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.
Iowa is a microcosm of this effect. There was an obvious alternative to developing a new piece of software: Just get a bunch of volunteers to sit in a big room in Des Moines and talk to precinct secretaries on the phone. Had the state party developed some form of authorization ahead of time—perhaps by giving each precinct secretary a codeword, on a sheet of paper—callers could have provided results quickly and securely. Iowa has 1,681 precincts: Assuming the state party could find several hundred volunteers, and that each conversation with a local secretary lasted 20 minutes or so (as Sebastian later reported), the task would be complete in about two hours. If the party were asking only for final caucus results, it could complete the same task with about 60 volunteers.
Such a system could be infiltrated, maybe, but it could not be easily hacked. It requires little training: Almost everyone, of every age, knows how to place a phone call. And simple voice calls are accessible to the roughly one in five Americans who do not own a smartphone.
A telephone-based system is also proven. Year in and year out, in races big and small, the Associated Press provides gold-standard election-result data. It compiles those data through an old-fashioned phone tree: First, a local AP stringer calls a set of county clerks and gets vote tallies, then she calls an AP vote-entry clerk in Spokane, Washington, and reads them over the phone. This seemingly low-tech process has produced nearly every live election result that you have seen on TV or website—emphasis on live. “It’s an essential process that requires dedicated people and documented expertise,” brags the AP. That may be true. But it is not so mysterious that it should elude a local political party.
Yet it should not surprise us that the Iowa Democrats declined to use phones. We all do. Every single day, for no good reason, Americans now eschew making phone calls, even when they will provide the best information in the most efficient way. If it’s 5 p.m. on a Monday of a three-day weekend, and you want to know whether your local pizza place is open, the fastest and best option is to call it. But time after time, I have seen people satisfy themselves with Google’s sheepish approximation. “Well, it looks like they’re usually open till 6, but that may change because of the holiday,” announces whoever happens to be in the car’s passenger seat, their nose three inches from the glowing iPhone. “I guess we’ll see,” says the driver, turning onto the interstate. Twenty minutes later, you have no one to blame but yourself when you find Vito’s of Poughkeepsie uses Sunday hours on President’s Day.
Already I can hear the roars of “OK Boomer” that will inevitably meet this post. So let me clarify, first, that I was born in the 1990s. I have come to love the phone as an adult. There remains an immense amount of information in the world that is easiest to access by phone. Should you worry about your child’s mild flu symptoms? Call the pediatrician. Need to know if funding for the town library increased last year? Call city hall.
And while I hear my fellow Millennials complain about phone anxiety, I wonder who is encouraging that particular neuroticism. For in every other realm, the country’s largest companies have midwifed this societal retreat from telephony. It is far easier for corporations, of course, if we use their apps, whether it be to complain or query or order a grande nonfat chai latte. If we order on the app, our request is tabulated and measurable; it is automatically monitored and easier to optimize. Best of all, local employees—those people called, in any other context, our neighbors—can be judged based on how fast they respond to our needs. The rise of what the writer Malcolm Harris calls “servant apps” is stripping the world of the easiest form of solidarity, which is geography. It used to be that, when you moved into a new home, the previous occupants left you their binder of local takeout and delivery menus. In those first months, you tried out the local offerings; over the years, you got to know the voice on the other side of the phone. Today, when city dwellers move to a new neighborhood, they reload Seamless.
Talking on the phone is also—let’s be clear—very easy. Toddlers can do it with aplomb. First graders learn how to call 911. Whereas texting or Instagram DMing proceeds as a kind of ambient chatter with no clear start or stop point—allowing all sorts of innovative new forms of passive-aggression, chief among them ghosting—a phone call is simple. It requires a greeting. Then it requires a statement of purpose. Then the two parties talk. Then eventually someone needs to get off the line, and the conversation ends. This discrete pattern holds whether you called to report Story County Precinct 1-1 or whether you just called to say “I love you.”
Phones are beautiful, really. “The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with—or protect—the privacy of their exchange,” observed the philosopher Ivan Illich in 1973. To him, phones had the best quality that a technology could have: conviviality. “They can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user,” he wrote. Phones, in his view, were a tool of both liberty and equality.
Which is to say: They are a tool of democracy. Make no mistake about the end goal of all of this. As Americans, we have spent the past several decades building a sociotechnical system that aims to free people from ever having to talk to strangers. “‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ That is a lesson for four-year-olds,” writes the political theorist Danielle Allen. She points out that only the president gets to pretend that no American is a stranger: He can look into everyone’s eye and shake everyone’s hand. “The more fearful we citizens are of speaking to strangers, the more we are docile children and not prospective presidents; the greater the distance between the president and us, the more we are subjects, not citizens,” she says. “Talking to strangers is a way of claiming one’s political majority and, with it, a presidential ease and sense of freedom.” (It is also a good way of figuring out who should run for president.)
We hate talking to strangers—so instead we argue by tweet, order by servant app, and address the world from behind constructed veils of personal comfort. What a calamity. Talking to strangers is good. It is good for you, and it is good for the stranger. It is an economic good, as a kind of public luxury; it is a moral good, as a form of ethical instruction. Exodus 22:21 famously commands its readers not to mistreat or oppress a stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To this we should add an American epilogue: Do not abandon the stranger on the phone, for you were left on hold in Des Moines.