Natasha Dow Schüll

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Living with the Machine: An Ethnography of Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas

Dr. Natasha Dow SchüllDr. Natasha Dow Schüll2008 Ethel-Jane Westfeldt Bunting Summer ScholarDr. Natasha Dow Schüll2008 Ethel-Jane Westfeldt Bunting Summer Scholar

Natasha Schüll conducted fieldwork for her dissertation in Las Vegas, a city commonly acknowledged as the epicenter of late capitalist consumer culture. Through the life stories of local women who consider themselves addicted to gambling machines, her analysis probes the links between lived experience, gender, and the intensifying technological circumstances of life in the contemporary United States. Schüll imagines her project as a response to a question posed by one of the gamblers in her study: "How to live with the machine?"

Unlike traditional slot machines, gambling devices such as video poker involve an element of skill that heightens their appeal. They have been called "electronic morphine" and "the crack cocaine of gambling," and represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of the gambling industry. Where table games such as craps and blackjack involve social interaction, gambling machines "technologize" the play, creating a direct and isolated relationship between player and machine. Addicted gamblers describe an experience of "machine escape" in which boundaries between human and machine become ambiguous. In the words of one gambler: "You are the machine, the machine is you."

"The technologized form of addiction that you see in compulsive machine play is a kind of knot through which you can explore larger dilemmas of the contemporary world," Schüll observes. Over eighteen months of fieldwork in Las Vegas, she conducted research among gamblers, doctors of "pathological gambling," engineers of gaming machines, and casino managers. Her research seeks to understand the dynamic interaction between gamblers' lives, technologies of chance, and an economic context in which consumption and addiction are intimately associated.

Drawing from a diverse range of scholars including Foucault, Freud, B. F. Skinner, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Georges Canguilhem, and Sherry Turkle, Schüll is investigating what happens "when acts of autonomy, free will, choice, and agency are pushed to their extremes in environments of intensified consumer excitation, challenging the assumptions of 'consumer sovereignty' and 'rational consumption' that underlie our economic system." She asks, "What can gambling addicts tell us about the constraints and possibilities for human life under the increasingly automated conditions of American consumer culture?"

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

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