Sweat Voltage: How to Turn Consumption into Production


March 4, 2007


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It is the perverse genius of the corporate economy to constantly find ways to sell us what we used to have for free.  In nothing is this more evident than in the realm of bodily exertion.  For decades – centuries really – this thing called “the economy” has been stripping away the physical activity from daily life. Eventually exertion itself became scarce, and something we had to buy.  At the same time, corporations were turning food into oral entertainment and arterial junk, and pushing it at us constantly, thus making the activity deficit all the more pressing.

Ergo the need to buy from “health clubs”, the activity that once was built into daily life.  The farmer’s plough became a Cybex machine, the walk to the station a treadmill.  Where once we produced we now consume; and we internalize this process to such a degree that the ersatz version becomes more legitimate than the original.  I once belonged to a YMCA in Manhattan where people would take an elevator to the 4th floor to use a Stairmaster.  The strange alchemy of market culture had made the commoditized substitute more real somehow than just walking up the stairs.

This process, multiplied thousands of times over, is what economists fondly call “growth,” much of it at least.  In the conventional reckonings it is the thing most devoutly to be sought.  But it is beyond screwy, not least where the strange calculus of physical exertion is concerned.  Probably I’m not the only one here who has sweated away on an elliptical trainer (I admit it) and thought, “Why am I using electricity to do this?  Shouldn’t I be producing something with this work instead? “

Maybe the idea started with the flashlight my father used to keep in the glove compartment of his car, the one with the lever on the handle that you squeezed to make the light go on.   On long trips I’d see how long I could keep the light going before my hand wore out.  If you could produce electricity with your hand like that, I thought later, why not with your feet, on a treadmill or an elliptical trainer?

For that matter, why couldn’t you hook up all the equipment in a gym to a generator?  It takes a lot of energy to do a bench press for example. Isn’t there a way to convert at least some of that exertion into energy that then could be used for something else?  I would have fantasies about a gym in a hospital, say, where people sweated to help run the lights and equipment for needy people.  Remember the oarsmen in the Roman galleys? Well, why couldn’t you use rowing machines to do productive work today? (That’s voluntarily of course, not as slaves.)

I’m not technologically inclined, and so the thought just sat there on the ever-growing list of things to get around to one day.  (An acquaintance once defined death as the “accumulation of unsolved problems,” a thought that does not give me comfort.)  Now however it looks as though I can scratch this one off the list. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (March 1, 2007, available only to subscribers)  reports on a gym in Hong Kong that has hooked up its elliptical trainers to a car battery, and is using the resulting energy to help run the gym.

The thirteen machines can produce about 300 watts an hour, which is enough to run 5 sixty-watt bulbs.  That’s hardly a peak surge.  But it’s something; and when you think about all the Americans who toil away on such machines, the watts could add up.  The gym is part of an Asian chain called California Fitness (shouldn’t we Californians get a royalty or something for the expropriation of our identity for corporate marketing?), which in turn is owned by the 24-Hour Fitness chain in the U.S.  That company has close to 400 gyms in the U.S. with some 3 million members.  This could amount to something.

In this as in many other ways, people are rejecting the role of “consumer” that economists assign to us, and are reclaiming their capacity to produce to meet their own and others’ needs.  It turns out the Hong Kong gym is part of a growing trend.  The U.S. Army is financing research on shoes that could generate energy when the heel strikes the ground; these could enable soldiers to carry smaller batteries in their packs.  A professor at the University of Pennsylvania is developing a backpack that would generate energy from the jiggling motion that comes from walking.  He’s up to 15 watts so far.

Researchers are finding ways to harness energy from our collective action as well as from  the individual kind.  “A London design firm called Facility:Innovate has been developing flooring to collect energy from throngs of people walking into busy subways tunnels,” theJournal reports.  “In one design, each step on the floor would push fluid through a microturbine, generating electricity.”  Mobs might not be “smart,” the way some writers believe.  But they can be productive simply by the act of walking; which means that they can reverse the inexorable corporate logic that turns things they do into things they have to buy.

There are questions lurking here of course.  If we commoners generate electricity then who gets to own it?  Would subway systems install privatized floors that enabled  corporations to harvest our energy and sell it?  Well, there are some problems we’d like to have.  A future in which the biggest energy dilemma was who got the voltage generated by our walking, would be one I’d feel a little better about my son being part of.