The Addiction Algorithm

In this interview, the cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull opens up about her research on gambling as an addiction. She explains how research on addiction is generally focused on things like drugs, but that addiction to technology is just as pervasive. In particular, she discusses the psychology behind slot machines, and how they are more addicting than poker because there is more immediate gratification, and it gives the gambler a sense of almost becoming one with the machine.

It is important to expand our discussion of addiction beyond just drug addiction, because once we do that we can look at other, more subtle issues with things like Facebook apps. Schull points out that there is no regulation of technology the way there is with food and drugs, and that maybe that’s part of the problem. She explains how in Gambler’s Anonymous meetings, people who would point out that slot machines needed to be better regulated would be brushed off and seen as not taking responsibility for their actions, but over time people are starting to realize the truth of that statement, and that it’s not actually unreasonable to push for better regulation of things like slot machines. That is not to say that gamblers don’t need to take any initiative, but it is a two-way street.

Towards the end of the interview, Schull explains why ethnographic research works well for studying things such as addiction. She sees ethnographic research as being a middle ground between anecdotal evidence (which can be easily dismissed) and statistical evidence (which removes the human element from this very human-centered issue). By having deep conversations with people for an extended period of time, she was able to collect a relatively sufficient amount of data while simultaneously not oversimplifying the issue.