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March 20, 2013  |  Together in a small, crowded, moving box  |  8673 hit(s)

These days I work in a tall office building, which means that I spend a lot of time in elevators going up and down between office and lobby, not to mention up and down for meetings. Sometimes I run to co-workers in the elevator, but often it’s a bunch of strangers.

I don’t know how international it is, but the protocol for Americans—or let’s say Seattleites, anyway—is essentially to ignore strangers, and to stand facing the doors. Phones help ease the awkwardness of this situation (strangers are so near, yet so ... non-existent), because people can look down and fiddle busily with their phones instead of desperately trying not to make eye contact with other passengers.

But our elevators (and, I assume, those in many other buildings) have a feature that changes the dynamic in interesting ways. Above the bank of floor buttons is a 12-inch screen that displays a rotating selection of news bites, weather, traffic, reviews, deals, and so on. (According to the provider, this “reaches smart, busy, upscale professionals on the move and struggling to ‘do it all.’” Sure, whatever.)

People now have something to look at in the elevator besides the closed doors, or their phones, or the back of the person in front of them. This subtly changes the feel of the constantly changing group going up and down together. They’re watching TV together!

The headlines that are displayed will occasionally move someone to make a remark, or at least to grunt in acknowledgment. This can be an ice-breaker for others … it’s a conversation starter!

Sherry TurkelTurkle, who teaches "the Social Studies of Science and Technology" at M.I.T., has recently started to worry that we’re using devices to mediate human relationships for us in ways that actually increase our isolation. Maybe that’s true. But I like to think that our elevators, thanks to technology, might actually now be breaking down the barriers between people in our building.