Dad was there for a conference. I bussed it from Los Angeles, taking any opportunity to dwell in Las Vegas. I don’t like the place exactly— zero sympathy for the place, the people— but love it in a way. Brain in high gear— oxygen, lights, rabble, desert, maybe just certain phenomena at such an extremum that I can really discern dynamics and trace them back to the wider world. The same was true for Atlantic City, but Las Vegas: so much more distilled and caricatured. Many of those dynamics involve late Western Capitalism— an extremely post-industrial capitalism since there are certainly no hard products being made or manufactured within the Las Vegas city limits, but many other general dynamics abound— involving power, strategy, social psychology, economics, and so on. I don’t know where my thinking’s heading here, but I just want to riff and spitball in my own language. The obstractive phase.
Let’s start with slot machines. Truly amazing contraptions that no one would believe existed if they didn’t already. Reverse ATMs. People sit down and get back eight dollars for every ten they put in. No tangibles, no products, no labor outside of maintenance— just pure expenditure linked to the customer’s reward circuitry. A dollar for the occasional shot of dopamine. What better business model could you ask for? A great caricature of capitalism’s mid-century shift toward compulsory enjoyment. A short circuit of the reward circuitry, which is another way of saying that it is an addiction.
This is what addictions are. Certain pleasing emotions— love, calm, excitement— can be found in our engagement with the outside world, but why bother when a pill or mechanism makes it unnecessary to look outside: hence the short circuit. Gambling is a short circuit of economic reward, which usually must be sought through productive labor (well, that’s the theory at least). At the same time, there is a labor of a kind, an actual expenditure— in “playing.” But it’s a “wheel that does no work.” Much like Zynga games such as Farmville, which is certainly no coincidence. Social media companies would be over the moon if they could maneuver the public into a purer casino-like form. They are, as you know, already designed to hook into reward circuitry in precisely the same way: the notifications, the funneling of attention, the short circuiting of the rewards of social interaction.
Again, one of those extrema I was talking about. If tendencies went unchecked, the internet would become one giant cybercasino in no time. Open 24 hours, glowing lights, pure dopaminic response without tangible goods, freely offered “labor” and cognitive surplus (people may think really hard about both Texas hold’em and their Facebook posts, but in the end, both Luxor and Facebook are indifferent to the content of that thinking— the results are measured otherwise). Social media and casinos are also industries that run simultaneously on the power of statistics and the power of people’s ignorance of statistics. Sheer actuarial might (and I won’t go into the connection with the stock market and arbitrage about which we could likewise ask: what precise service does arbitrage offer the social whole?).
Now, here’s an even deeper cut that I want to explore. What is statistics exactly? Statistics is the discipline that exploits differences in scale. That is, what is unknown on one scale (“will I win at this round of roulette?”) can import some fractional certainty from a larger, zoomed-out scale (“how many people will win and lose roulette tonight?”). Las Vegas and Online Entities such as Google and Facebook rely on a strategy of “personalization” (microscale) for its customers while maintaining a macroscale perspective for its business operations. This is a critical notion; since this constructed myopia goes straight to the heart of a lot of modern business models and practices, and masks a lot of the injustices in how economic power profits and plays out. For instance, classical political economy wants us to focus on the moment of the exchange, claiming it to be voluntary and symmetrical— “he gave them his money for it, because this was his price point, rationally considered”— while large capitalist entities tend to exert more influence in altering or even rigging the very conditions of that exchange (on the macroscale). Exchanges are not symmetrical, even though sometimes differentials may seem negligible when considered one by one (mere pennies). These small differentials compound into a mountain of difference and massive imbalances, and depend always on the relative sizes of the agents involved in the exchange. The House only has a tiny advantage on the tables and look at those golden results: this is what that tiny differential looks like compounded. The ratio of the powers involved must always be considered. Me paying a friend to mow my lawn (if I had one) would be voluntary and symmetrical because the ratio of our respective economic power is comparable (man:man). But comparing us to Facebook, to Bally’s, to Verizon, is like presuming an equal exchange between elephants and flies. Power-ratios (or scales) are essential for a true understanding of the exchange (including the concrete conditions and gradations of “voluntariness” involved).
Another example of this constructed myopia (again, no newsflash) is the inability or prevention of seeing or bypassing perimeters. Intentionally labyrinthine hotels and casinos (half of our time was spent finding our way back to our rooms— Jameson knows), the obliteration of day and night, the inaccessibility of the non-Vegas (casinos as far as the eye can see). Key is keeping us unable to even discern scale (just as Facebook would never let you see a full, unfiltered feed).
The macroscale perspective is the de facto intellectual property of casinos, just as it is for social media giants… (again, thinking outloud, might be obvious)… One of the central maxims of “free market” ideologues (in parentheses because it’s anything but free, but as rigged as the ring tosses in Circus Circus) is that a total myopia of the macroscale is perfectly fine, preferable, optimal even. The wholly myopic, rational self-interest and hard work of the individual (microscale) will inevitably lead to the best in the wider perspective, a maxim that— whatever its truthfulness— is certainly very convenient for those who want to keep the macroscalar perspective to themselves. It does prove true, in a way, as private advice (“hard work” and disciplined self-interest will advance the individual in material ways). And simultaneously, it meets the needs of those in power: they will gladly accept the hard work and personal sacrifice of those same individuals.
But it will fail on the macroscale, the social scale— a level that includes everyone. We can no longer see how much energy is wasted in pure competition and even mutual destruction (what is the economic measure for the ratio of energy spent productively versus competitively and redundantly?) When market ideologues urge us, as a society, to overcome joblessness by means of “hard work,” the insanity is obvious: it’s like trying to give everyone a seat in a game of musical chairs by speeding up the music.
Counterstrategy necessarily involves access to macroscale perspectives— swapping info, publishing strategies, calling the game, getting a bigger picture. But those in the know will likely be very jealous of their view. Wandering through Paris (casino not city), I saw a beehive-like pod extruding from one of the fake trees— a security cam— and started snapping pics. After a few seconds, as if himself emerging from a hive, a security guard screamed something about “calling Homeland Security” on me, since so many terrorists walk around casinos in trenchcoats taking pictures of cameras. I bickered with him a sec, promised not to take any pictures of “cameras, gambling, and dancers,” then went on my way. Later, around one in the morning, I was bored, pensive, walking, and found myself in Paris again, and started to take a video of a fountain spout. “Put it away” instructed a guard. Moments later, an entire squad had me surrounded. “What room are you in?” I stalled, asking questions of my own (always fun when you’re actually some place legitimately; Bally’s and Paris having a common owner).
They were being incredibly aggressive, all of ten of them, including the main honcho in a purple silk shirt and a once-broken boxer’s nose, bugging me for ID. A spot-on goon aesthetic pulled straight from childhood movies. “Is this not a public space?,” I asked, already knowing the answer. “No, this is private.” Private property dressed up to look like public space, naturally. A resemblance to make us say “ah, what’s the difference?” The difference could not be clearer at times like these. Permissions and liberties within such endless private spaces, such as these casino mazes, are purely at the grace and whim of the landlord. There’s no room for debate and self-assertion in such spaces. Suspicion is conviction. You don’t have to do something wrong, but merely not do something right to feel the mood quickly change. This helps explain why relatively normal people (people whose beliefs, desires and practices happily reproduce the social structures they were born into) don’t necessarily see the forms of control around them— they never hit the railing. But man, when you do…
As I threaded my way through the nearby casinos, security guards kept approaching me:
“Mr. Joyce, are you trying to get back to Bally’s?”
“No, I was just going for a…”
— “Bally’s is this way, Mr. Joyce.”
I was impressed how much they were nailing that deep dystopian false-paradise vibe, tracking me through the casinos like that. The false civility. The dreamlessness behind the American dream. I’ll make the same distinction here that I always do between the fake and the false, because I affirm what is fake in Las Vegas and decry what is false…
Daytime. Dad’s trapped in his conference. I walk toward the airport, trying to find a place where desert starkly meets city. Alongside an apartment complex runs strips of fake grass. A little further, I come across some fake grass lawns as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “fake lawns” because lawns themselves are fake, aren’t they? Lawns are Man’s attempt to make Nature into a carpet. The Astroturf lawns around Vegas are actually pragmatically and ecologically better (conserving water and other resources, staying green without toxic substances, etc.), more truthful in that they announce themselves as genuine artifice, and even more congruous with their surroundings (gaudy and grafted onto the desert, just like the city as a whole). People actually believe in lawns, however, and the possibility of belief is precisely what creates the possibility for falsity. People believe in lawns because they have been “naturalized” through comparison with neighbors and recent history, while The Fake, in my sense of genuine artifice, never tries to actually dupe. So something like bad knock-off designer bags sold in Chinatown would be fake, while the actual designer bags on sale in luxury stores are false.
I adore the fakeness of Vegas: its bad pastiche and “aesthesis” of history, its grass and indoor flowers, its LEDs and holograms, its “glitz, glamour, and grandeur” (haha— or its embodied announcement that “fanciness” died with the European aristocracy), its “galleries,” its painted clouds, its attempts at classicism, its architecture (love it!) and so on. Its falsity though, can start to get to me, especially this time around.
As I said, falsity depends on the possibility of belief; so my attitude often hinges on what the public might actually believe— and I just cannot tell sometimes. On the casino floor, I look in closely at people’s expressions. Do they think there’s some keen strategy to casino gambling? It’s a strict game of chance, with the odds against them. As I’ve said, the longer you sit there, the more you lose. The V.I.P. tables seem to have some air of respect or gravitas, but they’re just losing more money, faster. Do people know this? They have to know that they’re “turning a wheel that does no work.” If it is, as it could be, a paroxysmal suspension of economic rationality, an intentional waste à la Bataille, I can understand that. If it’s embraced as a game, an excitement well aware of the impossibility of a winning strategy, I can get behind that as well. I don’t really gamble at casinos, I do however play Mega Millions when the jackpot is bursting at the seams. I’ll never win; that’s not the point. It’s the ride, the suppressed excitement from the moment of purchase until the night of the drawing, when I’m half-convinced that I’m set to win millions. It’s the same suspension of disbelief involved in reading fiction or watching a movie: fiction is neither a deception nor a falsity.
I get particularly prickly when this falsity is ideological, in the sense of ideology as “discourse that covers power.” Again, not so much for Vegas itself. People on the whole know this place is a scam, but might fail to recognize the same scamminess, cynicism, and mechanisms elsewhere and back at home when their vacation is over, because it’s not as pronounced.
How much of the world is a scam? Far more than we’d usually admit (think universities). Contrary to some, the distribution of resources in our world is not granted by merit or measured by labor and contribution to the social whole. In fact, it’s not granted at all. Distribution is accorded by the power of access, the ability to extract or divert them from circulation or the commons. One way to do this— arguably the fairest way— is to meet the needs of a society, to contribute to the social whole in a way that is “needed” (though a loaded term, of course). I need a cheeseburger. I need a doctor. I need to get away from it all. Another way is through power-grabs irrespective of its contribution: proximity to the money supply and finance comes to mind, but also direct control of resources, forms of ownership and countless other systematic controls. Finally, the third is some kind of scam-based method achieved through an asymmetry of knowledge or circumstance, or by self-scamming ideology. In real terms, our access is most often achieved by some mixture of these three. And since we live in an exceptionally productive society, growing more productive every day, there are only so many “needs” to offer and to be met— leaving us with a mix richer in power-grabs and scams of greater and lesser degrees. This is why Vegas is such a bell-weather. There are no products as such; only promises, mostly scams in search of a sucker. The promise of sex, of money, and of fun— well, fun can definitely be had, but Vegas has figured out a way for people to pay out the ass for this otherwise free and abundant intangible, “fun,” much like all the oxygen bars tucked in the foyers of the casinos.
Likewise, as my dad pointed out, a lot of the draw of Vegas is the legality of drinking on the street. Public drinking, drinking outside in the city, along the strip or wherever, is another artificial scarcity in America, and contrary to the nature of alcohol if you ask me. I’m not much of a drinker myself, but when I do, the last place I want to be is trapped in a bar with a bunch of desperate individuals with no inner resource (= definition of a bar). I want to roam the streets. Sit on steps of a legislative building. In a forest. On a median. Vegas is definitely fun for this reason, except that you have to watch other people at their worst— normal people always look like their faces are sliding off when they drink, and what’s underneath is not pretty. At least you can do it though.
It’s similar with gambling, a scarcity made by man rather than god. This is changing of course. Reservations and riverboats are eating into Vegas’ monopoly on games of chance, which speaks to why Vegas is obviously altering their strategy, from a “come gamble, we’ll discount the rest” angle to a “family-fun and luxury goods— the other way that money spends itself” philosophy. This sucks because it means rather than lowering the price in order to get you there, knowing that you’ll get fleeced at the tables, they gouge you on all fronts. Counterscams based on individual discipline could be drying up; though I still have faith in tactical plays and ploys. At the very least, a man can still stay at Circus Circus for next to nothing a night and wander the streets for free insights into the human condition. This is my plan. To rent a room for three weeks and type a treatise, but not on Vegas.
The outskirts are also amazing. Run down. Desperate. Old casinos eaten by dog-eat-dog. Old Vegas. North. Fremont. Abandoned motels and lots overrun by cats. Meth freaks wandering up and down with their possessions in garbage bags. You can come to the edge of the desert like you would approach the edge of the Earth. I think my kick boils down to the fact that I work best amid stimulus. Pinball chaos. I’m not gambling, not pouring money into musicals and has-been spectaculars, but the sights and sounds alone. What I imagine is to rent a room for a month that sleeps four and run it as a rotating residency for friends coming in from Los Angeles.