Monday, November 9, 2015

Hooked on Addiction?

Like many people, I, at one time, had an addiction to the TV show Intervention. I took my first hit quite by accident. It was while channel surfing one night ten years ago and this guy, Gabe the gambler, appeared on my screen. How the heck could I not be transfixed. This kind of stuff was simply not show on television back then.

10 years later Transfixed would be the name given to a symposium that accompanied the Rendezvous With Madness film festival, currently in progress in Toronto. Both festival and symposium are devoted to the (un?)holy trinity of mental health, addictions, and their depictions in the media.  

I was so there.

The symposium was a day long panel event, but in reality more like a live talk show, where discussants and audience members were able to take in the frankly quite harrowing tales of addiction from people ranging from a one-time NHL star to a punk rock icon, and to do so alongside mental health professionals and media studies professors. If that doesn’t hit all the buttons, I don’t know what does.


The narratives of despair and despondency speak for themselves; though, as one panelist noted, their over-availability in the media can turn them into a perverse form of entertainment, as opposed to cautionary tales.

Having the media studies interest/bias that I do, I wanted to share a few highlights from the day’s discussions. Some truly penetrating insights were shared around the collision of a 24/7 media and technology-enabled world and portrayals of addiction -- whether they originate from fictional shows or movies or from reality TV.

Referencing academic work on the topic of ‘subalterns’, or those who exists outside the domains of conventional power structures, Scott Henderson, a professor at Brock University, spoke of the concept of immediacy, of everything being at our fingertips at all times. Immediacy, said Henderson, used to be the domain of the marginalized, pointing out that those with status or privilege pursued the stable, not the unknown. Immediacy and notions of taste were once at cross-purposes with each other.

Henderson also made an astute observation about auto-play as now being a default setting on YouTube and Netflix – that’s when the videos or shows just keep on going, unless you actually budget from the couch and do something to stop the process. What this does, as Henderson noted, is create a media environment with no beginning or end. It’s an ongoing carousel of programming in which we are constantly tempted by the allure of a better ‘something else’. As a result, it is not unusual for people to spend an entire evening clicking everything but watching nothing.  More choice doesn’t have to necessarily mean less control, of course, but the behaviour that many of us are engaging in is undeniable.

Ken Rogers, a faculty member at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design, spends a lot of time thinking about the relationship between media formats and their effect on our attention. Heck, he’s written a book on the topic. Rogers drew an interesting analogy between our use of media products and the pharmaceutical industry, where the same drug -- particularly in the case of opiates -- that is the cure can also be the culprit.

The difference, then, is the context of consumption. He went on to talk about freemium games, which are online games you can play for free, and then opt to buy additional tools and widgets to enhance your game play. If you’ve ever been pulled in by more rounds than you had expected of Angry Birds, Farmville, or Candy Crush you are likely nodding in agreement, acknowledging the slippery slope between playing a game, and having it play you. 

If this is sounding foreign to you it may be worth considering this thing called ‘the grind’, which is central to the design of many video games. The idea is that the flow of the game play is structured so that events happen that provide our brains with jolts of dopamine, so that we not only keep playing, but that we want to step up the level of game play, which is only possible, of course, by buying the additional tools or ‘lives’, so you can keep on slingshotting rocks at birds or obsessively lining up chocolate squares on your screen.

As Rogers put it, we think of attention as something that we own, that is ours, when in fact it is something that is transactional. We trade it for other things, and ideally the trade-off is a deal that is good for us, but as is the case with most deals, caveat emptor.

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