It is exceptionally common to hear lotteries being accused of being “a tax on stupidity” or “the poor person’s tax” but I have found it very difficult to accept this conclusion uncritically. It rests on treating the lottery not as the game that is clearly being played by its participants, but in comparison to investments. But these days, even over a lifetime, the cost of a single lottery ticket does not generate enough interest to buy even another lottery ticket, whereas a person who actively enjoys lotteries purchases not only the excitement of the possibility of winning but the invitation to fantasise about winning, a reverie that in some cases is the last bulwark against the crushing hopelessness of poverty. The moment it ceases to provide these enjoyments, the lottery becomes worthless – but for as long as it works, it provides a dream of escaping unbearable circumstances that is far more plausible than investing, no matter how remote the chance of winning.
I don’t play lotteries, unless you count political elections, not because they are ‘bad investments’ (a can of coke would be a much worse investment, as Joe Weisenthal attests), but because the game doesn’t interest me – I have nothing worthwhile to win. A million is not enough to fix anything that is wrong with the world, but it is enough to ruin a person’s life. In this respect, the low odds of winning are far more of a blessing than a curse, since the fantasy is frequently much more idyllic than the reality. The lottery-cyborg imagines a better future that is far from guaranteed to result from the actual win. A great deal of the millionaires I have encountered inadvertently cut themselves off from friendship and walled themselves away from the world in a manner oddly reminiscent of the way that Tolkien’s Smaug metaphorically addresses the soul-crushing isolation of greed through the ‘dragon-sickness’ that afflicts Thorin when he comes into contact with the fire-drake’s horde.
But despite all this, there is little good to say about lotteries in terms of cybervirtue. Especially these days, a modest weekly lottery is supplemented by lottery scratchcards that are cyber-compulsive in a way that, sadly, many contemporary videogames are committed to emulating. It is one thing to fantasise about a big win with a modestly-priced weekly ticket, and quite another to fritter away all your disposable income in the desperate hope of rescue from poverty. The expanded arsenal of retail gambling is a stark reminder of how little hope for a better world is left on our streets, and how much our dreams are conditioned by the power and undeserved allure of money. Money, it is truly said, cannot buy happiness. For most of the millionaires I have met, it brought solely misery. But the absence of money brings a certain desperation and, as Roger Caillois observed back in 1958, it is precisely as a salve to this despair that lotteries find their niche.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #29