by arguing that machine gamblers seek through play to transcend the limits of finitude: constraints of space and time, the gaze of intersubjectivity, and the bounds of personal mortality.

I think social media has this effect on attention. It’s not sufficient to say that social-media “microcelebrities” are starving for fame and will go to extreme, transgressive lengths for attention. We both want attention and to be free of attention’s control over our lives, free of the insecurity it provokes. So attention in social media works differently for users (even if it serves the same economic function for marketers and ad brokers), leading to “a zone beyond value.” Attention on social media is not expected to provide the same conventional rewards it provides via traditional media. It instead triggers that transcending of limits mentioned above. It addresses the psychic damage inflicted by precarious sociality—the result of social recognition and support having been depredated by its absorption into the service economy.

If anxieties about attention have to do with establishing identity, with constructing a self, then social media addresses those anxieties by making the experience of getting attention dismantle the self, dissolve us into flow, even as social-media use builds our identity up as a data profile. The data profile becomes rich but hollow, uninhabited phenomenologically by a subject.


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