Fleeting Togetherness in Smart Elevator

A guest post by Jenny Cool cool@usc.edu

The elevators I encountered at the 2010 AAAs were for me a kind of ethnographic readymade: those redolent objects and gestures through which “the social world seems more evident…than in the whole concatenation of our beliefs and institutions” (to cop a phrase from David MacDougall, 1999: 3). No doubt many of you made your own observations of the lifts at the Sheraton New Orleans. Hervé Varenne’s post “On an education into elevators” touches on some of the same phenomena I do in describing “impromptu conversations” that broke out in and around these elevators. And others have written more generally on “the anthropology of elevators” (Leslie, D’Costa) Like Varenne, I focus on the social and discursive learning I participant-observed riding the vertical rails at the AAAs.

Here were people negotiating a radically new interface—not alone at their keyboards or mobile devices—but in a pubic place, surrounded by fellow meeting goers. It was a rare opportunity to watch the encounter in a social setting quite unlike others I’d experienced in my research of computer-mediated communication and control.

Max Weber wrote of the “fleeting ‘togetherness’ in streetcar, railroad or hotel” as kin to “every permanent or ephemeral community of interest that derives from physical proximity” (1978: 361). Here it was in vivo and brought to the fore by an unfamiliar “smart” elevator system

For those who haven’t seen the lifts at the New Orleans Sheraton, they run a under centralized system. Rather than traditional “up” and “down” buttons, would-be riders are presented with a keypad and small display. A sign instructs you to enter the floor you wish to go, and step to the car whose number appears on the read-out. Inside, the elevator car offers no controls other than an alarm, door open and close buttons. Floor numbers showing where your elevator will stop light up on inset LED panels that run down the left and right of the doors.

“This is a very totalitarian system,” said a woman in an accent I took to be Brazilian as we stood waiting for an elevator. In terms of user-interaction design, she was right. The system was optimized to do one thing as efficiently as possible—get people to the floors they key in. Yet in doing so, it ignores other practices and possibilities of elevator riding to which people have become accustomed since the introduction of the hydraulic elevator in the mid-19th century. There are other systems for optimizing elevator traffic that don’t require algorithms, that aren’t “smart.” For example, having cars go to different sets of floors (e.g. 1-11 and 12-24), like express trains. While these merely divide the menu, the “smart” system constrains riders’ communication and control more profoundly, in a manner one might well call totalitarian.

The degree to which norms of elevator riding had become habitual and embodied in muscle memory was made clear to me just after I stepped into one of these cars for the first time. As soon as I was in, my body turned subconsciously, first to the right and then the left of the door and my dominant hand reached out feeling it was supposed to push something…but what? When it registered there were no light-up buttons to push, I remembered I had already selected my floor in the lobby. Over three nights and four days at the Sheraton, I watched several others turn and reach for a standard elevator interface that wasn’t there, performing the same pantomime I had.

The “fleeting togetherness” of the elevator car became evident in what I noted as bugs in the system, though technically speaking they could be considered side effects. One evening, a woman hopped in the fairly full car I was riding up in and, after the doors closed, realized her floor was not on the lighted list of stops. I overheard her talking with those around her. “Just get out at the next stop and punch in your floor,” someone said, “We’ll hold the doors.” Then the person who was getting out next asked what floor she wanted, saying, “I’ll punch it in, you don’t need to get out.”

That was a darn good work around and a lovely, crystallized example of Weber’s ephemeral community. Together these riders generated and published a novel solution on-the-fly, a user-hack to get around the “smart” system’s neglect of a great many of the possibilities and practices (error and use cases) entailed and embodied in elevator riding in everyday, life. To me, that’s a smart system.

I happened across several such bugs on these elevators. There were the people who wanted to get off and go back to their room when everyone onboard had selected the lobby. They would have to ride all the way down and back, unless our car happened to stop for someone on the way down. If it did, “Was there a stairwell?” they wondered aloud, could they find it? And there were those clearly vexed by the unfamiliar system. For example, my friend ST who pointed out that the old-style controls (the buttons) were locked away behind a chrome panel with instructions to fire fighters to “use key.” That these controls were right there but shut away, as if behind a childproof door, annoyed her considerably. Varenne also reports negative responses to the Sheraton elevators and critiques them as the work of “engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency.”

While it’s true I can’t recall anyone extolling the new elevators, what struck me was a mostly pragmatic, “just figure out how to work it,” adopt and adapt attitude. Sure, some folks waxed critical, like the alleged Brazilian mentioned earlier, but whatever was said, it was not, from what I saw, in any sense addressed to those who’d installed or designed the elevators. The feedback loop didn’t feed back that far.

Instead, everything occurred as if such dramatic changes to everyday interfaces were inevitable. The conjecture “These will soon be everywhere,” I heard many times. Whatever its powers, the fleeting togetherness of the elevator car, which Varenne also notes in terms of “temporary consociates” and “ad hoc congregations” isn’t a polity. It is a more elementary social form which Weber called “the neighborhood,” “an unsentimental brotherhood” that “is by and large oriented toward maintaining the greatest possible distance in spite (or because) of the physical proximity” (1978:360-361).

What interests me in these elevator encounters is the coincidence of physical and temporary proximity. Most riders had no experience of such elevators before the AAAs. Besides being in confined space together, they were also new together, i.e., at the same time. This coincidence, I would argue, is a significant factor in the volume and pitch of discourse and social action precipitated by the Sheraton elevators. It is also what makes this a special case of people encountering a new technology in public.

NOTES

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p class=”MsoNormal”>MacDougall, David
”Social Aesthetics and The Doon School,” Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 15, Issue 1, pages 3-20, March 1999. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/var.1999.15.1.3/abstract

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p class=”MsoNormal”>Weber, Max
1978 Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, vol. 1. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=pSdaNuIaUUEC&printsec

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

10 thoughts on “Fleeting Togetherness in Smart Elevator

  1. hi, jenny! know how you feel esp. on a business themed ride via the lift, in a rush. well, change and dynamism these days is inevitable. if i were in a situation as yours, good grief! i’d learn more abt the system, their specific purpose(s), for whom the system favors, better yet…maybe the ‘smart’ service can be availed of or subscribed for ‘personal’ or ‘special’ services for a couple/group ‘fleeting togetherness’, whether on business and/or social rendezvous…? i’d try to find out more…what do you think?

  2. Alex, I think you’re absolutely right were I actually planning to research smart elevators as a field of social relations. My reflections on the topic were of a different, more general sort, though they certainly touch on the basic theoretical question examined via my work, namely how large-scale structures of social systems are mutually articulated with small-scale structures, traditionally called “communities” and the interpersonal relations within them.

    As a unit of analysis, the term and concept of “community” has come in to question and I was mostly trying to take a look at what I presumed to be a shared experience for many SM readers; and to point to a contemporary instantiation of this ephemeral, yet significant, social form. From your “good grief” and Adam’s introduction asking that I post on my Cyborganic work, I will stick to research, rather than commentary, in future.

  3. I think it is important to distinguish between genuine control an the appearance of control. A lot of devices have “fake”‘ buttons to let users feel they have some sense of control when they do not. Many (but not all) elevators have fake “door close” buttons, many “walk” buttons (at urban crosswalks) do nothing, and many thermostats are fake as well:

    http://consumerist.com/2010/11/most-close-door-buttons-are-just-there-to-make-you-feel-better.html

  4. In defense of elevators and Cool.

    There are those among us who believe that writing about elevators and the behavior of people in them debases anthropology. I respectfully disagree. Here we have a piece that Max Weber, no less, was interested in “fleeting togetherness” as a social phenomenon and pays careful attention to the disruption of established habits by an unfamiliar set of controls. I find myself wondering how differently Erving Goffman’s take on this situation would have been from Weber’s. Would there be more concern about the habitual masks that people adopt in elevators and how these may come off a bit when the elevator doesn’t behave like an elevator should? My wandering thoughts throw up a memory of an essay by Walker Percy, inspired by a train accident on a New York commuter line and how different the world looks, he imagines, to a survivor who escaped without a scratch. And then–of course–the elevator in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, equipped with precognition, that tries to tell the hero, “You really don’t want to go there.” Which brings me to Claire’s recommendation, an essay by Latour that is all about what is involved in substituting non-human for human beings and then realizing that they have, in a sense, minds of their own. There is lots of good stuff to think about here.

    And then I think, too, of the people I met at EPIC and the conversations I read on AnthroDesign. Noticing things like what goes on in new kinds of elevators is a way in which growing numbers of anthropologists are making a living. I don’t see anything to despise here.

  5. I hope this won’t be deleted this time.

    John, one can then say that we can also have anthropology of bedrooms, anthropology of alleys, anthropology of ladders, anthropology of roofs, anthropology of curbs, anthropology of benches, etc. There’s also “fleeting togetherness” in them.

  6. Do I believe that there should be separate subfields for bedrooms, alleys, etc.? No. But one of the things that anthropologists sometimes do well that I have found very interesting is use everyday things and places to contribute to conversations about larger topics, while keeping them firmly grounded in the everyday. The essay by Latour that Claire recommended is a good example. In it, Latour writes about a door; but the door becomes a vehicle for some serious thinking about technology and the implications of technology’s taking over functions formerly performed by people.

    And, speaking of elevators, there are those in Einstein’s thought experiments that inspired his theory of relativity. A good illustration of the rule that it isn’t what catches people’s attention, it’s what they do with it.

  7. A (very) few words in defense of an inductive anthropology of the mundane.

    One of the great scientific theories is about the mundane, everyday observation that things fall to the earth, not away from it, or sideways to it. Starting from a very concrete and particular observation a theory was induced, then amplified and refined to cover not just apples, but falling bodies of all sorts. Lest you object that only the natural sciences can derived such a theory, let me remind you that Sack’s powerful theory of turn taking in conversation was formulated in the same manner.

    To say that what happens among people trying to educate themselves about an unexpected and surprising elevator is unimportant because it SEEMS unimportant is a metaphysical position, not a scientific one. If there is anything common (one might even say lawful) about education into technology (which is education in the large), then it is to be found anywhere and everywhere people must go about educating themselves and those around them.

    There are no small phenomena…

  8. Enjoyed this post. As a veteran of the elevators described, I was hoping to see a good reflective piece written on it. To my mind, one of the goals of anthropology is to bring “what goes without saying” to conscious awareness. Doing this in small ways, such as observing people’s behavior around elevators, often leads to doing it in big ways. Jenny has given us a nice example of the kind of “theorized noticing” that can lead to real breakthroughs.

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