The Addiction Algorithm: An interview with Natasha Dow Schüll


Addiction by Design, book coverEM: Can you tell me a little bit about your book?

NDS: I was in the first cohort of the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar postdoctoral program. I was definitely an outlier as a cultural anthropologist, but the pitch I made to them at the time was that research angles on addiction should include more qualitative work, and should also attend to the addictive effects of consumer interfaces and technology, not just drugs, as a public health issue.

I think any good addiction researcher would recognize that addiction is in a large part a question of the timing of rewards or reinforcements, or the so-called event frequency. So it makes sense that if digitally-mediated forms of gambling like slot machines are able to intensify the event frequency to a point where you’re playing 1,200 hands an hour, then they’re more addictive. Waiting for your turn at a poker game, by contrast, isn’t as fast – there are lots of pauses and lots of socializing in-between hands. Slot machines are solitary, continuous, and rapid. Uncertainty is opened up and then it’s closed — so quickly that it creates a sense of merging with the machine.

If you accept that gambling can be an addiction, you can then broaden the conversation to include other less obviously addictive contemporary experiences, whether it’s an eBay auction or Facebook photo clicking or even just checking email, and certainly texting. It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.

EM: That’s fascinating. Or this word game on my phone — it’s become really, really addictive for me. I’m curious if you’ve had interactions also with people in game design? There’s a certain point of view that seems really prevalent right now about game design and play.

NDS: People in the general world of game and app design don’t see themselves as in the business of producing addiction but they have reached out to me. Often they want to hear about how to avoid creating addiction.

I was recently invited out to the Habit Summit, an event in Silicon Valley held at Stanford, with lots of local tech people who are all there to figure out how to design habit, how to retain attention. In my presentation to them, I talked about the increasing prevalence of little ludic loops in design, as ways to retain attention. With Candy Crush and so many phone apps, if you ride a subway in the morning there are people sitting there zoning out on these little devices. I think the reason they’re so able to retain attention and form habits is that they are affect modulators. They’re helping people to modulate and manage their moods. It’s addictive because it’s right there at your fingertips, and you’re able to reach out and just start clicking this thing to create a stimulus response loop.There are more and more moments of zoning out – to use a phrase from the slot machine gamblers – moments that are configured very much like a slot machine in terms of the continuous, rapid little loop where something is opened up and then it’s closed… open it up and then it’s kill the monster; kill the monster again; kill the monster again.

It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.

NDS: In the end, the way I conceptualized the book was as a detailed, extended case study of addiction that really got down into the nitty-gritty of a particular case, but also shows us why it is important to actually understand the technology. Not just the behavior, not just the person — but the design, the configuration, and the way that can constrain and direct and guide behavior in certain directions, and why it might be a good idea to regulate it. There is no equivalent to the FDA for technology – a regulative body that would be setting in place limits on design: maybe you can’t play 1,200 hands an hour on a slot machine or spend four hours Facebook photo clicking, things like that. There should be researchers and policymakers in conversation about the intimate and even physiological ways that these things affect people.

There should be researchers and policymakers in conversation about the intimate and even physiological ways that these things affect people.

EM: One thing I’m curious about is if the gamblers you spoke with who thought of themselves as having a problem also felt a need for more regulation — was that something that came up for them?

NDS: Yes. At one point in the book a gambler asks, “Why should it be legal for me to go and just obliterate myself, destroy myself this way? I don’t want to be able to walk in a casino and just have at my fingertips this kind of self-liquidation.” So, absolutely. However, I should say that at the time I was doing the research with gamblers for this project, in the US there was a strong feeling that full responsibility and accountability lay with the individual, and that recovery was a question of taking responsibility. Anything that had the whiff of suggesting that some accountability might be shared by the casino industry and its products would be taken as denial, and as undermining the therapeutic process.

So, any time in a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that anyone started voicing any sort of indignation or outrage at the setup in Las Vegas, other people would kind of sit there and roll their eyes. But now there’s growing acceptance in the treatment community and among gamblers that it actually might enhance therapy to lift some of the weight of accountability or blame off of the person and onto the machines. Or as Cass Sunstein would put it, choice architecture — in other words, that choices always unfold in a context.

EM: I wonder if you have some thoughts on ethics around design. A lot of people who come to Ethnography Matters are working to understand what users want, what engages them…

It’s a little unrealistic to ask designers to not lead with the products and experiences that increase the bottom line and retain attention the best.

NDS: When the expectation on companies and on employees is to increase the bottom line, it’s a little unrealistic to ask designers not to go in this direction, to not lead with the products and experiences and interfaces that increase the bottom line and retain attention the best. Rather than ask companies to do this ethical work, I think it’s better left to regulation. This is a systemic problem; it’s not just in certain industries. Game designers I have spoken to agree with that, that it would be so much easier if they were designing within some set regulative criteria that would limit what they could do.

EM: Interesting… Do you find people sharing with you ethical quandaries that they have?

NDS: Absolutely, even publicly. When I was at the Habit Summit — people can see how much people are playing, how long they’re online, what they engage in. Some of the numbers are really disturbing for them to see; I mean, just the idea that people are spending that much time engaging in a certain website or activity or game. There’s such great data and metrics that you have at your fingertips, a window into how people are behaving.

The insurers became so nervous when they learned that the casinos had this trove of detailed data on people. They thought it would be a huge class-action lawsuit liability.

That’s another big part in the gambling case — what happens when Big Data moves on to the casino floor. It can be used to intensify the hold of these environments and products, but it can also be used to gain insight into who might be slipping into addictive behavior or behaving in obviously addictive ways.

Drawing on the very same data that the marketing algorithms draw on, a system was developed – it’s informally known as the addiction algorithm – to sense when behavior was becoming addictive.

Then the question is: if you know that, if you can see it, then perhaps there need to be in place certain guidelines for responding. This is the case in some places. In Canada, for instance, the insurers for casinos became so nervous when they learned that the casinos had this trove of detailed data on people — they thought it would be a huge class-action lawsuit liability. They said, “You need to put in place something protective.” So, drawing on the very same data that the marketing algorithms draw on, a system was developed – it’s informally known as the addiction algorithm – to monitor and sense when behavior was becoming addictive. You know, how fast someone’s pressing the key, when they’re sliding into this out-of-control behavior. At that point, the algorithm is programmed to lock up the marketing system, to lock the person out of access, and dispatch a live problem gambling counselor over to their machine to have a chat with them.

It isn’t about kicking them out and abstaining forever; it’s about “How do we moderate this?” In the eyes of the corporations, it’s not just ethical but a way of protecting profits — a way of not “tapping out” their market. This is going to become an increasing concern for makers of social media games and apps: how to retain your customers but engage them in more moderate ways.

EM: A few times in your book you talk about the machine zone as non-space. Could you say a little more about that?

NDS: Just that it’s a kind of state in which you lose worldly being. You lose a sense of clocked time, a sense of physical space, a sense of yourself as a subject in the world in social relation to others. All of those aspects of being a person, those key aspects of being, fall away. And it’s just pure process, just being in the game. I think that’s why people in the zone experience a sense of merging, where it’s not clear even to them where agency lies, who’s really taking action, where it starts and ends. That becomes very unclear in the zone.

 

Drawing showing Mollie at the center of map encircled by places for gambling and picking up food and medicine

Mollie’s Map of Everyday Life in Las Vegas
Excerpted from Addiction by Design

EM: I was really struck by a map that one of your participants drew, and wondered how that came about.

NDS: She decided she would draw it out for me. I put it in the book because I thought it threw into compelling visual relief the closed circuit that living in Las Vegas is like for these addicts. You can extrapolate from that and say that we’re all caught up in similar circuits. Las Vegas offers an extreme example of what it can be like to live in America today. In that sense, Mollie’s map — and the whole ethnography, I like to think — speaks to themes beyond its geographic location.

In understanding addictive behavior and addiction in general, environments of addiction, products, etc., and how those all relate, I think that ethnographic methods can be particularly illuminating in ways that others can’t. The gambling industry, they like to dismiss work like mine on the basis of its anecdotal quality. It’s a little bit more than anecdotal, just because I spent so many, many years doing it, but it certainly isn’t statistical. I didn’t have a random sample or any kind of statistical pool. I didn’t really take down demographic information on who I was talking to. There was nothing kind of controlled about my methodology. It really was talking to people, but it was talking in-depth to a great number of people over time. So I think there is a depth and a richness that maybe would be missed by other approaches that were more statistical. I think in the case of food, that’s definitely true as well. It isn’t enough to just see what are people consuming, what are they swallowing, what are they purchasing. Really talking to them and observing how they make these choices, what are the contexts in which they make these choices — things come to light that may be counterintuitive or surprising when you actually talk to people and observe them. [EM note: Check out Natasha Dow Schüll & Hillevi Zazel Loven’s Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas for more on food and context.]

In the beginning, the enchantment of winning and the euphoric high is important. The machine presents itself to people in beguiling or obfuscating ways… Once you become a real addict, you develop your own relationship with this entity and move beyond enchantment.

NDS: One of the things that came to light, for example, is that although we intuitively think gamblers are looking to win, that they must be persisting at this activity because they really believe or hope they’re going to hit a jackpot, in fact that’s not the case. I quickly learned, by talking to gamblers, that they’re really not dupes in that sense. For the most part there is no illusion about winning. They know that they’re there for this other kind of experience.  In the beginning, the enchantment of winning and the euphoric high is important – as in the beginning of every addiction. The machine presents itself to people in beguiling or obfuscating ways, and people are drawn to it. But that initial hook turns into a hold, and you have to distinguish between those two things. People who are really in the zone are not enchanted any longer; it’s more that they’ve reached the “maintenance” stage of addiction. Once you become a real addict, you develop your own relationship with this entity and move beyond enchantment.

EM: There are some places where risk comes up. Do you think people feel like they’re doing something risky somewhere in that negotiation?

NDS: That’s another common misperception—that it’s about the thrill of taking a risk. That couldn’t be further from how the vast majority of slot machine addicts talk about their relationship to this activity, which is that it’s a predictable, reliable, reassuring, protective cocoon. There’s a quote in the book’s introduction that really captures that, where a gambler tells me, “People always think it’s about chance, where you don’t know which way it’s going to go. But for me, I knew exactly how it was going to go: I would either win or I would lose.” The activity reduces the whole world to very clear-cut options. It reduces that gray area of risk.

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One Response to “The Addiction Algorithm: An interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

  1. June 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Great interview. Broadening the definition of addiction is incredibly important to recognize how damaging some forms of digital addiction can be.

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