aily interaction with technology is inevitable in this world. Sure, Siri still seems to barely understand what you’re asking of it, and driverless cars feel like they’ll always be “five years in the future.” Don’t even get me started on whatever the heck VR is.
That said, there are machines in life we expect to work, all of the time, every time. The washing machine will finish its cycle, your car is supposed to start (and stop) when you tell it to, and the ceiling fan won’t come spinning off its base, sending wooden blades flying around the room at 100mph. These are the machines that have been around since the steam age, the turn of the century. They’ve been proven for over 100 years. Sure, some people way back when may have been hurt in the development of these daily staples, but that’s ancient history.
You rarely think twice about jumping in an elevator. Whether it’s a three floor trip up to the dentist or 50 floors to get to the office, as you walk into the steel box that will propel you vertically at upwards of 45mph and press your floor, the ensuing ride is almost always uneventful. Besides, more often than not, multiple elevator trips are required to get where you need to be.
According to the National Elevator Industry, there are over 900,000 elevators in use throughout the United States.
While most trips are only four to five floors in vertical distance, or 40 some odd feet, it is estimated that elevators across the country carry a total of 18 billion passengers over 1.36 billion miles over the course of a year.
Per a 2011 LA Times piece, “[Elevator] trips result in about 27 deaths annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That works out to a fatality rate of 0.00000015% per trip.”
So, it’s safe to say that elevators are in fact the safest way to get from point A to point B. Safer than walking upstairs to bed, and most definitely safer than hopping in the car.
I stepped onto the elevator of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas last week, selected my floor (50), politely shuffled into the back left corner, and assumed my position as one of ten riders for the trip.
I was in town for CES, Las Vegas’ biggest convention of the year, where the most innovative and futuristic technology from around the world is on display for all to gawk at.
As the steel doors shut, a single arm came shooting through the space between the floor and the elevator bank. It was my friend Vince.
As the door closed, Vince sidled up next to me and we chatted about the previous night’s events — boring, flat, small talk due to the finite nature of elevator rides. As we rose through the building, I glanced at the LED screen that displayed the floors we were passing — 44, 45, 46 — before looking back at Vince.
Then, suddenly the elevator shuddered, and emitted a noise I can only describe as the kind of sound you hear in movies when machines quit working.
We lurched to a halt, but the upward momentum of 10 passengers caused it to momentarily spring back for fraction of a second of weightlessness, and then another terrifying drop. I felt the cables straining to keep us hanging as we all pushed down on the floor of what had suddenly become our steel prison. An audible panic rose from the riders around me.
This was the moment everyone dreads but doesn’t actually think will happen to them.
My senses suddenly sharpening, it obliquely occurred to me that while we were potentially dangling just above our deaths, Bruno Mars was still piping in through the speakers.
Now the elevator was completely still, and aside from the crooning, everyone was deathly quiet. People began looking around at one another. I glanced up at the LED screen again to get a better sense of just how high up we were. The display flashed then from ‘47’ to a big, blocky “OK.” Uh, nope. Nothing about this was OK.
The unnerving lurch we had just experienced had already thrown me off balance, and an uncomfortable sense of reality coupled with my queasiness began to set in. I was stuck in a high-rise elevator, dangling 47 floors above the ground with no way out. Everyone immediately checked their phones: No Service.
The passenger closest the buttons began to frantically mash at them, looking for any form of feedback or recognition from our elevator overlords.
Would this analog reboot somehow get us moving, or trigger the doors to open?
“Stop pressing those, please stop,” a woman interjected, with an audible tinge of panic in her voice. We were all looking around, exchanging glances, suddenly strangers no more. Instead, we became marooned voyagers, lost with no bearings, with only each other’s (uncomfortably close) company.