A guest post by Jenny Cool firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.19184.108.40.206/abstract
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