Electronic terminals are taking over the casino floors in Las Vegas. Photo: Getty
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Addiction as art: How gambling machines – and the digital world – put us in “the machine zone”

A quiet revolution has taken place in gambling, with electronic terminals finely-tuned into the perfect devices for parting you from your money. Rather than thrilling you, they lull you into a calm, machine-like state that gives the illusion of control.

The gambling machines are coming. A new report has revealed that last year British people lost £1.3bn on what the industry calls “fixed odds betting terminals”, while bookmakers made a £47,000 profit from each of their 34,000 machines. The machines, and the losses, are concentrated among the poor.

These terminals aren’t just one more way to lose money, the equivalent of betting on horses. They are like a newly emerged and highly evolved virus, which leeches money out of its host while simultaneously sedating it. To see what I mean, we need to take a trip to Nevada.

In recent years, Las Vegas has undergone a quiet revolution. Card tables and roulette wheels have been removed from casino floors to make way for row upon row of electronic terminals. The reason for this is simple: the machines are wildly profitable – and the fundamental reason for that is they are intensely compulsive. Addiction has been refined to an art.

The American anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll spent fifteen years in Vegas researching the spread of these machines. She talked to users, including those who classify themselves as addicts. She also talked to the businessmen, architects and programmers who make the machines so hard to resist. In her book, Addiction By Design, she blows away outdated assumptions about gambling, and raises some hard questions about technology – not just for gamblers, but for all of us.

Card and dice games retain a patina of glamour, but machine gambling has no cachet. We tend to think of the kind of people who spend a lot of money on it them as dupes, short on sophistication. But the addicts interviewed by Schüll are intelligent and self-aware, able to reflect with painful clarity on the trap in which they find themselves. One of them went so far as to learn how the machines are programmed, in the hope that this knowledge would nullify her fascination with them. It didn’t work.

We also tend to imagine that the casino represents an escape from the boredom of monotonous lives. But Schüll’s subjects told her it was the other way round. Their lives are filled with uncertainty; irregular jobs and volatile relationships. Every day is a gamble. The machines, by contrast, soothe and becalm. Unpredictability is framed and contained, inside a pacifying ambience designed to blank out everyone and everything but the game.

In its traditional forms, gambling is a social activity. But machine gamblers, who often do jobs like waitressing, real estate or sales, feel burdened by the need to be hyper-sociable at work and seek out solitude at the end of their shift. A waitress told Schüll: “If you work with people every day, the last thing you want to do is talk to another person when you’re free. You want to take a vacation from other people.”

You might assume that gamblers keep pushing money into the slot because they are searching for the euphoric buzz of a big win. But the gamblers Schüll spoke to are remarkably uninterested in anything that might disrupt their immersion in the game. Schüll asked Mollie, a hotel clerk, if she was hoping to hit a big jackpot one day (Mollie had cashed in her life insurance policy for more money to pour into the machines). Mollie just laughed. “The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win,” she replied. So why does she play? “To keep playing – to stay in that machine zone where nothing matters.”

“The machine zone”, or simply, “the zone”, is the trancelike state users enter into in front of the terminal. In the zone, the rest of the world disappears. There are tales of gamblers suffering heart attacks, falling off their chairs and being rescued by emergency crews as the users around them remain oblivious. Machine gamblers play until they are physically, mentally and financially exhausted, and then they play some more. “The zone is like a magnet,” says one gambler. “It just pulls you in and holds you there.”

Other than addicts, nobody understands this state of mind better than the people who design the machines and the environments in which they are played. The most highly-paid talents in Las Vegas focus their efforts on keeping users in the zone for as long as possible, by creating an irresistible cognitive, emotional and sensory embrace.

The booths are designed so that users feel secluded from their neighbours and slip into the zone the moment they sit down. Ersatz “mechanical” sounds subliminally suggest the operations of physical chance. The games are bafflingly complex, though regular users are allowed to detect hints of familiar patterns among the apparent randomness. The lighting and the sounds are soft, even after wins, so as not to break the trance.

The payouts themselves are doled out according to algorithms minutely attuned the brain’s reward centres, creating just the right balance between frustration and reward, so that users never feel too disappointed nor too thrilled.

Deep in the zone, users can get the uncanny sense of being in control of the machine. One says, “Sometimes I feel this vibration between what I want and what happens.” Everything flows, including money from user into the machine, via her credit card.

Schüll’s book resonates far beyond the gambling industry. It has been remarked before that Las Vegas represents consumer capitalism in a distilled and concentrated form. Its latest evolution mirrors that of our own society. We live in a world of frictionless electronic flows. Information and entertainment stream to us through our screens. Brands target their messages with increasing precision at each individual, and even to each passing mood.

Looked at one way, Vegas’s machines are a tribute to the creative capacity of capitalism, and its extraordinary ability to model and respond to our needs and desires. Schüll isn’t unsympathetic to the industry executives she interviews, but as she points out, in the final analysis the dice are loaded. The machines always win, their users unable to defend themselves from this sophisticated and beguiling assault on their self-control.

There is a cautionary lesson for the rest of us here. While most people are not in anything like the predicament of gambling addicts, we are all becoming dimly aware that even though we don’t get charged for email or social media or the web, it wouldn’t be true to say we don’t pay.

The digital world, in which we spend more and more of our time, has designs on us. We feel we’re in control. Now and again we may look up from our devices and ask what – or who – is being played. But then we find ourselves drawn back into the zone.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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