26 Mar

Door-touching and civic virtue

Recently I spent a lot of time watching people walk in and out of the doors of the Forest Hills subway station in Boston. As people rushed out of the station during the afternoon commute, motivated by a desire to catch a connecting bus or to simply get to the next thing, earbuds firmly positioned in ears, they had little opportunity to see the immediate environment and the people within it. That is, unless, they touched the door.  You see, the station doors served as an important conduit between people and their surroundings.

There are two ways in which people moved in and out of the station – with touching the door and without touching the door. The door, aided by hydraulics, closes slowly once opened, introducing the opportunity for people to slink through it after it is pushed. It is possible for five or six people to pass through from a single hearty push. If one can no longer fit through the closing door, they are forced to push the door open so that they might get through. But with that simple touch, the door-toucher becomes a very different kind of user. They now find themselves responsible for the environment, compelled to hold the door for the people behind them as they similarly stream out of the station. Simply touching the door makes the person complicit in the function of the door, and as such, invested in the environment that the door mediates. Conversely, the door-passer (one who does not touch the door) continues to walk through without the added responsibility for the people around them.

How is it that merely touching the door creates responsibility for the environment? The door-toucher can no longer pass through the environment with the absolution of social responsibility. They are now part of the socio-technical system (which includes human and non-human actors), partly responsible for its function. And they remain responsible until the next human actor enters the system.

As I watched people navigating the complexity of the hydraulic door closer, I was struck by the pro-social benefits of touching the door. The door-touchers were immediately made aware of their social obligation within a socio-technical system and were forced to contend with their responsibility for other human actors in the train station. The door is a pro-social technology that has significant implications for the design of civic media. As I consider the challenge of designing apps, online experiences, or games that cultivate civic engagement, it seems that the primary design goal is to create door-touchers. The goal is to make users aware of the socio-technical system in which they are operating and feel responsible for the human actors within it. The door accomplishes this in the train station – what would the technology look like that accomplishes this on the scale of the block, the neighborhood, or the city?

Can a mobile app transform users from door-passers to door-touchers? I, for one, am very eager to find out.