Are elevators the last bastion of waiting?

Between smartphones and the work of elevator researchers, we'll never go waiting again

Waiting for the magic ding.

Waiting for the magic ding.

Sixteen-and-a-half years. That’s the cumulative amount of time New York office workers spent waiting for elevators these past twelve months. It’s happened, by and large, in 20-second bursts – that’s the number a woman named Theresa Christy has cited as an industry average. As a mathematician and Otis Elevator Research Fellow, Christy has given her last quarter-century to studying elevator efficiency and how to improve it. That she does this – that this is a job – says a good deal about how Americans feel about waiting.

But first, more numbers. Add them up and office workers in Chicago cumulatively spend 38 months simply waiting to emerge from elevators every year, according to this study. For Los Angeles workers, the number goes up to 51 months.

It’s hard to say what’s more interesting: the hard science of how much time our species spends in or around elevators, or the soft science of how they fool us into not caring. For decades high-rise managers have been hip to the trick of letting us look at ourselves while we wait. Install mirrors in the lobby, Christy says, and research shows our “perceived waiting time” drops. It also falls in “destination systems” – those buildings that tell you in advance which elevator is heading your way, rather than having us stand in the middle and wait for that BING.

Why am I writing about this odd little mini-universe? Because we’re alive at a moment when the experience of waiting is being wholly rewritten by the ubiquity of smartphones. Sure, lots of things have changed because of smartphones. But this specific change seems worth noting, for its connection to something deeper: our thought output.

I possess no hard data on how many thoughts are generated each day by the average human. I don’t even know what a thought is, technically speaking. But I have horse sense, which tells me that ideas burble up when we’re forced to stand around doing nothing, whether it’s waiting for an elevator, a teakettle, a slow gas pump or a microwave full of leftovers.

Yes, technically we’re allowed to think during other times. But those times are being encroached upon by work, which eats up more of the average day every year. Anyway there’s something singular about the thinking we do in these mandatory lulls. Tethered in place, how much civilizational thinking has been accomplished in these idle moments over the years? Now we mindlessly Instagram instead. An entire realm devoted to reflection, however brief: wiped away by the rectangles in our pockets.

As our impatience for waiting is met with ever more apps and devices designed to distract us, it’s tempting to wonder what our banished boredom will take with it. Something important? I hope to find a suitable window to reflect on it soon.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About, as well as What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and Blindsight, named one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Mobile Apps