Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Elevator Problem, or Why There is No Hope for Humanity

As a resident of the most vertical city in the world, I spend a lot of time in elevators. I live on the 12th floor of a 22 story building, which means that elevators are part of my daily commute. Besides their obvious practical functionality, elevators also sometimes accidentally provide a window into human psychology - the awkwardness of long, silent rides with strangers too close for comfort, the futility of pushing the door close button, the compulsion of pushing the call button when it's already activated. But I've noticed a particular problem in my building of residence, a disturbing observation of inexplicable human behavior that I'll simply refer to as "The Elevator Problem."

One of many crime scenes in my building
No, this is not some logical/mathematical conundrum like the Monty Hall Problem, which also coincidentally involves three doors. This is a much more insidious indictment of human cognition. Allow me to elaborate: In my apartment building, there are 3 elevators, as shown in the image above. There are two call buttons: one between the left and center elevators and another between the center and right elevators. For some reason that I cannot in any way descry, these two call buttons are completely dissevered from each other. That is, pushing one of the call buttons does not automatically light the other one; they can only be operated individually. This explains the difference visible in the image: the left call button only operates the elevator on the left; the right call button operates both the center and right elevators. As I said, I have tried in vain to theorize as to why these elevators were designed in this way. The three elevators are functionally identical: they are all exactly the same size and capacity, and each one stops on the same floors, G and 3-22. It makes no difference whatsoever which one you use, no matter what floor you're on or to what floor you're going.

The Elevator Problem

Perhaps you can anticipate what I deem to be the problem: residents of the building routinely press both elevator call buttons. This guarantees that two elevators will be called to that floor, the one on the left and either the center or right elevator. If this doesn't seem like such a big deal, let me point out the practical consequences of this behavior. Pushing both call buttons means that up to 50% of all elevator stops are unnecessary. In my most recent trip down from the 12th floor, for example, the elevator stopped twice, on the 7th and 6th floors, and both times the doors opened to reveal an empty void where a thoughtless individual had stood before one of the other elevators collected her. I can only hope there's a special place in hell for the offenders on the 22nd floor; when one of those oblivious oafs presses both call buttons, the rest of us have to wait while one elevator makes a completely pointless trip to the top of the building where nobody will enter it. When I see two elevators going to the highest floors I want to run up the stairs and start mashing the call button on every floor in between so that it takes 10 minutes for those moronic top-dwellers to reach the earth.

The only thing I'm really struggling with here is whom to blame for this needless frustration, the elevator designers or the hapless passengers. I can only assume that this was an intentional design choice by the manufacturer - it's too big an oversight to have happened accidentally. As you might also be able to see in the image, each button is beneath an LED display that indicates which floor the elevator is currently on and which direction it's headed if it's been called. There is no practical reason to give this information to prospective passengers except to aid in determining which button to press. If I've reasoned correctly, then the engineers at OTIS have grossly overestimated the capacity of the average elevator user in what I can only assume is an honest attempt to build a maximally efficient transportation system. Still, I have a difficult time envisioning how this independently operating design could ever be better than linking the buttons together and having a disinterested computer making the decisions because, as I'll unpack next, people are on the whole terrible and useless.

Carefully Measured Analysis

So all that's left to analyze is why people (literally every person in the building but me, as far as I can tell) push both buttons. There are many possible reasons; none of them bodes well for the future of the human race:
The first possible explanation is that some people simply do not realize the correlation between their multiple-button-pushing behavior and the disruption in travel that it causes. It's hard for me to believe this, since it is obvious when pushing one button that the other one does not light up, and every single resident routinely experiences the irritation of elevators stopping for absolutely nobody on the way down. Still, I can't completely rule it out, because most people are genuinely stupid, and having considered the alternatives, this is actually the most innocuous explanation.

The second possible explanation is that people are generally aware that pushing both buttons calls two elevators, but they simply don't give a shit. They want to get where they're going as quickly as possible, and if that means inconveniencing other people, no big deal. The horrible irony is that it doesn't work - when everyone does this, as everyone does, it actually takes longer for us all to get where we're going, because the overzealous button-pressing of each person affects the travel time of every other person. The worst thing about this theory is that the perceived advantage of it doesn't even actually exist.

The third and only other possible explanation, as far as I can reason, is that people press both buttons because everybody else presses both buttons. Maybe they haven't actually paused to consider how these elevators operate and just do what everyone else does, which is push both buttons. Maybe they've witnessed someone with some perceived authority press both buttons, like the doorman at the desk on the ground floor or a smartly dressed banker. Maybe they've all just accepted that this is the way the elevators work in this building; we all just press both buttons and then live with the consequences.

Irresponsible Extrapolations for Comedic Effect

This is just one small glimpse into human behavior, but I think it's a grimly telling one. I feel the number and diversity of the subjects of this ongoing failed experiment give me confidence to state plainly that we as a species have no hope of progress. I've seen the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the affable and the apathetic unfailingly push both buttons. We clearly cannot be trusted to manage something as utterly quotidian as pushing elevator buttons; entrusting us with any task of greater significance would be the daftest folly.

I'll leave you with an anecdote, but a poignant one, as I believe it was the moment when I fully and permanently lost all hope for homo sapiens. I was standing alone before the three elevators on the 12th floor. I had already carefully studied the information on the LED panels above the call buttons and concluded that either the center or right elevator would likely reach me first. I had pressed the right call button, and only the right call button, and one of the two elevators operated by it was dutifully in transit. In the interim, a darling old Chinese lady shimmied up to the elevators, her little shopping trolley in tow. The scene before her was unambiguous: someone had already arrived and taken the initiative of calling an elevator to our floor. Someone was already patiently waiting for an elevator that had clearly already begun its journey to us. She saw all of this. She saw all of this, and she waddled over to the elevator on the left, and you already know what she did. She pushed the other button. She pushed the other fucking button, and I knew it was all over. My hope for the human race shattered unceremoniously as I fantasized about beating an elderly Chinese woman to death with her own shopping trolley. We can't have nice things, friends. We can't have nice things because we can't even solve The Elevator Problem.

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