What does the local culture say that Las Vegas is considered “the ninth island”?
Yes, Nevada’s lower cost of living attracts locals, and the state is home to one of the largest populations of Native Hawaiians outside of Hawaii, but that doesn’t fully account for how often locals do. go to the desert for a vacation.
Consider the attractions instead: gambling, food, nightclubs, shows, music festivals and shows. Easy access to drugs and prostitution (Prostitution is legal in Nevada, except in its big cities Las Vegas and Reno, but still easily accessible.)
Las Vegas, a sprawling testament to hedonism and decadence, is an apt vacation destination for a local culture that seems resigned to political apathy, growing inequality, and escape fantasies.
For my money, Vegas is synonymous with slots. But this humble slot machine, the one-armed bandit, has evolved over time.
The modern video game machine is a technological marvel, carefully designed to trap and exploit a user, says Natasha Schull, cultural anthropologist and author of the book “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas,” published in 2012.
In addition to studying the science of addiction and the engineering behind slot machines, Schull’s book includes interviews with drug addicts.
Schull says many players seek out “the zone,” describing a dissociative trance-like state in which day-to-day worries and body awareness fade away, along with any sense of the passage of time. Game designers recognize the desire of the addict and design their products to maintain a flow of hypnotic action and maximize the user’s time on the device.
“On the extreme extreme of the spectrum, gamers will spend entire weekends in this kind of trance,” Schull said in a lecture a few years after the publication of his book.
Schull says gambling isn’t necessarily about making money. Instead, it is an addiction to the state of flux that is achieved when woman and machine become one. So we can’t solve the problems “by giving people lessons that they probably missed in high school.”
This understanding of play as a compulsion to escape reality helps us make sense of the constant demand for play in heaven. During the pandemic, with travel to Vegas limited, illegal gambling halls were regularly dismantled in Hawaii. Each time, thousands of dollars’ worth of machinery were seized, often in bare, grimy rooms.
Why do people endure these hells for hours? Maybe because the hell they are escaping to is better than the one they are escaping from. Perhaps because the local culture rewards and reinforces addicting behaviors from the cradle to the grave.
Early addiction education
At a recent family reunion, I noticed my 3 year old cousin was captivated by his iPad. He was learning to read and his iPad was helping him with three letter words: CAT; HAT; etc.
He pressed a button and the letters spun on three reels of slot machines. He was thrilled every time they lined up, putting the music or the animation to the fore. For example, a cartoon cat would emerge from the machine and wink, strengthening the bond between word and referent, but also reinforcing compulsive screen-based behavior.
I imagined his future. In elementary school, well-meaning teachers attribute educational software that “gamifies” learning by combining it with variable reinforcement. In college, he pays for Fortnite skins and plays Roblox or Minecraft for hours. In high school (if not earlier), he’s on social media with his friends, initiated into the infinite scrolling of Instagram or TikTok, hungry for the dopamine drop of notifications.
By the time he reaches adulthood, he is immersed in a world of addicting design. Social media companies optimize the time spent on a device, feeding it a constant stream of notifications and news. Advertisers know when it’s prone to impulse buys and they tailor their offers appropriately. And more banal addictions remain: sugar, coffee, alcohol, pornography, sex, drugs of all kinds.
It is the cultural environment in which our children are raised. And the only thing that has changed is the technology.
After all, gambling is an integral part of the local culture. From pogs to cockfighting, dollar flip to sports betting, billiards to poker to mahjong. Someone right now is playing in Hawaii – probably someone you know.
Legal gambling and speculation
Proposals to legalize gambling in Hawaii often start from this premise: locals love to gamble, and it’s best if they do it right here at home. Also, imagine all the money we can snatch from tourists.
Money fountains are tempting and get-rich-quick schemes are rampant in Hawaii at this point, especially among disgruntled young people. Casino dreams take place alongside cryptocurrency trading, NFT investing, tiered marketing, drug dealing and, of course, real estate speculation.
Meanwhile, Hawaii is languishing as the second worst state for doing business, according to CNBC. The unprecedented cost of living and cost of doing business rankings contribute to this overall ranking. To be fair, our ranking includes one strong point: Hawaii is the second best state for quality of life (now called life, health, and inclusion).
Somehow, I don’t think drug addicts who seek out “the zone” feel their quality of life is high. But I could be wrong.
In my experience, the desire for risk taking and the desire for negation mix in the addict. And if we think it is natural or inevitable for the masses to seek the latter, it only tells us how limited our vision is, how fragile our hope is.
Is renewal possible?
We have designed a world in which upward mobility has stalled and our local middle class feels increasingly insecure. Given this, gambling and speculation are an attractive escape. They ease our pain and numb our senses.
We cannot be naive about the hurt and dislocation that people feel. If we remove the narcotic effects of gambling, Netflix, pornography, video games, and social media, we may well find a community torn apart by cynicism and rage. The challenge is to create a world worth living in, a world we don’t feel pressured to escape.
Civic renewal requires that we pay attention to our environment. We need to rethink our built and natural environment, our economic and social institutions. If they’re not worth our time and attention, we must.
Renewal means investing in small, reliable actions that benefit our community. This means picking up litter at the beach; volunteering with a non-profit organization to help the little ones among us; or join a church, club or sports league.
These solutions might seem small compared to the problem described above, and they are on purpose.
I have found that in the halls of power, most public servants are unwilling to admit that the problems are so serious because it would force them to act with urgency and determination. And a call to action would expose the fact that many potential leaders lack vision. They cannot imagine life other than as it is, so we cannot trust them to guide us into the future.
Change will come from within the community. It will spring from spontaneous human association, as people wake up and realize that life can be better.
Civic renewal cannot be the product of central planning. There will be no glorious revolution, no one leader who can serve as the vessel for our dreams. Renewal is a project of several people, several generations working together.
Our first step is to flee Las Vegas, leave the area, turn away from the screen, and take responsibility for what comes next. We must not leave the future to chance.