The Zone of Control

Or how I apparently do not have a true addiction to flow states…

Today I finished reading Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll. As a work of anthropology, it was larded with a lot of references to French post-structuralists and various other academic conceits that seemed extraneous to the meat of the research, but overall it was a phenomenal work of what amounts to extremely long form journalism. What I found very interesting about it, applicable to my own life, was the concept of “the zone” that machine gambling addicts seek. Schüll did a very good job of capturing these people’s pursuit of a state of losing control over larger things and thus pursuing micro-control situations of repetitive, costly gambling sessions.

What applied to me, albeit not at the level of a pathological addiction, was that I can find myself in that same sort of flow state while playing a video game like Civilization V, or reading a particularly captivating book. I find that lately, being here in Qatar, I have been all too happy to more or less black out the rest of the world, including work and other people. I find myself wanting to become absorbed in something that makes me feel as though I have some control over my time and thoughts as a compensation for the sense of lack of control that pervades most of my waking hours.

Writing a full reaction to the book would take more time than I have tonight, but that flow state, and the concept of “the zone” really do accurately capture the sense of trying to nullify existence in a world that feels increasingly without meaning or the ability to alter ones circumstances in any meaningful way without breaking strictures imposed both internally an externally by the expectations and power of others around you. This concept, as Schüll attributes it, developed as a formal construct in the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is very popular in the worlds of high technology, gaming, sports, and the arts. What is particularly useful about this concept is that it gives a simple description for a very complex psychological/neurological state that is morally neutral – one can be in a flow state of abject self-destruction or brilliant creativity but the overall principle remains the same.

Another concept that sprang to mind almost immediately after reading Schüll’s description of gambling addicts and their “zone” was the prescient description of soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It has become something of a cliché to refer to that work when discussing the contemporary world, but I do find it a very useful referent, since we read it in ninth grade and I find that even people with a solid basic education are familiar enough with the high points to use it as a shorthand for many otherwise complex sociological and political concepts. But in a world where the World State controls all life, much as seemingly impersonal, interlocking institutions increasingly control our own, the need for escape from all responsibilities and cares, and an illusion of having the choice to do so, were critical both in Schüll’s Las Vegas and in the world of Lenina Crowne.