By Larry Barnett — The human experience of the natural world begins at birth. As infants we begin to explore the world with our senses, establishing embodied experience between objects, feelings, and the world. By the time we are toddlers and begin to walk, we have established and crystalized predictive abilities based upon such experience.
Before the advent of the industrial age and the scientific revolution, human culture was earthbound, totally dependent upon the wood, rock, soil, water and other natural elements of nature. Accordingly, our embodied experiences were grounded on nature; early myth and world-creation stories reflected those origins and society was composed in seasonal or regional harmony with Mother Earth.
From earth-based to manufactured experience
The industrial age of manufacturing radically changed the course of human culture. No longer bound solely to the impacts and elements of nature, people began to satisfy their needs with increasingly complex products born of human imagination. Within only a few centuries, industrialization and science in northern hemisphere cultures rendered our ancient, land-based, earthbound origins increasingly obsolete. This is not to say we abandoned all land-based needs; to the contrary, as population increased the need for improvements in agricultural production and resource extraction increased proportionately.
At present, we are confronted with yet another cultural transformation due to the advance of industry and technology. Human experience in the “developed” world is now increasingly “manufactured experience,” activities and preoccupations created not through our own authentic experience of the world, but in the minds and marketing plans of others. The industrial age is inseparable from the consumer age.
Scientific understanding of human minds, emotions and the effects of embodiment have increased dramatically. The electro-chemical, biological operation of the brain and body has been and is constantly under study, not only by science and medicine, but also by businesses and corporations intent upon using that knowledge to manipulate people as consumers. The entertainment industry has long exploited techniques that affect emotional and socio-economic behavior, but a new generation of highly sophisticated manufactured experiences is now the fastest growing segment of our consumer-based economy. Just ask Siri.
The economic basis of manufactured experience is to breed customers who reliably return to repeat that experience. Snack food products, for example, use additives, flavorings and a variety of chemicals that keep people craving, eating and buying; this breeds addiction.
Addiction means one constantly feels the need to repeat an experience, even at the cost of poor health, social estrangement or, in the case of casino gambling, financial exhaustion. Some types of addiction are to chemical substances; caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, opiates and cocaine are examples. Some health advocates claim that sugar is addictive. Other addictions are less visibly chemical-related; pornography, gambling and sex are usually included in this list.
All addictions, however, are chemically-based when body chemistry is included as a factor. The endorphins and other hormones associated with addiction are powerful, and moreover, addictions generally require increasing frequency or dosage to remain affective.
The /affective capitalism’ of slot machines
Affective Capitalism, an economy based upon manufactured experience of intended affect, has become an increasingly dominant factor in modern society, or so believes Matthew Crawford, author of “The World Beyond Your Head.”
Crawford is not alone. He cites researcher Natasha Schull, who in her book “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” details the myriad techniques used to prey upon customers and convert them into slot-machine addicts. Though casinos portray gambling as a matter of “personal choice,” reality is anything but. For the vulnerable, stepping up to a slot machine is like handing an alcoholic a full bottle of scotch. Notably, slot-machine-filled casinos are playing an ever-larger role in California and Sonoma County’s economy.
Schull’s study reveals the ways psychological and physical experience is manipulated through sophisticated techniques and technologies intended to separate the patron from his or her money. By creating the mistaken impression by a slot-machine gambler that he has recognized a “pattern” in the results of each “spin” of the dials, casino operators keep money flowing. Old-fashioned hinderances such as pulling levers or inserting coins are gone; today’s slots are total computer simulations, not dependent upon gears or machinery, only computer programming designed to favor “the house.”
The science of slot-machine addiction is well developed. Once a patron has spent time at a machine, the fear of walking away and losing that investment is very powerful. Schull notes that more than a few patrons are so afraid of walking away they soil themselves rather than using a restroom. In some casinos, machines don’t even require pushing a button to execute a spin — a direct link to a credit card keeps feeding the machine automatically, until the card’s credit limit is reached.
The slot machine addict is successfully manipulated by the tools of affective capitalism. The space between the person and the machine effectively disappears; the spinning “dials” and on-screen win/loss report provide a constant “affective” flow of images, sounds and hormone boosting experience. Replicating a semi-autistic state, when “in the zone” a patron loses all sense of time, and hours pass unnoticed within a casino’s darkened interior environment with no exposure to the outside world. This continues until the gambler’s supply of money is exhausted.
Is gambling addiction a disease?
Gamblers Anonymous, like its cousin Alcoholics Anonymous, uses the “illness” model for its 12-step treatment program. The explanation that seems most acceptable to Gamblers Anonymous members is that compulsive gambling is an illness, progressive in its nature, which can never be cured, but can be arrested. Before coming to Gamblers Anonymous, many compulsive gamblers thought of themselves as morally weak, or at times just plain ‘no good’. The Gamblers Anonymous concept is that “compulsive gamblers are really very sick people who can recover if they will follow to the best of their ability a simple program that has proved successful for thousands of other men and women with a gambling or compulsive gambling problem.”
The illness model mitigates the tendency towards self-loathing moral failing, and instead places gambling addiction within a quasi-medical model. It is this reason “recovery” is the term used by participants in the program.
There are those, however, who view gambling addiction, and addiction overall, as a matter of morality. Any moral analysis quickly becomes complicated, in large part due to our particular cultural orientation to autonomy.
The moral question
Within our liberal (and now neo-liberal) democratic society, meaning one in which individuals (and now corporations) are invested with freedom of choice and the exercise of autonomy, institutional efforts to control behavior often receive negative characterizations as “the nanny state” or burdensome government regulation. Yet, like all forms of capitalism, affective capitalism is not constituted for the betterment of society, but for the growth of profits and economic power. Thus the moral failing may not be due to the individual, but to the values of our society.
We generally employ a rights-based approach to social issues instead of applying moral standards, itself a source of social conflict. Moreover, our rights-based society is in the midst of a classically recurring power struggle between rich and poor, and the rich are winning. Accordingly, elevated corporate profits at casinos often enjoy a higher status than humanistic values; as individuals we may be fated to become little more than organic instruments wielded to generate hefty returns on investment.
Perhaps this indicates a fatal flaw in liberal democracy itself. Radical and/or fundamentalist movements have rushed-in to fill the moral-values-vacuum liberalism has generated, of which the recent presidential election provides ample evidence. A more humanitarian mode would dictate, and risk, placing human values higher than profits, but this would entail a wholesale shift in our entire economic and social framework; imagining how and when that might happen is in itself a daunting prospect.