In a recent guest column at Anne Helen Peterson’s Culture Study, Wendy Robinson wrote about her forays into the world of Peloton, on a growing phenomenon: the lack of community which people find within the ecosystems created by consumer products. She writes movingly about her struggles with finding an exercise community, having gone from the YMCA to a local studio to the digital community of Peloton riders. Her search is, truly, a search for not just health, but for a community to belong to, for a space in which she does feels both at ease in her own body and joined to a community of fellow seekers and searchers. “I’m not overstating it to say that I love Peloton”, Robinson writes. “However, as a fat rider, I’m never fully sure if they really love me back.”
This sentiment — that Peloton should love the riders back — is a jarring statement, in two ways. Placing an expectation on a commercial entity that it would not only provide a service, but return feelings of affection, borders on the dystopian. Love, as Robinson uses it, becomes unmoored from a personal recipient and transposed to a corporation, and invites us to ask not only whether Peloton as a company can love, but what it would in fact look like for Peloton to love. Would it alter its for the lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine riders behind? Would it endlessly differentiate its programming into more and more nuanced versions, that it might pay attention well to the individual riders?
This is the first jarring element which surfaces in this statement, but quickly followed is the second: this is not that unusual of a sentiment. There is much to be said — and which has been said —about the ways that economic pressures create pressures of image and style, that advertising shoves and cajoles the myriad ranges of human bodies into the Platonic form. But Robinson’s comment — that she desired a mutual love, mediated through this consumer platform — was the most interesting part of her story. That she was seeking out her people, in search of love was less significant than the unspoken default of her piece: that the natural place for finding human communion are spaces mediated by commerce.
The examples of this phenomenon of our social lives being mediated and made possible by commercial entities are almost multiplied out to the point of being prosaic: commercial matchmaking platforms, Metaverse churches, CrossFit gyms advertising themselves as “communities” rather than exercise facilities. And in some ways, this relationship between commerce and community is an old one. Long before Twitter and Facebook took their place as the economically mediated gathering points for billions of people, the Ottoman coffeehouses of the 17th century became these kinds of spaces. In the coffeehouse, Islamic thinkers would gather to exchange ideas, having purchased entry into the intellectual community by a cup of ground-up beans. And before the coffeehouse, the medieval university — even in its more austere origins —originated as a fee-based environment for learning and intellectual community.
But what differentiates past examples from the more recent iterations is that, in the past, community trust was that which preceded and enabled commercial interactions. As we see in Scripture, using fair weights and giving fair prices for goods was expected because the people involved were both part of the same covenant community. A seller could not cheat the buyer first because it was commanded of them by God, but secondly, because they lived in the same area as their client. Social trust and common life preceded and made possible the exchange of goods, but was not coextensive with exchange practices.
The genealogy of how social life became enmeshed with and mediated by commercial ventures is a contested history, but can be named according to two broad contours. First, the expectation that community life would be coextensive with commercial relationships is a new development. The shift of the university model toward for-profit activities and the designation of former hobbies as potential side hustles are but two examples of how previously distinct spheres have become merged, not out of avarice, necessarily, but out of some necessity. As costs of living increased, alongside the expectations of what kinds of technologies were entailed with belonging to certain social spheres, more income was needed to maintain the same social dynamics.
The second change is one precipitated by the rise of this new form of commerce, which no longer requires local trust to precede commerce, because there is simply no more local person or entity to trust. Franchises of restaurants are “local” in the sense that they are located within a particular place, but their policies, procedures, and inventory are governed by somewhere else: the authority of the relationship between local owner and local consumer is mediated by a far off party which neither has ever seen. Apple exists everywhere and affects life everywhere, but yet exists in no particular space and the consumer’s relationship with Apple does not consist of a relationship with any particular person. Chris Arnade has written lovingly about the ways in which we depend on these kinds of economic institutions, and in some towns, it is the only game there is. But it does not change the fact that our relationships become mediated by institutions managed elsewhere, who owe their allegiance to somewhere else.
These two factors create a situation in which social life is enmeshed with and mediated by economic life, and in which these economic forces are frequently faceless and absent. The human desire for community, for meaningful relationship and connection, has not abated, but must now occur increasingly within the spaces made possible by economic relationships. This is not an issue relegated to one class, for the McDonalds’ gatherings which Arnade describes and the Peloton class are an economic world apart. But they are ultimately two rooms in the same house built by distant economic decisions.
In Robinson’s essay, then, we find a startling statement which is, in the end, quite normalized. Logically, Peloton does not exist to make community, to help people find connection, or to be inclusive: it exists to be a profitable home cycling company. That it helps people find connection or to further their personal aspirations, beyond personal fitness, is entirely beside the point, except that such things contribute to Peloton’s reason for being: to be a profitable company. And yet, because of the overlap between the social and the economic, with Apple FaceTime, Zoom, Twitter, and Starbucks patios mediating our social existence, we continue to expect that commercial entities are in the business of helping us be connected.
But the joke is on us: these commercial interests have never had community building in view as a primary good, except that enabling people to make connections leads them to also foster a connection with the business. Starbucks is largely agnostic toward the reasons I gather with friends, provided that I continue to gather there and purchase coffee, and Disney (despite the protestations of conservatives and progressives alike) could care less what your politics are so long as you continue to associate them with magical family vacations. The criticisms of digital platforms — that they deform our desires, that they cripple our attention, or that they malform our habits — are symptoms of this deeper problem: these spaces are all built for profit, not community. That people find friends or like minds within these spaces is ultimately beside the point, whether that space is Facebook or Peloton. A digital space remains profitable to the degree that it keeps the consumer coming back, and if part of what keeps us coming back is the presence of other people, so be it.
Beyond Economically-Mediated Communities
The difficulty with addressing this is one of both ubiquity and scale. The capitalist class benefits from how widespread this relationship between sociality and economics is because there is nowhere for consumers to retreat from it. Every form of common life can be a lifestyle to be sold to consumers. Unwinding this relationship, however, is not impossible, given that it has a beginning point, and conceivably, an ending point as well.
The elision of the social and the economic is partly a takeover, but partly, the expectations which we place upon these economic institutions now that they will provide commonplaces for a fragmented world. To resist this, the first step is simply refusing to expect this much of these institutions. Institutions do not exist, first of all, to love, but to perpetuate a value in a sustainable fashion over time: Peloton or McDonalds exists, above all, to sell you a product, and without that, they fail to exist. And so, if you do not find community in their ecosystem, it’s not personal. If they benefit you, it is because the design of the institution and your own particular values and aims align with that of the institution, at that particular moment in time. But when we trust these institutions to have our best interest at heart, or to be operating in a morally positive direction, we are thinking naively: institutions do not care about you — they “care” about (or rather, are concerned with) enabling the longitudinal existence of their prime value. The institutions cannot give you the good that you seek, though they may very well give you a good workout.
With the economic institutions unburdened from this expectation, we are then confronted with the imperative to reclaim spaces for free association, unlinked to the pre-programmed avenues for association that the Pelotons of the world provide. It is, in some ways, the difference between a park and an amusement park: the former is a free and open space in which multiple games can be played, and the latter, a constrained space in which people enter to consume pre-programmed possibilities of enjoyment. But escaping this orbit is difficult: as David Graeber has put it, bureaucracy is the hidden temptation to any anarchy, or as the Christian might put it, the tower of Babel hiding behind every command to spread out over the earth. Ivan Illich, in his manifesto on education, rightly saw that long before Peloton, educational bureaucracies were suffering expectations of productivity, credentialization and monetization, schools becoming less communities of learning and exploration and more like factories of knowledge. The consequences were not simply for educational outcomes, but for societies in general, with people taught that play and free association were inefficiencies to be feared rather than opportunities to be embraced.
But what lies ahead if we look to have our communal life drawn together in non-monetized ways? What happens when we turn away from the spaces which money mediates? It will mean building again our common life, without assuming that one needs to have money to have community. To assume that economics mediates our community life is to assume, further, a higher level of expendable income, which necessitates more income and work, which leads to work creeping into all of our lives, closing the loop even more tightly between economy and sociality. There is no deescalating from this vicious cycle; there is only breaking it, by dropping out of its presumptions and building new ones: engaging with church members face to face in slow ways, offering homecooked dinners, asking which of our social expectations presume the income which is built into accessing the Peloton world.
In the end, the love which we seek is one which cannot be bought or sold, and it is that which must be disentangled from the world of goods and services. What appears within the economic as a process of exchange is better understood as the desire for a gift, an exchange between persons which will always be unequal and always be ongoing. For relational giving and receiving is not one which can be equalized like a commodity: it will be one of encouragement and challenge, of affirmation and burden-bearing, and always in disproportionate and intimate ways. You will be strong when I am weak, and vice versa, meaning that our giving of gifts to one another will require that we return to one another again and again, offering uneven exchanges in ways which an economic frame cannot account for. And so, we remain bound together in gifts, passing through economies, but not determined by or confused with them.