Elevator blues

If you’ve ever taken an elevator at a modern skyscraper, you would have noticed how they are counter-intuitive.

These skyscrapers usually have numerous elevator cabins. These cabins are numbered and they don’t come with buttons for the floor you would like to ride to. Instead, you enter your floor into a central terminal that allocates a numbered cabin for you to ride. You walk into that cabin and it stops at the floor you have entered into the terminal.

In principle, this system is far more efficient than one where you enter your floor within a cabin. Since all the floor requests are made at a central terminal, the algorithm can optimise across elavator cabins. Suppose you are on the ground floor and enter the 20th floor, and another person enters the 18th floor right after, the computer can allocate the same cabin to both passengers.

On the other hand, if you entered a floor number within your cabin, the optimization would be local – it would be specific only to that cabin. Say, you walked into a cabin and entered the 20th floor, and the person after you walked into their own cabin and entered the 18th floor, separate cabins would have to make these trips, reducing the system’s overall efficiency.

As we moved to buildings with 50-100 storeys, our elevators evolved to meet this requirement. Yet, when I encountered this system the first time, it felt strange and cumbersome. My discomfort was induced by a need to change my habits. I missed a feeling of control of walking into an elevator cabin and ordering it to travel to a particular floor.

As the world turns more complex, systems evolve to meet this complexity with greater elegance. The more we are attached to doing things a certain way, the more resistant we are to inevitable change that is for the better.

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