I had an eye-opening experience on the way in to work this morning.
As I was exiting the building throughout the revolving door, there was someone else coming in at the same time; she had a suitcase and was awkwardly trying to simultaneously push the door, while still moving herself forward and making sure that her suitcase (of the rolly variety) didn’t get stuck in the door moving forward behind her. I modified my behavior to accommodate her pace, pushing slower than I would if I were in the door alone, and keeping an eye on her to make sure that things were moving along ok.
The interaction between two people at a revolving door is an interesting one. I suspect that most of the time, there is some kind of subconscious daemon process that is monitoring the other person to make sure that they’re not getting overtaken, accompanied by a micro-tweaking of the amount of pressure applied to the door to meet the needs of the other.
The term microcoordination is used to refer to the act of (often using technology in) managing people and making near-term plans (e.g. I sms you to “meet me at Intelligentisa on Randolph in 10″) so maybe the term microinteraction is more appropriate in this example (I’m sure that this is a wealth of sociology lit on this topic and that they probably have a different term for it). I’m very intrigued by these kinds of opportunistic, chance situations in which two absolute strangers are forced to interact with one another, even if only in a subconscious level, and potentially modify their behavior, in order to achieve a specific goal (in this case, getting in or out of a building). It’s like being momentarily locked into a symbiotic relationship.
So my first question is, where else do microinteractions happen? I think driving is a good example. People are often forced to speed up or slow down in order to let some one into a lane. Or you may need to make eye contact with someone else at a Stop sign and give them the wave to go ahead. The condiment counter at a coffee shop is another good example (can I call milk and sugar condiments?); two or more individuals reaching under, around or patiently waiting for the sugar (turbinado or white?) and milk (skim, 2%, whole or soy?) to customize their morning cup. The elevator is another good example: that awkward couple of seconds after you enter the elevator and see someone half-jogging to make it before the closes, and you mime sticking your foot in the door or motion towards pressing the “door open” button in a half-hearted attempt to let them in, and then shrug as if to say “See – I tried!!!” as the double door slowly closes (oh come on – am i the only one who does this?).
My second thought was: to what extent does this co-dependence (even if it is only for a couple of seconds) bring us closer to each other and how (if at all) is this beneficial? Would a community or an organization in which a significant number of quotidian tasks required some form of microinteraction with others be a happier, healthier one? Can this be “designed in” without adding extra burden to people’s lives? Or is it merely an emergent behavior to be studied, and not orchestrated?
OK, and now back to the revolving door and world peace. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine forcibly designing microinteraction into tasks that currently don’t require it. And of course the chance of this working on any kind of international level is infinitesimally small. But as a thought exercise, think for a second what it would be like if everyone in the world were engaged in the same microinteraction, if we all had to work together, just for a second or two, to achieve some task. How would it affect you to know that some anonymous person across the world sacrificed a trifle for your benefit? Would you be willing to give up something trivial for someone else, someone you’ve never met and never will? Could all these small sacrifices change the world for the better?
The interdependency between people, or between humans and the environment, is often described as a web. But I think it’s more like a revolving door. Some of us may be trailing suitcases, while others have both hands free. Some of us can push faster, while others must push slower. But if any one person pushes too fast, it ruins it for everyone else, and no one gets in to or out of the building.
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