Up and Then Down

There’s an interesting article in The New Yorker about elevators that is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere (or at least the sliver of the blogosphere that I pay attention to). Most of the attention seems to be on the story of Nicholas White, who spent 41 hours trapped in an elevator in New York’s McGraw-Hill building. There’s even an accompanying video.

In the end, though, I think the author’s decision to build his whole article around Nicholas White falls flat. The article touches on everything from history to urban planning, technology to etiquette. Does it really need the ultimately-depressing story of one man’s 41-hour ordeal running through it? Don’t get me wrong–White’s story is worth telling. In fact, I’d love to read a longer article just about Nicholas White and the aftermath of his lost weekend. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the article. It would be like Mark Kurlansky building Salt: A World History around the story of one retiree from Boca Raton who’s having trouble controlling his blood pressure.

Nevertheless, the article is worth a read. It’s full of good stuff:

In the old system–board elevator, press button–you have an illusion of control; elevator manufacturers have sought to trick the passengers into thinking they’re driving the conveyance. In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer.

Or this:

There are two basic elevatoring metrics. One is handling capacity: your aim is to carry a certain percentage of the building’s population in five minutes. Thirteen per cent is a good target. The other is the interval, or frequency of service: the average round-trip time of one elevator, divided by the number of elevators. In an American office building, you want the interval to be below thirty seconds, and the average waiting time to be about sixty per cent of that. Any longer, and people get upset.

In fact, I’d be glad to buy a Kurlansky-style book about elevators, maybe with Nicholas White’s story tucked away in one chapter. I can see it now: Lift: How A Simple Invention Elevated The Human Condition.

(via Kottke and Boing Boing, among others)