It’s fall in America, and that means it’s time to lose our collective shit over made-up holidays. The stores part their shelves, like the trenchcoats of flashers, to reveal garish Halloween-themed versions of the crap they always sell. Trucks of pumpkin-spice flavoring move furtively through the night, the arms dealers of the holiday shopping wars, playing all sides. Cities of the damned rise from the wastelands by the Amazon warehouses. The ghost of Christmas Future screams without cease.
So when I saw the line at the convenience store, snaking out the door and well into the parking lot, I assumed it was another outbreak of holiday fever. Maybe they released a peppermint-bark flavor of vape juice, or the peeping-tom drones were on sale, half off. Maybe a climate disaster is about to hit and I missed the news. Might be nuclear war, though in that case I expect the president would direct-message my phone to brag.
Alas, no. It was the L O T T E R Y.
That horrible hobgoblin, that twisted monstrosity of statistics, say not its name for it might appear. It appears first as a dullness in the eyes of its victims, a missing glint where hope should be. It feeds on hope, and haste, and a mistaken belief in the logic of fate.
This week, the beast was bigger than it has ever been. A record number of people got in my way at the store.
Every one of them fed the thing a little bit of their juice, of which it returned only a fraction. Take an hour’s pay, and a day’s worth of hope and dreams, and pour it into the machine. Receive a scratch-and-sniff card with freebase dopamine caked on. That momentary hit is so concentrated with drama and story that it overloads your brain. Like sugar, salt or fat, it’s a superstimulus. It’s an exploit of the human biocomputer.
Of course, the net is full of hot takes by the opinion class: Why do poor people do this one dumb thing? 18 ways you’re more likely to die than win! 1.6 billion dollars isn’t that much, really, especially after taxes, did you consider that, you plebes?
They blame the addicts for their symptoms, rather than confront the greater societal malady. After all, this is just a purified form of capitalism. Everybody works hard, does their part for the collective project, and one random fuckhead reaps all the benefits.
Even if, like me, you’ve never bought a ticket in your life, it’s impossible to avoid the insane anti-logic of the materialist cult:
If you win, it is because you are virtuous and beloved in the eyes of [INSERT MEME HERE]. Therefore, whatever you have to do to win is virtuous by definition. Success equals merit. Merit equals success. Praise [INSERT MEME HERE]!
We’re all vulnerable to this exploit. It hacks our subjectivity, our sense of separation and desire for unity. We each feel like the hero of our own story, and that warps our sense of probabilities. The slot machine and the stock market both feed on this romantic tendency. They’re engineered to seem solvable, like carnival games, and like carnival games they’re rigged. Your very special brain is sure that this time, it will be the one to pull the sword from the stone. Everybody thinks this, and so the line for the sword stretches all the way to the gas pumps.
The merit=>success meme preys on all four of our cognitive limits: too much information, not enough meaning, finite time and finite memory.
(from Buster Benson’s Cognitive bias cheat sheet, simplified )
Money is finite, as is our time for making it, so anything that offers more money in less time looks good to our brains. If something has a tiny chance of paying off, but it could pay off in a huge way, and it only takes a little bit of effort, why not try it? As somebody said at me the other day, “yes, the odds are bad, but they’re better than not playing!” Humans are bad at calculating probability and risk and opportunity cost, so we replace that with easier problems, like whether or not we feel lucky today, or if this gas station has a lot of winners pictured on the walls.
Successfully navigating capitalism requires way more time, memory, filtering, and connecting the dots than most people can spare. But taking a momentary gamble, a quick and desperate melee with the forces of chance and entropy, that’s just the right scale to make a good story. It’s personal. The difference between getting mugged and winning the lottery is huge if measured by the thickness of your wallet. But in another sense, they’re the same: you are special. You were chosen by Fate to have a non-boring life. Your unlikely experience makes you a better person.
I’m sure that winning a billion dollars goes to your head no matter how you get it. In a world where success equals merit, the rich and famous are treated like demigods, and they act like it. No normal person could get away with absorbing teenager blood or making an army of flying robots or selling weapons-grade flamethrowers (though we all want to). Rich people are special. Privilege means private law .
The slimy bulk of the E C O N O M Y slumbers in the deep. L O T T O and C R Y P T O and S A L E thrash in the waters. Their tentacles wriggle through the black mirror in your pocket, coiling around your brain stem and hijacking your limbs. You find yourself standing in a line so long that you cannot see the front or the back. You cannot remember what is to be achieved at the front of the line, or what horrors you have escaped by trudging forward. The people around you haggle and cheat, scheming to swap places, to accelerate their progress.
You could back-stab your way to the mysterious goal, but why rush? We’re all going to get there someday. At least, that’s what they say. And in the meantime, there are so many interesting games to play…
Thanks for reading,
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