Antiseptic Glass Stream
By Sun-ha HongJune 24, 2021
A 2019 viral Twitter thread highlighted exemplary specimens of these ads for the stationary exercise machine, selected from the company’s own promotional imagery. In one, the luxury internet-connected bike stands on a polished wood riser, a veritable monument housed in a floor-to-ceiling glass conservatory. In another, the Peloton takes up the dead center of a spacious urban loft, driving out every other piece of furniture.
The dream on offer is a familiar one. Sculpt the self in a pristine space, carefully disconnected from family members, crowded homes, and other exigencies of ordinary life: a disconnection only affordable, in most cases, through the exercise of wealth. Nothing exists except you, the Peloton, and then the world on the other side of the glass — both the endless streaming content on the screen, and the picturesque views out the window.
We are accustomed to thinking about streaming as a technology of indulgent plenty: all our favorite songs and stories are with us wherever we go, from music to fitness to never-ending television. But the streams around us also help us shape particular kinds of isolation. Often, what we are buying through the stream — sometimes at a very high price — is the opportunity to be alone by choice.
A paradox of intimacy and disconnection runs through our streaming technologies. Peloton’s home fitness content has seen its stocks soar in the past year, with media outlets declaring that the company has “won the pandemic.” But if tableted bikes and treadmills seem ready-made for social distancing, Peloton combines this with explicit investment in the trappings of community. The monthly subscription ties users to a persistent online profile, embellished with gamified achievement badges (from “Century Ride” to “Turkey Burn 2019”) and basic social networking functions. Live classes feature a leaderboard; trainers regularly call out users (and their tags, like #iamicaniwillido and #PelotonMoms), hailing them with virtual high-fives. In an infamous 2019 commercial widely criticized as sexist, the trainer exhorts: “Let’s go, Grace in Boston. 50 rides,” prompting a squeal of joy: “She just said my name!” The natural world can also join the party, with Peloton offering scenic rides through picturesque landscapes in the Italian Alps or Oahu, Hawaii.
Peloton Channel @ Youtube
Peloton is far from the first or only product to fuse the aspirations of expensively sculpted bodies with expensively sculpted lives. Back in 1978, New York magazine ran a cover story called “An Intimidating New Class: The Physical Elite” — and identified its epicenter as the affluent, well-educated, “upscale” people. But the latest generation of these practices are notable because they participate in wider cultural fantasies around frictionless consumption and disconnected intimacy that defines our streaming, “on-demand” economy. Fitness and community get beamed into the stay-at-home user, just like the food that appears “magically” on the doorstep.
All this isn’t to say that intimacy is only good or real when it involves physical bodies in proximity or the open hearth, and technology is ever condemned to mere imitation. In a world of streams, disconnected intimacy isn’t a compromise, but a feature and a pleasure that we pay a high price for. People, content, the world, is offered as a scrolling continuum, but I am removed one degree, at liberty to dip in and out as I please. There is no need to stay in a class one second longer than I wish. The minimalism of the idealized Peloton room offers a particular type of control, where the only interactions permitted are ones that I can turn on or off as I please. Everything is “content” at a comfortable distance, the glass of the screen or the glass of the windows separating me from it — which is, the suggestion goes, just the way I must like it.
The pandemic has prompted many reflections about the relationship between space and intimacy, whether in the assembly line of too-close faces in the Zoom workday, or the theatrical plexiglass partitions lining schools and restaurants. In this context, what is striking about the Peloton utopia is its careful sterilization of people. The bike is for the home, but often carefully separated from family or housework. In Peloton’s video classes, the instructors themselves join in from otherworldly spaces. Yoga classes are conducted from a spacious, empty gallery floating in gentle baseboard lighting and wall-to-wall beam projection, looking somewhat like a knock-off modern art museum space; ride classes favor full-room mirrors and stage lighting, in which the lone instructor shines brightly against their own reflection.
Such pristine spaces — and images of pristine spaces — are central to how we talk and think about our technologies and the future worlds they project. Our visual lexicon around artificial intelligence or smart cities are dominated by whitewashed images, in which holographic interfaces and neon lights convey a sense of frictionless utopia. Rendered architectural images depict familiar symmetrical skyscrapers and perfectly manicured greenery, projecting technological spaces as sterilized of crowds, mess, rubbish, friction. This is not simply a question of stylistic preference. Such images are typically vehicles of popular and economic speculation, in which these photorealistic (yet entirely unrealistic) images “signal the apparent inevitability of [development] before it has even begun,” as Joel McKim writes.
From smart city utopias to the Peloton bubble, such images present a vision of the good life sterilized of inconvenient and undesirable bodies. Hito Steyerl visualizes some of these dynamics in How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). The resolutions, scales, and other measures by which we map the world and turn it into data also dictate what kinds of spaces and images we can occupy. One section, titled “How to be invisible by disappearing,” enacts a video tour of a luxury gated community represented by depressingly sterile architectural renders. Here, humans are present, but only as uniform gray silhouettes ghosting about the scene. A droll, machinic narration intones the ways in which real bodies and lives can become invisible in such a world: “being female and over 50 […] being a dead pixel […] being undocumented or poor.”
Source: Youtube / Original: Hito Steyerl, 2013
This dehumanizing invisibility is the necessary flip side of these obsessively pristine spaces. Instagram’s “renderporn” trend tracks 3D-modeled digital interiors that are, quite literally, projections. We use that word to talk about things like industry forecasts or business plans, but also to describe dreams that we entertain to keep us going (which, let’s be honest, is also the aim of the industry stuff, too). From slick prototype renders of new gadgets, to constant reboots of yearly fitness resolutions, projections serve as a way to cope, a way to keep going, a way to punt anxieties down the road in cruel optimism. We constantly dream — or rather, we’re encouraged to dream — of disconnection and pristineness as a better way to live, a future worth pining for.
The industries that depend on and circulate these projections, driven by smart tech and AI, depend on legions of “ghost workers” who suffer from devaluation and dehumanization precisely through the pernicious myth of complete automation. And the moment these sterile visions of disconnective intimacy are deployed as real relations and products is the moment when people — and all their “problems” — flood back in from behind the screen.
Shannon Mattern observes that COVID-19 lockdowns have fueled what at first appears, à la Kyle Chayka, as a “pursuit of nothingness”: a life “ensconced in minimalist luxury, fortified with food deliveries, entertained by streaming services, sculpted by Peloton.” Except peel back just the thinnest outer layer of this minimalism, held together by app interfaces, and we find “networks in furious motion, continual overstimulation, and exhaustive exertion.” Minimalism, at least of this sort, has little to do with aesthetic preference, and everything to do with the ability to construct elaborate mechanisms by which human labor and lives can be folded away. A life of “nothingness” is one that only a few of us can afford.
Not that any of this is unique to the pandemic. For years leading up to 2020, the “on-demand economy” actively promoted the pleasures of disconnected intimacy, as per DoorDash’s old slogan: “NEVER LEAVE HOME AGAIN.” A meal is neither culture nor nature in this arrangement, but content to be consumed — if you can afford the disconnection. In these technologies, the promise of convenience comes hand in hand with the promise to strip away the visibility of people who make those services possible (and, in turn, gradually destroying their incomes and working conditions as well).
The tech industry has consistently pursued such means of disconnection. In 2014, “Alfred Club” won first place in TechCrunch Disrupt SF. Evoking the trope of the upper-class butler, Alfred would have workers take care of everything from groceries to laundry. Today, the dream lives on with Jupiter, a similar start-up promoted by venture capitalist Andrew Chen as a “really magical” experience in which groceries simply appear in the pantry, eliminating even that brief step of meeting the worker at the door.
But in the end, neither intimacy nor convenience is possible without people. The “pursuit of nothingness” directly relies on Amazon delivery drivers forced to pee in bottles to meet productivity quotas, or New York’s food delivery workers targeted for violent robberies as they make their rounds on e-bikes. To forget about the people in the loop is also to erase economic disparities, structural inequalities, and differences within and among the “users.”
Back in the Peloton world, people also reappear upon close inspection. They appear most notably and notoriously in the pricing of the machines, which currently start at 1,895USD for bikes and over 4,000USD for treadmills. Although the company generously decouples their content subscription from machine ownership, and charges a “mere” 12.99USD per month, all this places Peloton at the very highest end of luxury fitness products. The brand’s visibility is partly driven by a copious amount of celebrity interest, with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Venus Williams gushing about the brand on social media, and official partnerships such as Peloton x Beyoncé. Meanwhile, Peloton’s hand-picked instructors have themselves reached quasi-celebrity status; ranging from former The Voice contestants to Cirque du Soleil performers, the instructors typically film from Peloton’s studio that founder John Foley describes as a “television streaming facility.”
Given the price, we might assume that many actually purchased Pelotons will go to affluent homes. But even those are unlikely to be quite as sterile as the promotional renderings. Real homes mean pets, kids, family, the various debris of work and life — all the things left out in the fantasy of disconnected intimacy. In March, it was revealed that a six-year-old had died after being pulled under one of its treadmills. Peloton’s luxurious design had not extended to features like rear safety guards present in some alternative brands. After initially accusing the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of “mischaracterizing the situation” and putting the onus on the users to keep treadmills out of reach of children, the company has belatedly moved to recall over 125,000 units. After all, in the CPSC’s words: “[N]ot everybody that owns a treadmill has a dedicated room for it.”
In an on-demand, streaming world, the promise of pristine space and disconnected intimacy is undermined on a daily basis and refloated as a luxurious image. The rise of “streaming” as a rhythm of existence — in which everything keeps updating around us, and we’re asked to dip into laughter, outrage, get hyped for cardio, moment after moment — does not happen in a technological vacuum. It accompanies what scholars have called “the burnout society” or the “ends of sleep,” in which we are all expected to operate as perpetual motion machines: adding lines to the résumé, hustling for that five-star review, sharing and generating content. In Peloton, too, there’s always a class starting in five minutes, something’s always on. Jump in anywhere and your trainer will small talk you; as a New York Times piece put it, Peloton works like “a human iPhone, always swiping toward some new distraction […in] a total curation of the mind.” It is not simply that we have become antisocial, but that disconnection is being served up as a refuge from life lived out in the market.
In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber notes that as much as we all seem to hate bureaucracy, it also holds a powerful appeal of impersonality: all those cold, faceless, transactional interactions that we deride as soul-sucking, but also appreciate as (at least in theory) more predictable and dependable, leaving us with energy for other things in life. Data-driven systems tend to extend this promise of distance and disconnection. And long before computers, quantification has served as a “technology of distance,” allowing strangers to interact while remaining strangers. Our Pelotons and DoorDashes, Alberts and Jupiters, extend this modern fantasy into the promise of a screen bubble. Everything that we (think) we desire, from meals to stories to a sense of community, is processed into a deliverable and streamable service, disconnected from its conditions of labor and the wider world. Most crucially, there is the tantalizing promise of control: every connection we establish, we are told, we can turn on and off at will — as long as we can afford to be on the luxurious interior of the bubble. From the inside, with every glass window, there’s a new restaurant, a new show, a new video, a new yoga class — and in each, the dream of a pristine world scrubbed of people.
Sun-ha Hong is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Technologies of Speculation: The Limits of Knowledge in a Data-Driven Society (2020) and co-editor of Space, Place, and Mediated Communication: Exploring Context Collapse(2017).
Featured image: "Peloton Kiosk at Aventura Mall" by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.
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