Featured

Digital World

In the coming year The Machine Zone is broadening its scope to examine how digital technology is affecting our lives and wellbeing. We look ahead to possible futures in the next couple of years and beyond.

We continue our work around digital gambling at beatthefix.com . In many ways the subject of digital gambling is an encapsulation of the wider social and cultural impact of digital technology. Like so much in rapid technological development it has shown the inadequacy of old ways of thinking. Governments and regulators are ‘catching up’ with an unanticipated development (unseen, for instance, in the liberalising framework of the 2005 Gambling Act). More broadly, Professor Rebecca Cassidy argues in her 2020 book, Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling :

An experiment which began in the 1980s ((financial deregulation, neoliberalism)), to shift the burden of risk from the state to the citizen, has increased inequalities and changed the ways in which we imagine wealth is created and shared. Gambling has been at the heart of these shifts: in the City as it deregulated and embraced riskier, increasingly complex and opaque ways to make money, becoming less and less accountable as a result, and in government itself, which encouraged citizens to become self-sufficient individualists.

Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling

We now live in a world where we are strongly encouraged, ordered, commanded to see ourselves as self-sufficient individualists’. Thus, our ill or well being is seen as a matter solely of personal responsibility and choices. We are seen as isolated atoms, disconnected from not only each other but also disconnected from the power of business (for instance products, marketing and advertising), immune from vast social inequalities, disallowed from understanding that things like poverty or poor education may influence who we are. We must ‘stand on our own feet’.

Digital machinery turns us into data which is controlled and manipulated by powerful bodies. Increasingly, decisions of public welfare make appeal to population-level data and rarely to actual, living human beings. There are, fortunately, dissidents. (Staying with gambling, for instance, real individuals campaign about real human stories). ‘People not Data’ could be a battlecry. We see a healthy increase in citizens working together to bring the voices of real people to the fore.

Big Data follows us wherever we go. Algorithms keep us under constant surveillance. Facial and other biometric technology turns our bodies in real time into data. Data is bought and sold for enormous sums.

One huge expansion of digital technology is ‘digital health’. This is being promoted as ‘A Very Good Thing’ – not only by companies vying with each other for huge profits, but within the NHS, governments and Third Sector health organisations. We’ll look more closely in the coming months at what ‘digital health’ means. It ranges from record keeping to mental health apps, from thousands of ‘nano robots’ introduced into the body to fight disease to personal monitoring equipment. At its most spectacular it merges with the visions of such futurists as Ray Kurzweil who prophecy the end of illness and the defeat of death. (At one time in recent history ‘genomics’, the manipulation of genetic material, made similar wonderful claims that sadly failed to materialise).

We’ll examine digital health as part of the digital world, but we can only do this in a cursory way. There is an enormous number of academic research bases devoted to digital life and digital futures. Many universities have new departments devoted. Military and medical corporations are big players. Everything we touch these days is connected to digital machinery. Education, health, leisure, shopping, the ‘internet of things‘. Yesterday (28 August 2020) Elon Musk announced the successful implantation of a chip into a pig’s brain: the research is related to enabling control for people with a brain damaged, for instance, by stroke. (There’s a backround paper by Musk here). Others, with much broader enthusiasms, think on the possibility of ‘uploading’ a human mind into digital storage.

The digital world is invisible, like gravity. We only see its effects. At the level of a person, stripped of much personhood and what makes for a healthy and flourishing life, digital infrastructures become an extension of the nervous system. Even without wires and brain transplants, many are ‘hooked’ into digital social media, digital friends, digital games, digital scrolling, digital addiction, digital shopping, digital entertainment, digital distractions, a careless giving of information to digital surveillance. Digital gambling is but one manifestation and the purveyors are happy to take not only money but minds.

 

 

 

 

Free to Live However We Want

An opinion piece by Adrian Bailey who is a volunteer with The Machine Zone CIC

If we want to we can eat junk, smoke, take drugs like alcohol, gamble, and to hell with ‘health warnings’ or ‘health education’. We’re free to have a big say in risking our health (and if we get sick we have every right to demand free treatment). We’re free to increase risks of shortening our lives. You only live once. Seize the day.

That freedom is guaranteed in law. Public health and schools educate about health risks so people are informed about risks in patterns of behaviour and consumption. Some things are tightly regulated. For instance heroin is illegal. Tobacco consumption is illegal in public spaces, and there are annual tax and other smoking disincentives; advertising is banned. Voluntary agreements with food industries see reductions in salt and sugar content, for instance.

Personal experience suggests for many of us that we don’t usually live life based on cold rational principles or facts. While many not realise associated harm risks, among those of us who do we may prefer unhealthy ‘comfort food’ over minimising health risks: we’d rather be comforted now than think beyond the moment. Similarly, while we may have every intention of eating healthily, cutting down on the booze, giving up smoking, ‘soon’, we’re too frazzled to think about it just now. That’s OK. That’s one way we humans are.

The UK government set up a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in 2011. It’s more popularly known as the ‘Nudge’ initiative designed to gently nudge us towards more satisfactory states, including health. Now fully independent of the government BIT has recently turned its attention to gambling behaviour. The idea of gently ‘nudging’ over dogmatic instructing is common to all health education. It should be noted that all attempts to ‘nudge’ and educate through things like BIT, public health, campaigners etc. are seen by some as an affront to personal liberty. ‘Stop treating us like children’ is a common mantra. There’s a significant population of people who are ‘libertarians’ and, roughly, believe we should be free to live without others telling us how to live our lives provided we don’t harm others. This is a respectable viewpoint (given here in a very compressed form that doesn’t do it justice), and in a democracy as essential to be heard as any other population sector such as right wing, centrist, liberal, left wing, individual, environmental, spiritual, religious, conservative, ameliorist or whatever other crude label chosen to represent the vast number of points of view which in our political lives interact in dynamic fluxes too complex to be simplified. We disagree, we lobby, we campaign, we oppose, we compromise, we reach agreement, we fail to satisfy everybody, we may support the status quo by operating within it, or we may be radicals striking at the roots of the status quo. A special mention to the emergence of issues based political involvement. There has always been such as in  the abolition of slavery for instance, or pacifism, and now increasingly gender politics, environmentalism, human rights, lgbt and queer politics, radical mental health movements such as anti-psychiatry and countless more issues. Grassroots and third sector work is usually issue based such as around mental health, addiction, housing, poverty, neighbourhood enhancement, transport, energy, As Aristotle said, we are ‘political animals’. To adopt a stance of ‘not being political’ is also a political act especially by virtue of its contribution to the continuation of the woes of the world in general and our immediate neighbours in particular. So it goes.

Anyway….

Smoking is one of the few pleasures for poor people. We should not make them suffer with draconian regulation. So claimed then Labour Health Secretary, John Reid, back in 2004 when government began considering legislation to reduce tobacco harms. An ex-smoker himself, he said adults should be able to make up their own minds about risky health behaviours. His views were the same as those of the tobacco industry, and Forest, ‘the voice and friend of smokers.’

This ‘freedom and responsibility’ of the individual narrative is one which runs through contemporary debates about gambling harms. It’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about it.

Reid was a formidable politician, known as ‘Tony Blair’s rottweiler’. He was raised in a Bellshill working class family. He lived a working class culture based which included smoking, gambling and drinking as regular parts of life. That, and a masculinity of hardness and ‘don’t mess with me’ view of the world.

He was right to identify a sentimental middle class patronising of the poor working class, those constructed not just as poor materially but poor in intellect, good manners, moral agency, and containing other such ‘deficiencies’.

Culture is a flow of many different cultures, streaming together, affecting each other, shifting and changing. It certainly isn’t limited to a night at the opera. Within working class cultures, there have always been efforts to escape the negative aspects such as male violence. A matriarchal working class has frequently dedicated itself to seeing children enjoy a better quality of life, rising through the ranks as it were. Also, in earlier times, there have been powerful working class campaigns to mitigate the damages from gambling and drink. Many streams flow into the river that we, for convenience, label working class culture. Among them must be included the educational and intellectual streams, a long history of mutual co-operatives of worker education organised and led by workers. Hundreds of years ago, Scottish weavers were at the vanguard of such education. The rise of ‘the respectable working class’ from the late nineteenth century onwards, the growing clerical class answering the bureaucratic needs of rapidly expanding commerce and business, are another stream.

Working class solidarity led to demands, actualised in unions, to mitigate low wages and harsh working conditions. From this emerged concerns with wider social and political issues and a recognition from the needs of the most downtrodden in Glasgow to the unjust exploitation of workers in foreign lands. Many working class people today continue the long tradition of thinkers and activists. Others, of course, promote actions by which children born into poverty can ‘move up’ the social ladder. ‘Education, education, education’ was a mantra Tony Blair, for instance. (Since the current education system results in a quarter of the Scottish population’s being functionally illiterate, there may be some ways to go here).

Cultural reproduction (learning peer, family and community values and behaviours) occurs in all classes. With regard to health, members of every class, since they are unique individuals not inevitably made into robots determined by environments, develop healthy and unhealthy lifestyle habits. Doctors are among a large occupational population which exhibits dangerous alcohol behaviours. The cultural learning of sectors of the working class population reproduces unhealthy habits like smoking, unhealthy eating, use of alcohol and other hard drugs. This is, an absolutely essential point, at a population level only. The majority of people, like the majority of doctors, demonstrate lifestyle factors on a continuum: many individuals and families prioritise healthy behaviours; community organisations, led by community members, exist in their thousands to promote and support good health, and to especially provide non-judgmental community support to those who wish to become healthier, particularly with regard to what is referred to as ‘mental health’.

Human beings share most basic aspects of living. There may be, reading this, an overweight or clinically obese consultant doctor who enjoys her cigarettes and daily doses of alcohol. She would not take at all kindly to being told to change her ways. She knows, more than most, the risks she is taking with her health. The stressed-out A&E junior doctor wouldn’t need telling that their amphetamine use to stay awake, their ‘downers’ after a long shift, is a dangerous issue for themselves and others. Being human, many of us act today and tomorrow is a future that we’d prefer not to think about.

Middle class people actually consume more alcohol than those in deprived communities. They can afford it (and it should be noted here that there is a thriving illegal spirits business filling two lite bottles of ‘vodka’ at three quid a bottle for the poor who want it|). Middle class people by and large are protected by a reasonably healthy diet which to some extent limits alcohol physical health damage; they may smoke heroin with less harm too. By no means are all individuals in a designated ‘deprived community’ the same. In terms of deprivation, for example, it’s not an opinion but a fact that people here give proportionally more to charity, support each other in fundamentally human relationships, and represent the least deprived of compassion compared with those of the leafy suburbs. All gross generalisations, of course, and that’s the point. As a point of absolute moral or any other consideration, we should not ‘see’ a person in terms of class, gender or any other abstract data profiles. Though that ‘should’, of course, is itself a moral judgment.

On this website we are engaged with raising red flags and unashamedly campaigning for achievable political (governmental) strategies to mitigate health and social damages, specifically those due to gambling. Rightly or wrongly, our approach mainly employs a rhetoric of extremes. Were we to engage directly with the many relevant institutional stakeholders, we’d obviously seek to employ ‘appropriate discourses’. To a limited extent we are already doing the latter. When our future work in the community commences, when we engage with individuals, we are looking forward to relaxing into that lovely discourse of being with real, unique humans like us. At this point the skills, experience, training and knowledge bases of the volunteers involved here will continue their many decades of practical one to one and group mutual support.

There’s a lot of teaching granny to suck eggs here. We know, respect and celebrate the enormous experience and sensitivity of the people working in community settings, their total and unquestioned human focus. You can’t change somebody’s life by pumping ‘knowledge’ and facts and dire warnings into them (and anybody who makes this their goal is not only silly, they may be  dangerous). Imagine a doctor telling her patient that she’s grossly overweight and could drop dead on the way out of the surgery versus a doctor who suggests the patient may benefit from losing a few pounds. Imagine a doctor whose approach to somebody experiencing devastation from addiction saying that they won’t treat them until they stop using alcohol or other hard drugs or gambling versus a doctor who says she knows and understands and is going to do everything in her power to help.

Coming into contact with ‘the human touch’ may be down to chance and maybe it’s impossible for research to demonstrate its crucial power. Among the great work going on there is, sadly, also a strand of well-meaning folk who lack experience and wisdom, and use encounters to push ‘advice’ that may be at best useless and at worst harmful. Listening to is more important than talking at. The words on this page are empty vapours and have no relevance or importance to human contact, human touch.

John Reid’s instincts were right, even if his thinking wasn’t. The changes to tobacco legislation mooted in 2004 and now fully implemented have resulted in very significant reductions in tobacco damages. His instinct to be repelled by ‘them up there’ constricting the agency and freedom of the great unwashed is spot on. By and large, from doctors to policy and strategy designers, work has been sensitive and realistic. It has recognised massive structural issues such as inequality (often working to alleviate them). It has realistic and moral humility. It priorities this unique individual who may need, support, advice here and now.

 There isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the slightest whiff of prohibitionism in tackling gambling harms. People will continue to gamble, drink, indulge in all sorts of unhealthy behaviours. What we can do is reduce the pernicious value of profit before people which so often exploits our nature and our behaviours. None of us are rational machines. Those who think we are such biological computers are wrong.

Closing The Machine Zone

We’ll be closing the company in a few months.

We shall be closing the company and associated websites soon

This is to allow us to focus entirely on our FIlm AND ITS DISTRIBUTION TO COMMUNITY EVENTS THROUGHOUT SCOTLAND

We will soon begin a new Community Interest Company named One Last Spin. This will be part of our total focus on touring the film throughout Scotland in 2022 at community events.

The present company and activities such as websites and associated social media will wind down slowly. Any relevant content will be exported to a new website for the film.

The essential parts of Gambling Watch Scotland – Martin’s video, Support and other links – will be transferred to  the new site. The film will be premiered in December.

Then we aim to screen it at community events first in Glasgow, then throughout Scotland and possibly south of the border. After a run in film festivals, One Last Spin will be made available in the pubic domain on our new website.

After four and a half years we think we have been able to make some contribution to debates. Certainly we have met some of the best people that there are. As well as countless individuals whose very existence has been life-enhancing, we thank those third sector organisations who have given us so much support.

We shall continue this site and related twitter account on a reduced basis until domain and site hosting expire. As the Machine Zone winds down, a new company and site will rise! We think, and certainly hope, that by getting our film out there to as many people as possible we shall achieve a purpose at grassroots and community level. So it makes sense for us to focus just on that. There are so many things happening and beginning to happen in tackling gambling damage that we are well placed to offer a simple, clearly focused thread.

If you’re a community group anywhere in Scotland who’d like to host a screening, designed to fit with your own contexts, do get in touch. For now, the best place to contact us is info@gamblingwatchscotland.org.uk We’re also seeking directors and advisers for the new company. As we see it, the practical side of arranging screenings is pretty straightforward (famous last words!); we would hope though that each event acts as a seed for local citizen involvement and also offers clear directions for immediate support to individuals seeking help for themselves.

Whether you’re in Shetland or  the Scottish borders we look forward to meeting you at a screening. And don’t forget, if you’re outside Scotland you can also consider a screening. We also welcome expressions of interest from statutory services such as in the health and social care sectors, public health, local and national government, educational training and professional development, justice sectors, workplace and trade unionss, and anywhere where gambling harm is an issue.

This post is just a heads up. Much more to come regarding the film’s progress. We believe the film is immensely powerful based as it is on the human testimonies of those whose lived experience of gambling damage ouweigh so powerfully all the data crunching in the world. That, and the sheer professionalism, creativity and dedication of all the crew, actors, producers and director.

We’re not going away and there’ll only be a slow shift towards sole focus on the film’s distribution.

Evidence and Rhetoric

There’s isn’t a debate about gambling harms. There are many debates. Some forums of debate witness very emotive rhetorical polarisation which at their worst see folk resorting to personal insults rather than cooler exchanges. One ‘hot topic’ is to do with claims about ‘evidence’ or the lack thereof.

Adrian Bailey, a volunteer with The Machine Zone reflects on the state of debates around gambling and its harms.

Zoomed Out: why human contact matters

Many of us are not happy taking part in online meetings or online consulations with doctor or therapist. While accepting their necessity during the Covid lockdowns, and their usefulness in many cases, Zoom fatigue is yet another phrase to add to the dictionary of digital vocabulary.

In the longer term, we can agree that for some contexts such as business or other communications structured properly with a tight agenda, distance meetings have advantages: they save travel time, costs and are good for the environment. Formal meetings ideally would be strictly rational affairs, each participant following the long-established conventions of taking part. True, in many cases there are informal aspects of human involvement such as anger, irritation, sheer boredom. Sometime the ideal business structures of meetings fall apart as emotions take over.

Anyway, our concern here is with the suitability of online contact for mental and physical health treatment and support. Certainly while it was all that available it had much benefit. But there is an alarming tendency in some hot-eyed ‘digital health’ enthusiasts to promote it not as a necessary compromise but as the way forward to a bright new future. This vision can also include abolishing any form of contact at all. For instance, ‘smart’ devices can deliver and monitor our health and wellbeing. Little smiley faces can be programmed to pop up every half hour to remind us to ‘Be Happy!’.

Let’s consider the best case scenario in which you join an online one-to-one or group therapy/support session. How does this differ from being in the presence of real people?

Well, an obvious starting point is to agree that in a group Zoom session we lose an incredible amount of human contact and ways of taking part. In a group, for instance, we may see only head and shoulders with some participants maybe having disabled their video. Whose facial and other non-verbal reactions do we observe? Is anybody ‘looking’ at us? In a Zoom session can there ever be silence when nobody is talking? Are people who may be hesitant, shy, scared, confused, afraid to speak receiving encouragement and warm promoting from a facilitator or others?

It should be obvious that actual human engagement is of a much higher quality than murky two-dimensional representations. The vast majority of our actual communication occurs non-verbally. To achieve this quality, this communication, you need actual humans.

Unfortunately, the problem is related to a much deeper and growing issue. We are growing so used to reduce emotions to cartoon icons, to squeezing our identities into needle-thin, shrill social media interactions that we are in danger of losing our own and others’ incredible and unique richness.

To a very large extent this is all an evolution of a long history of turning ourselves and our feelings into things, quantities. How do you feel today on a scale of one to ten? What diagnostic box do you inhabit? What does your smartwatch show today about how many steps you’ve walked or what your oxygen saturation is in percentage?

Turning human beings into things, qualities into quantities, human misery into graphs and data, reducing the unique experienced distress of someone to a neat diagnosis. All this fits perfectly in a driven. 24/7 world of accelerated time where there is never time enough, never a place to rest, and for so many people never the chance of the most important things in life: slow, intimate personal relationships and the unlimited power of genuinely human interaction.

As said, the turning of our unique individuality into a thing rather than a person goes back a long way and is being hugely amplified by the impact of digital technology on culture. To end, here’s a poem from almost a hundred years ago by W.H. Auden:

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Update and Twelve Month Plan

Hello! Ages since we posted on The Machine Zone. We have been very busy with two projects under our banner. One is gamblingwatchscotland.org.uk which is a developing site looking at gambling in Scotland and beyond.

The other is our film, ‘One Last Spin’ which should be finished in November and premiered in December. The interviews dor the film were completed a long time ago but lockdown brought further work to a halt. We’re back shooting again, this time drama sequences to complement the interviews. Check onelastspin.vision for latest and some screenshots.

The Machine Zone has been running for five years come next February. It’s been very much a labour of passion and determination, and involved thousands of hours of voluntary work. Martin and Adrian have had to put in a lot of money to keep it going. This year we have a new director, Chris Lee who’s based in Edinburgh and runs a peer support service at chatter.org.

We received a £3,000 award from Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS to deliver anti-stigma work, The money has helped build the website and some of it towards the film (which is set to cost in the many thousands for production), and rolling future costs for screening the film at community events initially in Glasgow through 2022.

The next year will continue to be occupied by these projects. However, where time allows we are keen to get going on exploring the digital environment generally, beginning with that slippery term ‘digital health’. In some quarters everything digital, new and shiny sends people weak at the knees with adoration. We’re not so sure. Our work on gambling harms, for instance, shows how quickly digital technologies have been taken up to cause tremendous harms to many.

We’ll look at what may be meant by ‘digital health’ (which is a very confused, and confusing, area) and try to place it in a broader context of the digital environment as a whole. Every new technology causes tremendous social upheaval, the good and the bad. It’s easier to see this looking back to the advent of machinery at the start of the Industrial Revolution, motor transport, mass media, and so on. Not so easy to see how each of us is affected by the digital revolution. Certainly we can identify obvious things such as new jobs and the internet. But there does seem a very strong case for considering whether our deep psyches are affected, our relationships, our well being.

Gambling Watch Scotland

The Gambling Watch Scotland website is now partially ‘live’. Full of life but still a baby. You can see a landing page which outlines the project and its content, and there’s a Support page. Both of these pages are temporary.

As we work on the website it’s sometimes overwhelming to discover how many aspects to talk about gambling damage there are. We are looking on the one hand at wordy reports and regulations from ‘them up there’ while keeping a central focus on individuals and their communities. We’re maintaining links with big organisations working on the human costs of gambling, while energised by the growing grassroots initiatives and the voices of Experts by Experience. It’s the grassroots work we’ll be highlighting and celebrating.

It’s a very small project in the scale of things. Though we look closely at the broad national contexts, we zoom in on Scotland, and particulaly Greater Glasgow because it’s in this city we will concentrate our attention to involve community citizen involvement.

We hope you can spare a few minutes to look over the landing page. We’d be delighted if you follow us on twitter or by email. Any ideas, articles videos you may wish to share, well. we’d be gobsmacked.

For those who don’t know what ‘gobsmacked’ means!

Gambling Watch Scotland

Formerly GamblEye!

Just to confuse everybody we have renamed our anti-stigma project to Gambling Watch Scotland

For various reasons we are going with the new name and logo. Everything about the project remains the same, and you can read a description here.

We shall be delivering our website in March. However, while we hope this will be a valuable and lasting resource which can be updated and invite contributions, our intention remains to deliver our work in community settings as and when COVID restrictions allow.

We’d love to hear from people for whom stigma brought shame and a reluctance to come forward to share their problems or seek support. We’d especially lke to hear from people suffering various degrees of social stigma already, before the stigma of gambling was added. These may include women, people from minority ethnicities, religious affiliates, refugees, people with high status jobs or positions in societies.

“As an addict, society tells you that you’re bad, somehow evil, a wrong ’un and you end up believing it.”

Victoria, former victim of heroin harms

We welcome any level of contribution from a few words to an article. If you feel willing to share your experiences of how stigma impacted, or is impacting, upon your wellbeing and recovery from harms please drop us a line at:

themachinezone@planetmail.net or DM us at twiiter, @themachinezone.

We’ll stick exactly to your wishes for how your contributions may be used.

Stigma: Tell Your Story

Stigma, shame, guilt can be a heavy load to bear leading to a horrible sense of isolation with nowhere to turn.

We’re working on a project, to be delivered online by March 2021, which aims to reduce the stigma around gambling by awareness-raising, provide ideas for individuals to cope with stigma, and share lived experience of gambling stigma. How bad was it? Did it stop you – or does it stop you – from reaching for support? Did you find ways to handle internalised stigma and the deep sense of shame or guilt that went with it? Was stigma particularly worse for you because, for instance, you are a woman or member of a community which has strong condemnation of addiction?

We’d love to hear from you. A short piece of writing maybe, using a pen name if you like. Or a long piece. Would you be prepared to take part in a Zoom session to discuss various aspects of gambling stigma? In all cases we will respect requests for strict anonymity.

Sharing your story will help others immediately to see that they are not at all alone in their feelings of isolation and any shame or guilt, that these are further intense bad feelings that come with addiction. Any ways you found to cope with stigma will also help people greatly.

If you can take part please send us your thoughts. As said, short or long – and sometime one or two sentences can be powerful. Please indicate whether you’d be prepared to consider taking part in a Zoom event.

We’re also very keen to hear from organisations working in the gambling field which have experience of how damaging stigma is to people they work with.

Please respond by email to

themachinezone@planetmail.net

or DM us on our twitter handle, @themachinezone.

Get in touch too if you have any questions.

GAMBLING WATCH SCOTLAND: an anti-stigma project

Stigma adds massively to the suffering of folk who have mental health issues. It may prevent their seeking support, leave them feeling isolated and ashamed that they have a ‘weakness’. There are even greater stigmas around addictions, and gambling disorders are known as the ‘invisible addiction’ – not only because you can’t see a substance involved, but also because there is very little understanding and awareness in the population. This includes health and other care professionals and policy makers. The consequence is that there is a lack of support services.

Across the mental health field there have been vibrant, powerful and dynamic anti-stigma campaigns and initiatives which have helped reduce stigma although there is still a long way to go.

The Machine Zone is developing a project to address stigma and gambling disorders. As with most anti-stigma initiatives we aim primarily to raise awareness and knowledge, and dispel myths. We shall also focus upon stigma itself – what it is, its damaging effects, and how we can cope with it.Initially, the idea was to take this into community settings, including prisons, with the aim of raising awareness, discussing issues, signposting support and encouraging citizen involvement. With Covid restrictions, we will now be presenting the project online, hoping in the future to work in communities. The project will be delivered in March 2021.

The project will include a film about lived experience and there will be sections about support, community work, stigma, articles for professionals and media, links and networks, partnership working, and a forum for discussion. We’ll refer to the many sections of the population bearing multiple stigmas and difficulties such as poverty, exclusion, social discrimination, poor health, inequality. We believe that one of the best ways to challenge stigma is to raise awareness and hear the voices of those affected.

This work contributes to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s Healthy Minds anti-stigma initiatives, and several Third Sector mental health and addiction anti-stigma projects.

We’d love to include as many voices as possible. Please go here to read an invitation to contribute your own story.

The Trouble with Gambling Statistics

The Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, Michael Dugher, wrote in PoliticsHome on 9th January 2021:

When the Government announced before Christmas that it was kicking off the Review of Gambling, they did so with a “call for evidence” and they rightly said their determination to drive big changes will be “evidence-led”.  This is something I strongly support.  

Ministers made it clear that the percentage of problem gamblers in Britain stands at approximately 0.5 per cent of the adult population – comparatively low by many international standards – and that “this rate has remained broadly steady around or below one per cent for the past 20 years”.

The headline of his article calls for facts not fiction. He cites as facts that there is an ‘anti-gambling lobby’ who are ‘prohibitionists’ intent upon promoting ‘hysteria’ around gambling.

Facts are tricky things. So are statistics, data, ‘evidence’. Regarding the latter we published an article which raised some big questions about evidence during the campaigns to have the stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals reduced from £100 to £2. What was then the industry body, the Association of British Bookmakers, demanded ‘evidence that the machines were harmful with £100 stakes.

Evidence is not an innocent word. You can find or not find evidence for anything depending upon your perspectives and agenda. The big government and other machines for gathering evidence use models of gathering data. Interestingly, perhaps an admission of a failure of previous figures and ‘facts’:

This was in response to a recent House of Lords committee report on the gambling industry. Further, :

It would seem that neither the government nor the Gambling Commission have faith in the widely promoted ‘fact’ that ‘problem gamblers’ represent ‘only’ 0.7% of the population. A 2020 YouGov survey suggested that the figure is 2.7%. Quite a difference. When is a fact not a fact?

Aside, for a moment. The prevalence of the serious mental health condition called bipolar is estimated to be 2%. Should we say ONLY 2%? Not worth bothering about. Another fact to bear in mind in this aside is that with mental health diagnoses, three pyschiatrists may give three different diagnoses. And the diagnosing of mental health conditions varies between nations and different cultures. Further, it is clear that different sections of populations are more likely to receive particular diagnoses.

Returning to gambling harms:

So, even with current official figures, young people seem to represent a higher prevalence of harms than the general population. The young people of today are the adults of tomorrow and perhaps youth behaviour suggests worrying future trends in the near future.

While there are worrying indicators of increased exposure to gambling harms for women, the majority of people who face harm are men. Whole population figures do not remotely reflect the scale of the harms because they take an average which includes a gendered majority who face no harms.

Individual populations such as young people (which really needs breaking down to gender, ethnicity, social class, mental health conditions, educational attainment, religion, indices of poverty and deprivation) provide unuseful statistics as they don’t focus upon groupings within the individual population.

There are particular populations which require specific attention to them such as ethnic minorities, religious affiliates, LGBQT citizens. ‘Official’ attention to essential factors such as health, mental health especially, exclusion, exploitation, poverty, inequality and discrimination tends to be weakened by an institutionalised ‘whole population’ approach, the whole population being some vague collections of ‘normalised’ people. Of course, and it can’t be emphasised too much, that within ‘official’ institutions much progress is being made to remove this attentional blindness. What is most exciting is the ‘bottom up’ work of campaigning by minority groups, so often against the odds.

That report by the way shows that 4% of those surveyed were in prison because of gambling. Certainly, we have to move well beyond rather empty claims that the prevalence of gambling ‘disordered’ individuals in ‘the population’ is 0.5% (a figure which in any case is almost certainly a significant underestimate even using the outdated models previously used by the Gambling Commission and others). There are man, many populations within ‘the population’, and many individuals in each.

Stigma and the Invisible ‘Addiction’

We are currently working on a project around stigma and gambling. Stigma is the cause of much of the extra anguish to add to the pains of suffering from gambling harm. It leads to shame, guilt, and a fear of admitting to problems or seeking help.

When your GP routinely asks you about your drinking habits you may lie, give a lower or much lower figure than your actual intake. You don’t want a lecture perhaps, but more than this you are ashamed about how your drinking is ‘out of control’. Ashamed, because only weak people are not in control of their behaviours. Ashamed because you are now outside the norms of decent society. Ashamed because, whatever the success of anti-stigma campaigns, you carry within you, have learned, that ‘addicts’ are bad, worthless, irresponsible. The felt stigma will vary between individuals but some groups will feel it more. A Muslim will have violated their religious and community codes for instance. A woman is likely to feel strongly the stigmas against female ‘drunks’ and ‘alkies’ and ‘lushes’: women are ‘supposed to be@ good mothers, home makers, protectors of children.

You can do all the high-poered, expensive, expert data gathering, analysis and statistical interpretation you like. You won’t be able to include figures for the unknown population of people suffering badly but who feel impelled to keep it to themselves.

Gambling Careers

There has been a welcome move towards valuing the voices of ‘Experts by Experience’ – in health generally and mental health specifically. (It is still not obvious to too many by the way that suffering from gambling harms is a mental health condition. We have a long way to go before health institutions not only stop talking about ‘mental health and addiction services’ but also incorporate a clear understanding into their core values and outlooks). Promisingly,Experts by Experience are involved in a dynamic involvement with health services, professionals from many fields, politics, shaping policy, media. Many individuals go on to find work in the ‘recovery’ field. Others volunteers support groups and peer to peer mentorships. Many are involved with campaigning – and some say that such involvement helps their own recovery.

There is another crucial point to focusing upon the individual. As we saw above, there are many different populations of gamblers, and no such thing as a blank-faced ‘problem gambler’ occupying a ghetto called ‘problem gamblers’. At individual level, the need to think of the whole-person should be obvious. Sensitivity to a woman’s experiences is useful with caution; but much greater sensitivity to that particular human woman is more important. We have to take away the boxes we put people into, the labels we use, the blinkered views our pre-judgments may entail. We have to be sensitive to life story, life situation, health, co-occurring harms such as substance dependence syndromes. What we can never do is think of AN addict. To label someone is to dehumanise them. To label someobody with the word ‘addict’ is horrible. It’s a word loaded with negative, highly stigmatising violence. If we have to use the word at all – as we will do as long as there are ‘mental health and addiction services’ – we should strike it through. ADDICT.

During an individual’s gambling career there will be enormous variations between people. Some may gamble only on certain occasions but do so in a way in which they can severely harm themselves and others. Some may go weeks, months, years without gambling and then ‘relapse’. Others gamble every day and lose every day. Some turn to crime to fund their gambling. A person who has rarely gambled may bet on a certainty one night and los etheir home. An old person may become ill with cold and malnutrition because she spends a good part of her meagre pension on scratchcards. Faced with trauma, redundancy, depression or just boredom someone may turn to gambling – for the experience of gambling is itself an escape into a sealed-off world where anxieties cease. A person with bipolar, in a manic or hypomanic phase may gamble recklessly. (It’s estimated that bipolar individuals have a 50% greater risk of gambling harms than the general population). A gang of of mates drinking and betting fiercely on their mobiles as a football game proceeds on television may introduce to gambling the new member of the group who wants to ‘fit in’. All the kids in school are gambling, your parents are gambling and you want to be grownup.

There is no typical career. But it should be said that a relatively casual ‘low risk’ gambler can hit the buffers at any time when conditions are there. Glasgow University Gambling Research Group is currently engaged in a three years project talking to many individuals about their ‘gambling careers’. The study does make use of the term ‘problem gamblers’ which is a phrase that carries with it some unfortunate negative connotations; however, it understands that there are very many gambling behaviours and harms, and degrees of harm, the crucial importance of individual life factors, so implicitly undermines any concept of a typical ‘problem gambler’:

Rather than viewing problem gamblers as a relatively small and distinct group, the study will look at problematic behaviour as a particular phase that can affect many more individuals at some point(s) in a gambling career, and will examine the way that behaviour waxes and wanes among this larger group.  It will focus on key moments and processes of change such as, for example, how people begin gambling, points when playing increases or decreases, when individuals realise they have a problem and decide to seek help – or not – and the circumstances that surround this. 

Experiences of treatment:  perceptions of its benefits, as well as relapses and reasons for leaving it, will also be explored. Given that the vast majority of problem gamblers never seek treatment, the research will focus in particular on the phase of ‘natural recovery’ in which problematic behaviour is resolved without formal intervention, and will explore shifts in social, demographic and personal circumstances that are associated with it.

This article has tried:

  • to demonstrate that the government and the Gambling Commission are seeking new ways to gather a better and more accurate view of the prevalence of gambling harms.
  • to suggest that calls for ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ are based on innocent and naive misunderstandings, or else are being used as rhetoric against the ‘hysteria’ of ‘gambling prohibitionists’.
  • to sketch out some of the crucial differences between population studies versus the experiences of individuals.
  • to outline some of the issues around the term ‘evidence’ and show that it is by no means a simple ‘innocent’ word.