Tuesday, May 11, 2004

cherry, cherry, bo-berry

Excellent (although long) feature article on slot machines in the New York Times Magazine. The article provides a captivating description of various innovations over the last ten years that have made slot machines increasingly addictive. Like their being better able to present losses as being near misses, so that it looks to the player like she was so-so-close to winning the bezillions dollar jackpot, where to the math of the microprocessor no miss is closer to a win than any other--instead, it's all packaging. Or like their able to differentiate machines that vary in their appeal not just to different people in terms of cultural tastes (the audiences for Dick Clark vs. Drew Carey machines are discussed), but then also in terms of the different payout schemes, so that whether you prefer lots of small payouts or fewer payouts but with a massive jackpot, there exists a machine out there designed just for your brain.*

While slot machine makers have been able to capitalize on all these advances in computer and video technology to make their product more seductive, games like blackjack and craps are pretty much the same as they've always been. So, it's not surprising that slots have gone from being already the 400-pound gorilla of the gambling industry to the 3000-pound gorilla.

The article also makes the Bowling Alone-ish observation that one of the reasons slots are so profitable is that, as opposed to games like blackjack or craps, people play them alone, and so regular social inhibitions about stupidly losing wads of money do not apply.

As corporations get better and better at using technology to haul in massive profits by quasi- to full-fledgedly- addicting people to products, I've wondered if we are eventualy going to reach a day where everybody is addicted to something, or really, some set of things. As the philosopher Nikka Costa says, "Everybody's got their something," only the something(s) vary across people--the addictive things that have the best resonance with one's individual idiosyncrasies. So that, each person will basically live as the nexus of a set of competing addictions, with still other possible addictions trying increasingly effective contrivances in their effort to elbow their way into more people's addiction set (as well as for people a large share of each addicts attention relative to their addictions. In other words, the really interesting actors in society** would be the addictions, which would be in a continual cutthroat competition with one another, while people are basically just their hosts--the environment in which the competition among addictions take place. I don't know if this itself would be an equilibrium-end-of-history-state, or if it would just be an intermediary on the way to the invention of some single hyperaddictive thing that overpowers ever other addiction and consumes all the attention and behavior of everyone.

Either way, it gives a whole new meeting to keeping up with Joneses.

* As the article explains, all payout schemes are different variations on the especially addictive reinforcement schedule of "infrequent intermittent reward." If ever there were three words that described The Story Of My Life, at least in the new millenium, they would be "infrequent intermittent reward."

** At least from the standpoint of social theory, which wouldn't actually exist anymore, as who has time for something as boring as that when everyone is overrun by their own personal exquisitely-psychologically-tailored addictions.

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