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I was gambling in Havana

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Not really — I was driving down I-94 and US-131 in Michigan this weekend, and was bombarded with uncountable numbers of billboard advertisements for cannabis and gambling.

The situation in the USA at the moment in regard to these two activities is something of a legal mess: Cannabis use is fully legal in 18 states, that collectively are home to a solid majority of the nation’s population, but it’s still fully illegal in several others, and in a gray zone (some medical or CBD oil uses allowed; “recreational” use still illegal) in a bunch of others. Overarching all this is the absurd fact that marijuana possession and sale are still federal crimes, so technically the use of the drug can be prosecuted by the federal government in any of the states where state law makes the possession and sale of marijuana legal.

Gambling — in-person, mobile, on sports, etc, etc. — is in a similarly confused state right now, with the Internet making state-level prohibitions on gambling increasingly irrelevant, even as it becomes fully formally legal in others. The big pro sports leagues, in particular the NFL and MLB — have suddenly veered into enthusiastic partnerships with the gambling industry, after decades of pretending that industry didn’t exist. Those of us of a certain age, i.e., more than three years old, can remember how announcers on Monday Night Football and the like would sometimes make coy references to the betting lines – “a lot of people are very interested in this extra point” etc. Now they’re running the over/under in the graphic crawl at the bottom of the screen.

All of this is related to the larger topic of addictive substances and behaviors, and in particular to what the historian David Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” in his very interesting book The Age of Addiction.

Here’s a little excerpt:

As with alcohol, drugs, processed food and gambling, electronic media consumption is subject to the principle of hormesis—or more simply, “stimulation.” Stimulants often provide beneficial effects at low doses, harmful ones at high doses. Consumption runs along a spectrum from occasional, beneficial use to relieve boredom and boost morale—the digital equivalent of a coffee break—to heavy, escapist use that harms self and others. Clinicians differ over whether to call the latter condition internet addiction, internet addiction disorder, internet use disorder, pathological internet use disorder, or something else entirely. They do, however, discern a common denominator. The heaviest users are those who have come to strongly prefer recreational life online as a way of tuning out IRL (in real life) hassles. They behave much like machine gamblers slipping into the zone, save that most of their activities, such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, have a social aspect that reinforces the virtual seduction. No self-respecting World of Warcraft DPS (a character who inflicts a large amount of damage per second) would want to miss their guild’s next big raid. IRL types take a dim view of such pursuits. Teachers issue failing grades, parents threats, employers pink slips, spouses papers for divorce, and judges treatment orders for internet boot camps.

Libertarians and medicalization skeptics think forced treatment is absurd. The arguments over food addiction—Is it really an addiction like drugs? Is it an acquired brain disease to which some individuals are more susceptible than others?—have cropped up again over internet addiction. Only this time the debate has been messier, because internet addiction includes a much wider range of activities than compulsive eating. Among them are addiction to digital pornography, online gambling, video and role-playing games, adult-fantasy chatrooms, shopping on sites like eBay, social media platforms, and websurfing. Different groups of people display different types of addiction. Boys and men are more inclined to online video games and pornography, girls and women to visually oriented social media and compulsive buying. Some psychiatrists class the latter as an addiction, others as a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Courtwright argues that internet-linked mobile devices in particular now operate like gambling machines or drug dispensers:  “You’re constantly getting dinged, you’re constantly getting messages, you’re concerned about likes, you’re wondering about the latest post, you have this fear of missing out.”

He points out that, especially for young adults, smartphones not only supply access to the substance of various contemporary addictions, they also actively condition people to acquire these often self-destructive habits.  “Smartphone technologies,” he asserts, “arguably accomplish this better than any device or product in human history.”

One thing I knew nothing about before reading this book was online gaming: Courtwright has a lot of stories about World of Warcraft users, including the tale of a Clemson English professor who lost his job because he was playing it 60 hours per week. (When he finally quit to avoid losing his family he suffered the physical equivalent of heroin withdrawal).

I’m also meaning to watch The Social Dilemma, which apparently provides a really compelling if somewhat problematic glimpse into the world of Big Tech, where thousands of people are working at this very moment to make sure you look at your phone again as soon as you stop reading this post, assuming you’re not reading it on your phone already.

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