Beware the Machine Zone

A couple years ago I was visiting with a friend whose roommate was working as a UX (user experience) developer for YouTube. He had recently done some work to redesign the main landing page—where you end up if you go to http://www.youtube.com as opposed to following a link to a specific video. He was boasting that his work had increased the average time that a person who landed on the main page remained on YouTube by 20%.

I asked him “What’s the end game? To get people to spend every free moment on YouTube?”

He seemed a little baffled by the question and changed the subject.

In his piece “The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook,” Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal takes up precisely this question in relationship to social networking sites in general.

Madrigal takes up the work of Natasha Schull, an MIT anthropologist of science and technology who has been studying both developers and players of digital casino games for a decade. Schull’s work is truly brilliant and deals with many issues near and dear to me, foremost the question of how interactive digital media technologies are designed to elicit particular kinds of relationships with users. She is especially interested in addiction and how casino games are designed to keep users in the “zone,” a place where they lose themselves in the cybernetic circuit of their own prescribed agency and the machine’s response. This is not winning, but rather a feeling of “flow.”

But whereas flow was defined by sociologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a psychological state where a person syncs with a rule-bound system in such a way that they can experience “simultaneous control and challenge”—like that day you won every game of ping-pong or couldn’t lose at chess—casino games engineer flow experiences to exploit that feeling, sucking users in. As Madrigal explains:

The games exploit the human desire for flow, but without the meaning or mastery attached to the state. The machine zone is where the mind goes as the body loses itself in the task. “You can erase it all at the machines,” a gambler tells Schüll. “You can even erase yourself.”

There is no meaning because the activity is outside of the social realm; there is no mastery because there is no improvement over time. You can’t get better at slot machines; outcomes are arbitrary.

Madrigal suggests that many of our social network technologies work on similar principles. We find ourselves clicking through hundreds of Facebook pictures, not because we “enjoy” it, per se, but because like digital casino games it fosters a kind of flow state which Schull calls the machine zone.

Madrigal evokes Bruno Latour–one of many STS scholars who have argued that artifacts have politics. They materialize ideas about users and ways of interacting with them. This is not, of course, 100% prescriptive. We can always try to subvert dominant programs for interacting with a technology, especially one as complex as social media. However, thinking about the YouTube UX designer and his unquestioned assumption that the longer he could keep people on the site, clicking on video after video of the content they “want,” I find myself very sympathetic to Madrigal’s call to developers to try to embed other ideas in their systems. He wants developers to code in counter-scripts that help people to “Just Say No To The Machine Zone,” say by encouraging them to engage actively with media (writing emails, reading critically, making art) or <<gasp>> even leaving the computer entirely. “[F]ighting the great nullness at the heart of these coercive loops should be one of the goals of technology design, use, and criticism,” Madrigal writes. If only people like the YouTube UX designer and casino game designers weren’t rewarded so greatly for doing precisely the opposite, exploiting the human desire for engagement in the service of collecting their “play” money and selling their eyeballs to advertisers.

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