Gamified Flow and the Sociotechnical Production of AI
Recent advances in AI, computer algorithms, and automation applications across industries have generated hyperbolic discourses about disruptive technologies. Futurists envision fleets of driverless cars delivering human bodies, armies of robots taking over jobs, and advanced AI systems outgrowing their superfluous masters. Extending into science fiction, such predictions distract from scrutinizing contexts in which lesser versions of these technologies already proliferate and appreciating subtler, long-term implications. Particularly the interfaces of a rapidly expanding attention capitalism and its gamified operations warrant closer analysis. Here, demands for frictionless services and coordinated mobilities necessitate strict surveillance protocols and continued engagement with platforms that transform attention into revenue. More than the formalized and singular manifestation, for instance, DeepMind’s AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero, and most recently AlphaStar, the current logic of accumulation desires the continued sociotechnical production of active participants in evermore data networks. The most lucrative and transformative AI systems of the future will rest on a gamified subjectivity, whose datafied claims to entertainment, movement, and income coincide with increasingly vertical corporate network structures.
Attention capitalism appeals to sensibilities of entertainment and, in no small part, competition. Applications therefore feature score-based systems, monetary and nonmonetary rewards, and certain privileges of access. Habit-forming interface design represents a crucial strategy whereby corporate platforms inject their on-demand services, automations, and AIs with life. To guarantee uninterrupted consumer experiences and efficient processing of goods and people, service environments are increasingly designed around concept emulating “flow,” a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2009) describes as an “optimal experience” in which the constraints of the inner and outer world are suspended. Csikszentmihalyi derives his ideas primarily from athletes and artists, but anybody losing themselves in an enjoyable and challenging activity can relate. In Csikszentmihalyi hands, however, flow remains largely a phenomenological account, abstracted from social and historical context. A more critical concept of flow might follow Natasha Dow Schüll’s (2012a) “machine zone,” a space in which addictive algorithms, ergonomics, and built environments capture gamblers’ attention. Dow Schüll grasps rising figures of machine gambling in Las Vegas and elsewhere not merely for flow’s own sake, but rather as a result of bankrupt states betting on casinos to fill their cashboxes. In other words, flow must be theorized as a priced commodity, a history of deregulation, and a market that continues to show immense potentials for global capital.