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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Reparative compulsions

When it comes to newfangled technology, Alan Jacobs argues that intermittent reinforcement is “the real enemy.” Rather than blame gadgets alone for diminishing our attention spans or for making us dumber or lonelier, we should, Jacobs writes, “think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked.” That’s what I hope to do a bit in this post.

Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky — that is, addictive, as Alexis Madrigal details in this post about the “machine zone.” He draws on anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s research in her book about machine gambling, Addiction by Design, to make comparisons between the lost time on gambling machines and the time lost to Facebook and other social-media sites. Like video slots, which incite extended periods of “time-on-machine” to assure “continuous gaming productivity” (i.e. money extraction from players), social-media sites are designed to maximize time-on-site, to make their users more valuable to advertisers (Instagram, incidentally, is adding advertising) and to ratchet up user productivity in the form of data sharing and processing that social-media sites reserve the rights to.

As Schüll writes, looking closely at machine gambling makes it “possible to track how shared social conditions and normative behavioral ideals contribute to shaping gambling addicts’ seemingly aberrant ‘machine lives,’ and to discern in those lives a kind of immanent critique of broader discontents.” That is, machine gamblers pursue a more extreme version of “nonrational” coping behaviors that many of us may resort to in less drastic forms, in machinic responses and repetitions on social media, as a response to economic and social precarity.

Gambling addicts, like other consumers in “risk society,” act not so much to maximize as to manage; to this end, they continually recalibrate their actions in response to environmental feedback, flexibly adjusting themselves to changing circumstances and contingencies.

I’ve argued before that social media is a platform for building and exercising neoliberal subjectivity, but that “paranoid” reading (in Eve Sedgwick’s terminology) seems inadequate to describe the way it’s also used “reparatively,” 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 and manage directly.

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.

The design techniques for ushering users into the machine zone involve resolving the ambiguity, contingency, and complexity of action in everyday life, crystallizing ambient risk and dread into heightened moments that users can trigger and seem to control, whether it’s by spinning the reels or checking for likes or at-replies. Schüll writes:

Intensive machine gambling … manages to suspend key elements of contemporary life — market-based exchange, monetary value, and conventional time — along with the social expectation for self-maximizing, risk-managing behavior that accompanies them. The activity achieves this suspension not by transcending or canceling out these elements and expected modes of conduct, but by isolating and intensifying them — or “distilling” them … to the point where they turn into something else.

Later, she clarifies what she means by machine gambling’s distillation effect:

The activity distills these aspects of life into their elementary forms (namely, risk-based interaction, actuarial economic thinking, and compressed, elastic time) and applies them to a course of action formatted in such a way that they cease to serve as tools for self-enterprise and instead serve as the means to continue play.

This same analysis can be applied to social media pretty readily. Social-media use can distill anxiety-inducing aspects of social surveillance, status competition, the economic mobilization of personality, and the fear of missing out into their “elementary forms” (overt self-promotion, explicit networking, stalking, establishing connectivity for its own sake) and format them into a manageable interface. The trappings of entrepreneurial selfhood in social media fall away, and the platforms become a means of escape, with distraction just a push-notification jackpot away.

Given that video-gambling machines offer, in Schüll’s view, a pure escape from the pressures of sociality, it may seem strange to liken them to social media. “The immersive zone of machine play,” Schüll writes, “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 their quintessence — I am always exposed — and concentrated in a realm where they can be amplified, where we can toy with them rather then be ruled by them. It takes the logic of gaming machines a step further. You can interact with a machine, alone, on your own terms, not to escape being social but as a way of being social.

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.) If 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.

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. Schüll writes:

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.

Attention continues to serve the same economic function it always has for marketers and ad brokers, but for users it works differently, leading to “a zone beyond value” where it no longer gratifies or terrifies in the conventional ways. On social media, attention becomes an “instrument for sustained indeterminancy.” It propels users through the closed feedback loops that social media create, extending “time-on-site,” ultimately for its own sake. It allows us to perpetually defer the irreconcilable contradictions of being a subject in the world.

We both want attention and to be free of attention’s control over our lives, free of the insecurity it provokes. (Just like people want to belong while asserting their individuality.) So it’s not sufficient to say that social-media “microcelebrities” are starving for fame and will go to extreme, transgressive lengths for attention. Attention in social media at first triggers fantasies of fame, but then it settles into moment-to-moment compulsion. This allows it to 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. Or more plainly: attention on social media both compensates for and is the logical endpoint of commoditized care work.

People can zone out into rituals of checking for signs of having been noticed, which, by Schüll’s logic, helps cultivate our ultimate indifference to it. The rituals of checking become more important, more soothing, than whatever is being checked for. You go from seeking a message to seeking the zone of perpetual seeking — aimless scrolling through the stream of tweets, for instance. When gambling addicts win jackpots, they often resent the way they have disrupted the flow of their play. Likewise, the notifications of social media are best when they are ephemeral and require no response from us that precludes further checking or scrolling through.

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.” The rewards remain addictively intermittant, only they are provided by capricious peers, not a random number generator. Here, validation or social recognition functions as a discharge as much as a confirmation of the self.

To the extent that anxieties about attention have to do with establishing identity, with constructing a self, social media addresses those anxieties in part by making the experience of getting attention dismantle the self, dissolve us into flow, even as our social-media use builds our identity up as a data profile. The data profile becomes rich but hollow, uninhabited phenomenologically by a subject. One is not “there” in the content of one’s self, which is in an archive; instead one experiences only the rhythm of checking and responding, and the one-dimensional rewards the rituals offer. Ongoing use of social media yields desubjectification through interaction with the standard formats elicited by the platforms: Your data is individualized, while your behavior is homogenized.

The pretense of self-construction online becomes an alibi for ourselves, authorizing self-forgetting, escape. When we are seeking the self, we may be seeking how to get rid of it. The constricted choices and checking opportunities social media constantly provides function as ego depletion, draining the will to continue to think about the self strategically, leaving us happy to make choices about self-presentation with the least friction as possible. Choices in social media invoke the self en route to dissipating it along with all resistance. Knowing we should share, but too tired to think about it, we start to share according to the defaults. And this release from self-consciousness is a sort of zone its own. Ego depletion is pleasurable. It can be marketed under the right disguises. Sweet surrender.

Much is made of using social media for personal branding, and I’ve certainly griped about it in dozens of posts, but the personal brand is something we want to deny as much as create. It’s not a source of secure value for most of us, but a stigma we bear, a mark of how hard we struggle to remain a viable member of society. It’s a kind of metaphysical reputation score, like a credit rating but more nebulous and all-embracing.

Facebook use indulges self-construction, just as machine gambling indulges fantasies of jackpot wealth, but these selves and jackpots are also the animating fantasies that open the gate to the zone, where self disappears and money’s function dwindles down to maintaining time-on-machine. These fantasies make us willingly collude with the platforms’ business models — they prompt us to give away our information, give away our money, as we fetishize the process of giving them. Getting into the “zone” and staying there is a form of productive labor that workers essentially become willing to pay to perform (like an internship in a glamour industry). Prosumerism at its purest.

Self-expression in social media can function as a self-purging, a way of processing life experience at a remove that reduces the uncertainty of its implications to straightforward traffic metrics (number of likes, etc.). Self-documentation becomes a way of conquering the paralysis of self-consciousness, of having too much self on one’s mind. It builds a self in the process of discharging it, making us feel as though we have acted on our desires, negated them, turned them from something unpredictable into something that can be mastered through repetition. (In psychoanalytic terms, “desire” becomes “drive.”)

As I argued in this post, instantaneous and continual sharing shrinks the time frame over which our narratives of identity need to span in our imagination. The idea that we must posit a long-term identity disappears and is supplanted by the rhythms of updating and checking. That long-term identity persists, but as an archive, and making a narrative out of it ceases to be our persistent worry. The material in the archive is available for whatever narrative one wants to make, when they want to make it. Your archive can confront you as the work of a delightfully mysterious stranger.

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