User experiences: fear, delight, and drug use research

"User" definition from dictionary.com

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I work at a research center that studies the use of various legal and illegal drugs, generally with a focus on preventing “misuse.” It can be an awkward topic of conversation socially. The whole notion conjures up images of Mr. Mackey from South Park and terrible anti-drug propaganda.

And honestly, not without reason. Research funders have agendas, and a funder’s concept of misuse is not always the same as what a community sees as misuse — which can make ethnographic research complicated.

So many messages about alcohol and drugs seem fueled by moral panic,  but I don’t think it’s an ethnographer’s business to judge people’s consumption. Panics over drugs remind me of panics over technology and the things it “makes” us do.  This trailer for the 1936 anti-drug movie Reefer Madness reads like technological determinism (material determinism?). People don’t just use marijuana in Reefer Madness, but they are used by it:

What can make sex crazed zombies of us all?
What can force us to kill?
What is the most despicable danger facing our children today?
The reefer! The reefer! The reefer!

Also, Google is making us stupid, and Facebook is making us lonely.

With time, Reefer Madness was regarded less as a scary movie about the dangers of drugs, and more as a camp classic full of over the top scare tactics. Very few people would take Reefer Madness seriously these days; it’s “the [camp] sensibility of failed seriousness” [1].  We’re familiar with marijuana, many of us as users at some point in our lives, and it didn’t force us to kill anyone. We might be more afraid of being consumed by a less familiar substance like heroin, even though there are casual heroin users too.

The changing interpretation of Reefer Madness reminds me of a group of Android ads that I always found strange. They’re packed with the language of technological dystopia: flashes of metal shrouded in darkness, Android devices dropped on unsuspecting citizens by Stealth bombers, references to the Matrix, creepy Death Star music, “Droooooiid” , etc.  There’s a parody of these ads that takes the “When there’s no limit to what Droid gets, there’s no limit to what Droid does” tagline to its ultimate nightmare conclusion:

Yikes! This is your brain on Droid?

It’s funny that the original ads didn’t scare more users away. Do we see the ads as campy too? If camp “converts the serious into the frivolous” [1], maybe we want a piece of the technological nightmares we imagine, for our own entertainment. Another Android tagline was “Too powerful to get in the wrong hands.”

The other side of that fear might be delight, like in this Chrome ad:

Sometimes the world of substance use research, which associates reduced consumption with reduced suffering , is a mirror image of commercial user experience research, which associates increased consumption with increased pleasure. Non-profit substance research fears abuse; commercial research chases delight.

Ideally an ethnographer’s insights are developed without presumptions about what people need or want or what’s good for them. But it’s a tough ideal to live up to.

Before writing this, I read an article on my smartphone about how to break an addiction to smartphones. Then I played a game on my phone for longer than I am willing to admit in writing. I wonder how someone working in substance use vs. someone working for Motorola would interpret that.

[1] Sontag, S. (1964). Notes on camp. Camp: queer aesthetics and the performing subject: a reader, 53–65.
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