As you kneel beside your bed tonight, and dote briefly on each of the world’s miseries, expend a few seconds on Shawn Sebastian. As a Democratic precinct secretary in Story County, Sebastian needed to report the results of his local caucus to the state party.
“I’ve been on hold for over an hour with the Iowa Democratic Party,” he told Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, around 10 p.m. last night. The party “tried to, I think, promote an app to report the results. The app just, like, doesn’t work, so we’ve been recommended to call into the hotline.” Muzak piped in the background. “I’m just waiting on hold and doing my best,” Sebastian repeated.
Then, suddenly, the hotline came alive—a woman’s voice asked if he needed help. “Hello? Hello?” said the voice. “I’ve got to get off the phone,” Sebastian said. Yet before he could actually greet the operator (“Okay, hi. Hello?”) came the tell-tale click of a dead receiver.
And with the rising resignation of a trained Shakespearean, Sebastian turned to Blitzer and announced: “They hung up on me.” It took him roughly another hour to finally deliver his results. (They are: Sanders, 2; Warren, 2; Buttigieg, 2.)
The point of this story is not that technology is bad. In the pandemonium of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus—in which a custom-made and little-tested app failed, with no apparent backup plan, delaying the results nearly a day—that argument will be advanced loudly and often. The point of the story is that telephones are, in fact, the best technology. If the Iowa Democratic Party had recognized this truth, Sebastian would never have been left lingering on hold. And not only should the Iowa Democratic Party have relied more eagerly on telephones, but we all should use them more. Phones are efficient, irreplaceable, and essential to civic life. And we are reckless and stupid, as a society, to be abandoning them in pursuit of software’s siren song.