The magnetic pull that social media exerts on young people drives them toward more automatic and less voluntary behavior. For too many, that behavior shades into the territory of genuine compulsion. What is it that mesmerizes the youngest among us, lashing them to this mediated world despite the stress and disquiet that they encounter there?
The answer lies in a combination of behavioral science and high-stakes design that is precision-tooled to bite hard on the felt needs of this age and stage: a perfectly fitted hand and glove. Social media is designed to engage and hold people of all ages, but it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood, when one is naturally oriented toward the “others,” especially toward the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion. For many, this close tailoring, combined with the practical dependencies of social participation, turns social media into a toxic milieu. Not only does this milieu extract a heavy psychological toll, but it also threatens the course of human development for today’s young and the generations that follow, all spirits of a Christmas Yet to Come.
The hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction was not invented at Facebook, but rather it was pioneered, tested, and perfected with outstanding success in the gaming industry, another setting where addiction is formally recognized as a boundless source of profit. Skinner had anticipated the relevance of his methods to the casino environment, which executives and engineers have transformed into as vivid an illustration as one can muster of the startling power of behavioral engineering and its ability to exploit individual inclinations and transform them into closed loops of obsession and compulsion.
No one has mapped the casino terrain more insightfully than MIT social anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll in her fascinating examination of machine gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design. Most interesting for us is her account of the symbiotic design principles of a new generation of slot machines calculated to manipulate the psychological orientation of players so that first they never have to look away, and eventually they become incapable of doing so. Schüll learned that addictive players seek neither entertainment nor the mythical jackpot of cash.
Instead, they chase what Harvard Medical School addiction researcher Howard Shaffer calls “the capacity of the drug or gamble to shift subjective experience,” pursuing an experiential state that Schüll calls the “machine zone,” a state of self-forgetting in which one is carried along by an irresistible momentum that feels like one is “played by the machine.” The machine zone achieves a sense of complete immersion that recalls Klein’s description of Facebook’s design principles—engrossing, immersive, immediate—and is associated with a loss of self-awareness, automatic behavior, and a total rhythmic absorption carried along on a wave of compulsion. Eventually, every aspect of casino machine design was geared to echo, enhance, and intensify the hunger for that subjective shift, but always in ways that elude the player’s awareness.
Schüll describes the multi-decade learning curve as gaming executives gradually came to appreciate that a new generation of computer-based slot machines could trigger and amplify the compulsion to chase the zone, as well as extend the time that each player spends in the zone. These innovations drive up revenues with the sheer volume of extended play as each machine is transformed into a “personalized reward device.” The idea, as the casinos came to understand it, is to avoid anything that distracts, diverts, or interrupts the player’s fusion with the machine; consoles “mold to the player’s natural posture,” eliminating the distance between the player’s body and frictionless touch screens: “Every feature of a slot machine—its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics—is calibrated to increase a gambler’s ‘time on device’ and to encourage ‘play to extinction.’” The aim is a kind of crazed machine sex, an intimate closed-loop architecture of obsession, loss of self, and auto-gratification. The key, one casino executive says in words that are all too familiar, “is figuring out how to leverage technology to act on customers’ preferences [while making] it as invisible—or what I call auto-magic—as possible.
The psychological hazards of the hand-glove fit have spread far beyond the casino pits where players seek the machine zone: they define the raw heart of Facebook’s success. The corporation brings more capital, information, and science to this parasitic symbiosis than the gaming industry could ever muster. Its achievements, pursued in the name of surveillance revenues, have produced a prototype of instrumentarian society and its social principles, especially for the youngest among us. There is much that we can grasp about the lived experience of the hive in the challenges faced by the young people whose fate it is to come of age in this novel social milieu in which the forces of capital are dedicated to the production of compulsion. Facebook’s marketing director openly boasts that its precision tools craft a medium in which users “never have to look away,” but the corporation has been far more circumspect about the design practices that eventually make users, especially young users, incapable of looking away.
Excerpt From: Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.