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Addiction by Design

by Natasha Dow Schull

Last tended to May 01, 2020

Warning: These notes are written in the tone-deaf style of disembodied academia because I lifted them from my undergraduate thesis notes. Going back to write them as an embodied, subjective human is still on my to-do list.

In “Addiction to Design,” Natasha Shull explores fundamental questions about the interface between human beings and machines. In studying the industry of machine gambling and the individuals who find themselves hopelessly trapped in addictions to these gaming devices, she finds a new intensity of engaged experience facilitated by the nature of the technology which the players themselves refer to as ‘the zone.’

A form of embodied reality where “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process,” (Shull 13) individuals find an escape from the “capricious, discontinuous, and insecure” (13) nature of the ‘human world.’

The substituted new form of experience is built around the human-machine interface that she argues alleviate many of the modern anxieties around uncertainty that have emerged in our post-fordist capitalist society.

She additionally argues that are now “[using] technologies to manufacture ‘certainties’” and “enact a mode of self-equilibrium,” through engaging with their predictable patterns and systematic modes of interfacing. Her research is indicative of larger social trends for our changing relationships with machines, as our increased intimacy with technology serves as a means of affective management and creates “a personal buffer zone against the uncertainties and worries of [the] world” (13).

The ethnographic material presented by Schull calls for a reconsideration of how we conceptualise the limits of bounded human self, shifting from a matter of physical flesh to a functional understanding that legitimises the harmoniously integrated experience of machine and player.

Schull finds gamblers express their experiential relationships with machines in terms of becoming a single bounded entity, or ‘one’ with the devices, as their experiences in the zone “[challenge] the limits of the human body” (180).

The relationship between technology and their bodies is described as a “collusion between the structures and functions of the machine and the cognitive, affective, and bodily capacities of the gambler.” (73)

Schull’s attention to the phenomenology of human-technology builds off the philosopher Don Ihde in refocusing the traditional portrayal of technology as being one of two opposing binaries of either “an autonomous, determining force” or “a passive, neutral tool,” and instead asks us to look at the ways “objects and subjects act together” (19) in a constructed whole entity.

Schull’s research demonstrates a break down of traditional dichotomous distinctions and possibly grants agency to non-human force of the machine. It becomes a collaborator in the construction of new types of being in and experiencing the world.

The experiential accounts of the gamblers draw attention to the idea of the boundaries of the human being expanding and taking new forms as our intimacy with machines develops.

The arbitrariness of our sense of self ending at the skin preferences physical determinants rather than our lived functional ones.

That the fact we are an enclosed amount of flesh might not be as significant or important as we believe it to be is still a young and radical concept for many.

Gamblers see their experiences in the zone as “challenging the limits of the human body” (180)

Given the research and accounts provided by Schull, we have to expand our conceptions of the bounded self and consider that technological devices may be becoming coherently integrated parts of our sense of selves.

The idea that the boundary of a human being ends at the skin in fact seems fairly arbitrary in reading the ethnographic interviews where players feel a level of engagement where “you are the machine, the machine is you” (173).

The designers of the machines purposefully “create a close fit between the player’s body and the body of the machine” (63) to facilitate this experience. The fact that we have historically thought of a human being as an enclosed amount of flesh might not be as significant or important in the world of immersive machine gambling.

Combating the idea of the ‘zone’ as a form of self-erasure or loss of the self, we must take seriously the notion of the machine as collaborative agent in the construction of a new way of being.

Rather than assuming the gambler is trying to become the machine by reducing their own agency and prioritising the perceived wants of the game, we should grant legitimacy to both collaborative actors in the construction of a new personscape.

This aligns with Ihde’s concept of ‘embodied relation’ as feeling a technological object is naturally extending one’s cognitive and motor capacities with no sense of individual distinctiveness.

The firm resonation with this phenomena by Schull’s ethnographic subjects asks us to reconceptualise the limits of the self in terms of immaterial functionality and phenomenological experience instead of the physical boundaries of flesh and metal.

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