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Farewell to the Machine (an essay)

Farewell to the Machine (an essay)

Farewell to the Machine

An Essay on Disconnection

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"Yeah, man, they call gambling a disease, but it's the only disease where you can win a bunch of money."

Norm Macdonald

You sit, cocooned in the din of lights, colors, and sounds, drawn into a hypnotic trance. Each button press sends a surge of anticipation coursing through your veins as you eagerly await the outcome. Time stands still as you fixate on the spinning wheel; the world outside fades into insignificance as you become engrossed in the moment. This is the one, isn't it? You can feel it down to your marrow–this is where you hit it big. You just have to. It's your turn, is it not? After all, you've been spinning for what feels like an eternity, and indeed, luck must be on your side soon. With each unsuccessful spin, the conviction grows stronger: it's only a matter of time before the symbols align in your favor and the jackpot is yours.

This mindset, the gambler's fallacy, is a deceptive trap that ensnares even the most vigilant players. It describes the belief that past outcomes influence future results, leading to the misguided notion that a series of losses increases the likelihood of a win. As you watch images whirl past on the screen, you can't help but think that your luck is due to change, that the next spin will break the cycle of disappointment and deliver the elusive jackpot you've been chasing. But in reality, each spin is an independent event completely untouched by previous outcomes. The odds of winning—or losing—remain constant with each turn of the reels, regardless of how many times you've played before. This fundamental truth is obscured by the allure of the gambler's fallacy, which tempts you to ignore logic and rely instead on intuition and superstition.

As the wheel comes to a stop once again, you hold your breath, hoping against hope that this will be the spin that changes everything. But as the familiar symbols and numbers flash, disappointment washes over you once more, drawing you down. The jackpot remains tantalizingly out of reach, and the realization dawns that it's nothing more than a mirage shimmering in an oasis-free desert, a trick of the mind that leads only and ever to disappointment and regret.

So what are we talking about? Are we within the smoke-hazed, windowless, and timeless walls of a local reservation casino, or are we at our desks, in underwear and nothing else, staring at Instagram, obsessively clicking refresh? That is the question, no? But, more to the point, what exactly is the difference?

While traditionally viewed as distinct realms, both gambling and social media activity share striking similarities, especially with regard to their ability to captivate and ensnare users, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the human brain to foster addictive behaviors. At the heart of both lies the promise of reward. Whether it be the thrill of a jackpot or the validation of a like or share, both activities trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and, perhaps worse, motivation. This dopamine rush serves as a powerful incentive, driving individuals to seek out these outcomes again and again in pursuit of that elusive high some call natural.

In the realm of gambling, this reward system is possibly most evident in the context of slots. With their flashing lights, enticing sounds, and unpredictable payouts, slot machines are skillfully designed to exploit the brain's dopamine pathways. They create a feedback loop of anticipation and reward that keeps players hooked for hours on end, even with mounting losses. Similarly, social media platforms employ a variety of techniques to trigger the release of dopamine, from notifications and likes to scrolling feeds and autoplay videos, each designed to keep users engaged and coming back for more.

Another critical similarity between gambling and social media lies in their use of variable reward schedules. In gambling, this takes the form of intermittent reinforcement, where rewards are delivered unpredictably and at irregular intervals. This uncertainty heightens arousal and maintains interest, as players never know when the successive big win might occur. Social media platforms utilize a similar strategy, with likes, comments, and shares being doled out inconsistently and often seemingly at random. This creates a sense of anticipation and excitement as users anxiously await the subsequent validation from their peers.

Both gambling and social media are characterized by their immersive and highly engaging nature. In the case of gambling, this often involves the physical act of pulling a lever or pressing a button, which serves to further reinforce the connection between action and reward. Similarly, social media platforms are designed to be endlessly scrollable, with no clear endpoint. Just use your finger. There is no bottom. This infinite loop of content consumption keeps users glued to their screens as they compulsively seek out new stimuli and experiences.

Take, for context, a quote from the Martin Scorsese film "Casino." The protagonist (for lack of a better classification) runs multiple Las Vegas casinos, backed by Midwestern organized crime families. Early in the film, this character, Sam "Ace" Rothstein (based upon an actual casino boss and mafia figure, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal), explains the fundamental guiding principle of the gaming industry:

"In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all."

Rothstein further explains in voiceover while the camera glides dreamily over stacks of hundred dollar bills and coins being churned and organized into piles, the point of all the glitz and glamor of Vegas, that feeling, carefully crafted, of exclusivity and luxury:

"This is the end result of all the bright lights, and the comp trips, and all the champagne, and free hotel suites, and all the broads and all the booze. It's all been arranged just for us to get your money."

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of both gambling and social media lies in their ability to foster a false sense of community. In the world of gambling, this can take the form of casinos that market themselves as social destinations where players can come together to share in the excitement and camaraderie of the gaming experience. It's not about the money! It's about the fun. Make some friends, pass the time.

Similarly, social media platforms purport to offer a virtual community where users connect with friends, family, and like-minded individuals from around the world. And what a revelation that is, no? You can meet and talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything you want. Multiple people. Dozens. Hundreds. Something that was virtually impossible outside of a chain letter twenty years ago. What could be the harm? Yet beneath the surface lies a shallow and fleeting form of interaction devoid of genuine connection or intimacy despite the implications to the contrary.

Both of these systems exploit the brain's reward system to foster addictive behaviors, utilizing techniques such as variable reward schedules and immersive design to keep users engaged and coming back for more. Yet beneath the surface lies a darker reality, as both activities ultimately isolate people from one another, replacing genuine human connection with a hollow and superficial facsimile, providing the feeling of connection to people when in actuality, you're only talking to the machine.

As someone navigating the labyrinth of depression while existing somewhere on the outer curve of the ever-widening autism spectrum, my relationship with social media has always been complex. Unlike many others, I do not experience the same euphoric rush of dopamine when engaging with social media platforms. Instead, I find myself mired in a sense of detachment, unable to derive the same pleasure from virtual interactions as my peers do. This is especially tricky for me to place, as I often find similar confusion to the pleasant reactions people seem to have from genuine interpersonal connections disconnected from the machine. Just two people talking. Face-to-face. And enjoying it. They do it all the time. Look at them, I think. It seems effortless.

So, is it just me?

Depression casts a pervasive shadow over nearly every aspect of my life, dampening even the most fleeting moments of joy. I often feel a rush of panic when confronted with the questions, "What do you do for fun?" or "What makes you happy?" How do you define either? Do most people have some kind of preternatural comprehension of these concepts that escapes me? The dopamine rush that accompanies notifications and interactions on social media, so exhilarating for others, is all but absent for me. It's as if my brain's reward system is wired differently (or incorrectly), rendering me virtually impervious to the enticement of digital validation.

In contrast to the perceived excitement of social media engagement, my experiences have often been marred by a profound sense of irritation and hollowness, sometimes to the point of conflict. This has, at times, been typified in my relationship with my girlfriend, who also grapples with mental health, specifically bipolar disorder. Her impulsive behavior online, while not in any way achieving the kind of destructive impulsivity so often associated with that disorder, has exacerbated my own feelings of insecurity, triggering a spiral of doubt and mistrust that strains our connection and forces us into discussions that quickly become deceptively complex to navigate. It seems we end up speaking different languages, neither of us fully understanding the other, but with her position considered average or normal—that social media engagement is just harmless entertainment—some interaction in an otherwise isolated world. Her position is not odd according to the masses. Mine is.

But, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying:

"Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus."

The masses, however vocal, are perfectly capable of being incorrect, whether intentionally or otherwise. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of social media is the false sense of community it purports to offer and how it coalesces to perpetuate both its inherently harmless nature and how vital it is, two concepts difficult to comport with each other.

Beneath the facade of likes, comments, and shares lies a barren wasteland of shallow interactions and fleeting connections. I find the disparity between perception and reality glaringly apparent. What appears on the surface to be a vibrant tapestry of human interaction is, in reality, little more than a digital illusion, a facsimile of community devoid of substance or depth.

Studies have linked excessive social media use to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, painting a bleak picture of a society increasingly isolated and disconnected from one another. As social media users become ensnared in a never-ending quest for validation and approval, the true essence of human connection is lost amidst the noise of algorithms and analytics.

My personal experience with social media has never been one of pleasure or fulfillment. Rather, it has been a relentless hustle, a constant struggle to fit the tone and yet present a curated image of myself to the world that seems effortless and genuine. Posting pictures of landscapes, food, and witty anecdotes felt like a performance, a thinly veiled attempt to promote my own endeavors, whether they be a memoir, a candle company, or a podcast. Social media reduced me to a sales representative. It reduces us all in one manner or another to sales representatives, constantly peddling a version of ourselves that grows increasingly disconnected from reality.

On the topic of sales, what is the reason that social media companies work so hard at keeping us coming back for more? Users are (perhaps unwittingly) transformed into commodities in the vast marketplace of online engagement. What began as a means of connecting individuals and fostering community has evolved into an incredibly lucrative industry driven by data mining, targeted advertising, and the relentless pursuit of profit. In this landscape, users are not just consumers of content but valuable assets to be exploited and monetized by the platforms they frequent.

At the heart of this transformation lies the commodification of personal data. Yes, your personal data. What you think, what you like, what you hate. Every click, like, and share generates a wealth of information about users' preferences, interests, and behaviors, which is harvested and analyzed by social media companies for the purpose of targeted advertising. From the websites we visit to the products we purchase, our online activities leave behind a digital footprint that is meticulously tracked and exploited for profit. Yet, the true extent of this exploitation often remains obscured from the average user. Social media platforms present themselves as free services, enticing users with the promise of connectivity and entertainment without ever revealing the true cost of participation. As a result, users are left in the dark about how these companies make money or what they're selling—a confusion that serves only to mask the truly nefarious nature of the commodification process.

In reality, however, if you find yourself puzzled by how a company makes money or what it's selling, the answer is likely staring you in the face: it's selling you. By leveraging the vast trove of personal data collected from users, social media platforms are able to offer advertisers unprecedented access to highly targeted audiences. From demographic information to browsing habits, advertisers can tailor their messages with surgical precision, ensuring maximum impact and return on investment.

Moreover, social media platforms are not content to simply sell access to users—they also seek to manipulate and exploit their behavior for profit. Through carefully crafted algorithms and user interfaces, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are able to manipulate users' news feeds, prioritize certain content over others, and encourage compulsive engagement. From addictive features like infinite scrolling feeds to notifications designed to trigger a dopamine response, every aspect of the user experience is carefully engineered to maximize time spent on the platform and, by extension, revenue generated for the company.

Remember:

"The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all."

Ultimately, the commodification of users on social media represents a fundamental betrayal of trust—a betrayal of the implicit social contract that underpins our interactions online. Instead of fostering genuine connections and facilitating meaningful discourse, these platforms exploit our vulnerabilities for profit, reducing us to data points in the pursuit of gain. We must recognize the true cost of participation. You can't win as a rule, but you have no chance if you roll with your eyes closed.

But lest you believe I am incapable of poking holes in my own assessment or am irrevocably convinced of my position, I think it important to address the obvious questions. Am I just a bitter loser? An angry loner lashing out at a system that I couldn't make work for me?

Perhaps, but after careful and rather harsh analysis, I don't believe so. Rather, I may be uniquely positioned on the outer orbit to witness social media for what it truly is: a machine that reduces each individual to a commodity, a cog in the relentless pursuit of profit and status. My reluctance to participate is truly not born out of spite but out of a desire for authenticity, untainted by the shackles of analytics.

I resent the way social media tricks us into thinking what we're doing is reaching a hand out into the darkness—all of us separated temporally and physically, reasoning understandably that social media may, in fact, be a lifeline or a light at the end of the tunnel. But however validating it feels and however real the connections may seem, it never felt like reaching out and touching someone to me. It felt like kneeling and praying to the algorithm—an exercise that turns us all into pseudo-sociopaths, divorced from authenticity in a manner that extends well beyond typical personality massaging in social situations.

When you log in, you bow to the machine and ask, "Who do you want me to be today?" To be successful in that version of the world, so many now inhabit with abandon and devotion, you must do as you're told. "Just roll with your fingers crossed," the machine whispers, "and leave the rest to me.”