The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can't Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook

What an anthropologist's examination of Vegas slot machines reveals about the hours we spend on social networks
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The Machine Zone (Sarah Rich)

"People love Facebook. They really love it," Biz Stone wrote earlier this month. "My mother-in-law looks hypnotized when she decides to put in some Facebook time."

She is not the only one. ComScore estimates Facebook eats up 11 percent of all the time spent online in the United States. Its users have been known to spend an average of 400 minutes a month on the site.

I know the hypnosis, as I'm sure you do, too. You start clicking through photos of your friends of friends and next thing you know an hour has gone by. It's oddly soothing, but unsatisfying. Once the spell is broken, I feel like I've just wasted a bunch of time. But while it's happening, I'm caught inside the machine, a human animated GIF: I. Just. Cannot. Stop.

Or maybe it'll come on when I'm scrolling through tweets at night before bed. I'm not even clicking the links or responding to people. I'm just scrolling down, or worse, pulling down with my thumb, reloading, reloading.

Or sometimes, I get caught in the melancholy of Tumblr's infinite scroll.

Are these experiences, as Stone would have it, love? The tech world generally measures how much you like a service by how much time you spend on it. So a lot of time equals love. 

My own intuition is that this is not love. It's something much more technologically specific that MIT anthropologist Natasha Schüll calls "the machine zone."

"It's Not About Winning, It's About Getting Into the Zone"

Schüll spent more than a decade going to Las Vegas and talking with gamblers and casino operators about slot machines, which have exploded in profitability during the digital era as game designers have optimized them to keep people playing.

What she discovered is that most people playing the machines aren't there to make money. They know they're not going to hit the jackpot and go home. As Roman Mars put it in a recent episode of his awesome podcast, 99% Invisible, on Schüll's research: "It's not about winning; it's about getting into the zone."

What is the machine zone? It's a rhythm. It's a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It's a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens. You hit it again. Something similar, but not exactly the same happens. Maybe you win, maybe you don't. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It's the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.

"Everything else falls away," Schüll says to Mars. "A sense of monetary value, time, space, even a sense of self is annihilated in the extreme form of this zone that you enter."

In Schüll's book, Addiction by Design, a gambler named Lola tells her: "I'm almost hypnotized into being that machine. It's like playing against yourself: You are the machine; the machine is you."

There's that word again: hypnotized, like Stone's grandmother. Many gamblers used variations on the phrase. "To put the zone into words," Schüll writes, "the gamblers I spoke with supplemented an exotic, nineteenth-century terminology of hypnosis and magnetism with twentieth-century references to television watching, computer processing, and vehicle driving."

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Dancer Sara Yassky imitates/becomes an animated GIF in Cara De Fabio's She Was a Computer. (Loren R. Robertson Productions)

They said things like, "You're in a trance, you're on autopilot. The zone is like a magnet, it just pulls you in and holds you there."

Why these words, these metaphors? We don't cognitively grasp the state we fall into -- we only feel its grip on us -- the way we've merged circuits with the inanimate. You are the machine; the machine is you. And it feels ... the words fail. In fact, it feels like words failing because it is at the edge of human experience, bleeding over into a cybernetic realm best expressed in data and code.

The machine zone is the dark side of "flow," a psychological state proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In a flow state, there is a goal, rules for getting to the goal, and feedback on how that's going. Importantly, the task has to match your skills, so there's a feeling of "simultaneous control and challenge."

In a 1996 Wired interview, Csíkszentmihályi described the state like this: "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz."

Schüll sees a twist on this phenomenon in front of the new slot machines of Vegas, which incorporate tiny squirts of seeming control to amp up their feedback loops. But instead of the self-fulfillment and happiness that Csíkszentmihályi describes, many gamblers feel deflated and sad about their time on the slots.

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."

You can get away from it all in the machine zone, but only as long as you stay there.

The Facebook Zone

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When we get wrapped up in a repetitive task on our computers, I think we can enter some softer version of the  machine zone. Obviously, if you're engaged in banter with friends or messaging your mom on Facebook, you're not in that zone. If you're reading actively and writing poems on Twitter, you're not in that zone. If you're making art on Tumblr, you're not in that zone. The machine zone is anti-social, and it's characterized by a lack of human connection. You might be looking at people when you look through photos, but your interactions with their digital presences are mechanical, repetitive, and reinforced by computerized feedback. 

I'm not claiming that people are "addicted" to Facebook. Some of the gamblers quoted in Schüll's research do in fact have serious problems. But I am using their stories as Schüll did -- as sources of expertise on the zone, not to say their experience with slot machines is exactly like your average user's time on Facebook.

I point this out because there is a tendency to toss around the idea of addiction to various technologies like it's no big deal. But it is.

All of this to say: I'm not making an argument about the totality of services like Facebook. This is a criticism of specific behavioral loops that can arise within them.

The purest example of an onramp into the machine zone is clicking through photo albums on Facebook. There's nothing particularly rewarding or interesting about it. And yet, show me the Facebook user who hasn't spent hours and hours doing just that. Why? You can find the zone. Click. Photo. Click. Photo. Click. Photo. And perhaps, somewhere in there, you find something cool ("My friend knows my cousin.") or cute ("Kitten."). Great. Jackpot! Click. Photo. Click. Photo. Click. Photo.

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Multiple exposure, Mercury astronaut (NASA)

Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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