Philosophical Musings on the Demise of Landline Phones in Political Surveys

1 Jul

Every time you cringe about the use of landlines in political surveys, an angel gets its virtual wings.  

The stakes are huge in the political consultation business because the claims are huge. Practitioners promise to provide insight into human nature on a large enough scale to shape electoral strategy. That’s big considering how infinite and unpredictable humans actually are. In order to make those claims, consultants rely on technology, which, as Marshall McLuhan and others have long told us, is an extension of ourselves, our bodies. In this case, consultation technology promises: “hey buddy, you can’t think through that infinitude of human nature just using that brain mass inside your head. You need help.” 

This is a simple enough concept and I’ll get back to it momentarily in reference to McLuhan’s work: tech helps us do what we can’t do with just our bodies and brains alone. But before we dive down that hole, I also need to mention the context for having discussions like this: Communication technology seems hardwired for philosophical alarmism. What I mean by that is we have this propensity to interpret our physical and mental interactions with technology as somehow unique and negative, indicative of an existential doom just around the corner. So we’re constantly balancing an optimistic and pragmatic view of tech with a darker, kind of dystopian expectation that exponential advances, especially in communications and media, will make us weaker and more alienated from each other. 

Writing for New Statesman a few years ago, Barbara Speed explored the phenomena of us thinking cell phones were vibrating in our pockets when they really weren’t. Speed cited Larry Rosen’s description of the impact of technology on psychology as “iDisorders,” which adds to my feeling that these are more reflections of researchers wanting to trend-spot than an understanding of the historically perennial way technology shapes us as we shape it. Speed even resurrected the old 2008 “Is Google making us stupid” article Nicolas Carr wrote in the Atlantic. In that piece, the old arguments against television were transposed onto criticism of the internet. With TV it was “yes, we receive information, but we process it differently than reading,” an explanation made only slightly weird by comparing the counterfactual where humanity never learns to read. Now, the argument is “thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.” That sense is based on “immediacy” and “efficiency” and makes us decode rather than co-create meaning. 

But I think McLuhan problematizes this whole notion of comm tech somehow strangling our own mental strengths or wrapping itself around us. I think he problematizes the “either comm tech frees us or it entrenches the things which bind us” dichotomy. It’s a false one. All of the things around us both free and constrain us. Our bodies are constantly in physical interaction with things, our senses are always being augmented or limited, and the purpose of virtually all human interaction with the material world seems to be some sort of extension. It’s never not been that way. It was that way the first time our ancestors made tools, and long before that. 

Communication technology matters to McLuhan, but not because it exists in some special metaphysical category. Just as a club is an extension of the arm, communication technology is an extension of our thinking-and-speaking apparati . . .”human modes of thinking are altered by our predominant media of communication.” The oral world transitions into the written world which in turn transitions into the digital world—each era “characterized by its principle means of communication.” He was at times pessimistic about these advances, and other times optimistic, but he never treated social evil as some sort of inevitable enslavement to tech. 

What does any of this have to do with cell phones and landlines? Well, if the phone is an extension of the interactive human body, we should ask ourselves what kind of human-phone-cyborgs we want to be. In the case of using phones to collect political data, I’m concerned that survey researchers may be clinging to landlines unwarrantedly. Over 106 million adults (44% of the adult population) live in wireless-only households; in millions more households, landlines take a sharp back seat to residents’ mobiles. Another 40 million children live in houses with no landlines. Perhaps this is because landlines still attach to directories, while cell phone numbers require skillful work with the voter file and mobile phone and demographic append vendors like Accurate Append (client).

Mark Mellman, a king in the world of political consulting (having helped elect countless governors, senators, and house members all over the country) cites Pew Research finding that landline phone response rates dropped from 36 percent in 1997 (already dismally low) to 9 percent in 2017. He cites this while explaining why his firms combine cell phone calls with texting in their polls. “Low response rates affect accuracy, only if the people who do participate are different from those who don’t,” he reminds us, while explaining the need to adopt different techniques of outreach. While it’s important to remember that “that different kinds of people prefer different modes of interviewing and, more importantly, they answer key questions quite differently,” the important thing is to make sure a representative variety of respondents get to answer the questions—because they will often hear and respond to them in very different ways. 

But why continue landlines at all? A line from the Pew Report is a little alarming on this point. The report says that, while cell phones are even better than dual-frame (cell plus landline) interviews in some cases, the phone survey industry is not “poised to immediately drop landline samples,” at least in the near future, and the main reason for this appears to be that “[l]andline interviewing is roughly 30%-50% less expensive on a per-interview basis than cellphone interviewing. As a result, landlines remain an attractive option for achieving a fixed total sample size (e.g., n=1,000), even though the effective sample size after weighting is lower than would typically be achieved dialing only cell phones.” 

It’s true that the Pew Report also mentions the ability of landlines to reach older voters when it is important to do so (more for qualitative research or special subgroup polling, no doubt). But otherwise, this sounds dangerously and discouragingly like surveyors are allowing resource considerations to limit their methodologies—in ways that could produce distorted results. This may even explain why polling seemed off for certain presidential candidates in the primaries. The wiser thing to do would be to go where the technology leads you, full McLuhan, rather than staying in the horse-and-buggy because you don’t want to pay more for the car.

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