Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects.
Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your earlier research on slot machine addicts?
Natasha Dow Schüll: My approach as an anthropologist is to explore how technology mediates cultural demands in human experience, and slot machine play and online poker play are two cases I’ve examined to get at that. I see both forms of play as responses to contemporary life but the ways in which they are mediated by technology, and the experiences they afford, differ.
Slot machines are set up in a way that affords escape from the world, escape from being a subject; gambling addicts describe a wish to exit worldly existence and gain a reprieve from the imperatives of contemporary life that press upon them—imperatives of clock time, monetary value, social interaction, and self-management. Online poker players’ interactions with the game interface and their use of tracking software is motivated by anxieties over the same pressures, but for various reasons their response is not to get out of the game, so to speak, but to stay in the game, to cope with its demands and challenges.
At the same time, they also want to be free from those pressures to some extent and, to that end, they employ assistive technologies like in-game tracking technology. So, they’re trying to be responsible subjects, managing themselves down to the second in a super calculated way, but if you look at how they’re doing it, you see they are delegating a lot of the labor of self-regulation to the software.
AWO: How did you arrive at ethical self-formation as the proper lens through which to understand the routines online poker players impose on their own behavior?
NDS: When I say that the online poker players want to “stay in the game,” you could understand “game” as a stand-in for life, and their in-game conduct as a striving for the good life. They talk remarkably little about playing to win—but they talk a lot about an ongoing practice of self-regulation and how to cope with chance and uncertainty. Slot machine gamblers don’t want to win either—but their aim is to stay in the zone of escape; by contrast, online poker players fashion themselves as self-managing, responsible subjects, with the help of software.
So, I mean “ethical” not in the sense of moral philosophy but self-care and subject formation. What kind of subject do you want to be? What are the techniques through which you fashion yourself as that kind of subject?
AWO: It seems they have developed such finely-tuned constraints for themselves that a worry arises that they may have eliminated too much of the human element of spontaneity in the way they play the game, and the question of “how not to be a bot?” comes up for them.
NDS: Right, and that’s an ethical question. As they implement techniques for regulating their own conduct and emotional reactions—software tracking tools, data analysis software, real-time behavioral prompts that are algorithmically triggered—they come up against the problem of going too far, of becoming “bot-like.” Whereas the slot machine addict finds relief in becoming automaton-like and exiting subjecthood, this is a problem for online poker players striving to form themselves as subjects.
AWO: I’m curious about how, as an anthropologist, you meld an attention to the ethical question of self-care and subject formation with an attention to the digital technology itself and the limitations of human capacities in relation to the complexity and speed of that technology. How do you study the human-technology interface ethnographically without attributing dominance to what’s happening on one side of it or the other?
NDS: I’m not quite sure what you mean by dominance, so let me throw the question back at you: What isn’t apparent or is troubling about examining the design and affordances of technology in the course of doing ethnography and asking questions about subjectivity?
AWO: What I’m thinking of when asking this question is that the presumptions we bring to fieldwork as anthropologists regarding the relationship between humans and technologies can lead to regarding one side of that relationship as more important. If we begin with the assumption that the technologies we use help us to express our agency, then this assumption can’t really be empirically refuted based on anything we learn about the design of the technology. On the other hand, one can see technology as exerting all the causality in the relationship and imposing its own logic on its users. It seems to me that it’s much more complicated to figure out how to follow causalities in both directions simultaneously.
NDS: When you speak of “the assumption that the technologies we use help us to express our agency” I think you’re describing an anthropological approach rooted in a certain, narrow form of humanism, when in fact cultural anthropology has a rich literature (past and present) that proceeds quite differently. I’m thinking here of work on dreaming, ghosts, trance states, possession, material culture, and interactions with plant and animal and ancestor worlds—all of which involve “selves” that are not neatly bounded agents, and analyses of subjectivity that move beyond divisions of human and nonhuman. That’s the anthropological thread that informs my work on human interactions with machines, digital media, and data, which is why your question wasn’t apparent to me at first.
I should say that my work is, of course, also informed by the literature of Science and Technology Studies (STS), which offers a rich vocabulary for analyzing how we shape and are shaped by technologies, and by the work of Foucault, who made a point of emphasizing that one can never separate questions of subjectivity and the self from questions of technology—and he made this point not only in his later work on “technologies of the self” but also in his earlier work on subjectification through architectural design, temporal regimes, and various rules of comportment.
AWO: Finally, could you say something about what you’re doing right now and where your research is headed?
NDS: For my Addiction by Design book, I kept returning every year to the Global Gaming Expo and casino floors where I would encounter new iterations of technology that in interesting ways reinforced (or sometimes troubled) the argument I was developing about the relationship between the design of technology and the experience of play. One of the last elements I researched was technologies of customer tracking and the use of “behavioral analytics” to make predictions and interventions into gamblers’ play.
I finished the book feeling I hadn’t exhausted my curiosity on the topic of data tracking—but meanwhile I was exhausted by so many years of research into the intensive manipulation of gamblers by the gambling industry. Around that time, I started to hear the term “quantified self” and learn about this emerging movement in which individuals applied tracking techniques to themselves and to their own behavior, and that seemed a perfect next project; it wouldn’t be on the tracking practices of Google or Walmart or Facebook or the government but on self-tracking—the tracking devices and algorithms and techniques that we devise and use on ourselves.
A key “bridge” between my first book project and the second was the paper that just came out in Public Culture about online poker players, because it allowed me to examine self-tracking practices in the context of machine-mediated gambling—something I knew a lot about already. Online poker players resemble slot machine players in that they also sit in front of screens and they can sometimes get caught up in the flow of technologically formatted gambling—but if you look very closely at the differences in how the online poker interface is designed, and if you consider that online players are not just being tracked by websites but are tracking each other and themselves, you begin to see key differences between the two cases.
The reason that the question of ethical self-formation comes to the fore in the case of online poker is that the players are not simply using tracking technology to get a strategic edge over opponents—but to practice regulating themselves in the face of chance, something they do online and offline. The analysis that I develop in the article regarding online poker players’ technologically mediated ethical project—and the challenges of that project—forms the basis for the argument about tracking and contemporary subjectivity that I’ll make in my next book, Keeping Track. The book isn’t about gambling technologies—it’s about how self-tracking practices have increasingly migrated out of the Quantified Self community and hacker conventions into mainstream life as seen in the explosion of wearable trackers (like the Fitbit) and smartphone apps (like MyFitnessPal), and what models of the self and self-care take shape in the process.
I argue that there’s more going on than a heightened ethos of self-management brought about by the increased outsourcing of responsibility to individuals. Certainly so-called “neoliberal subjectivity” is an important starting point for an analysis of self-tracking, but it’s too simple to end there. Ethnography is a great way to get beyond ready-made analytic scripts and tell a more nuanced story, and the story that’s emerging through my work with self-trackers and designers of self-tracking technology is one in which the aspiration for autonomy and responsibility is accompanied by a contradictory wish to delegate the labor of self-regulation to automated processes and devices. The research I conducted on self-tracking practices and technologies in the online poker community and the question of “how not to be a bot” was critical to my thinking around this predicament of self-regulation today.