A couple of weeks ago, a new plot twist in the saga of President Trump’s personal attorney reached the public in a bracing headline: “Rudy Giuliani Butt-Dials NBC News Reporter.” Rich Schapiro, an investigative journalist at NBC, woke up on the morning of October 17th, grabbed his cell phone, and found a voice-mail message from the former mayor of New York City. The two men had spoken the previous evening, in connection with a story that Schapiro was reporting. But Schapiro quickly deduced that Giuliani had left the voice mail by accident. In the periodically garbled recording, Giuliani and an unidentified man could be heard discussing various dealings in Bahrain and Turkey. There was also some vague conversation about financial matters. (“The problem is we need some money. We need a few hundred thousand,” Giuliani said.) It was the second time in recent weeks that Giuliani had inadvertently left a message on Schapiro’s phone. “The late-night Giuliani butt dial,” Schapiro writes, “came 18 days after a midafternoon Giuliani butt dial.”
Followers of current events will not be surprised by this news. For some time, Giuliani has been engaged in a public struggle with his digital devices. The Twitter account @RudyGiuliani is one of the Internet’s most reliable suppliers of faux pas. Many tweets feature mangled syntax and weird punctuation; others appear to have been launched into cyberspace prematurely. (One much memed Giuliani post read, in its entirety, “You.”) Last month, Giuliani was briefly booted off of his Twitter account, after uploading screenshots that revealed the phone number of a top adviser to the Ukrainian President. Occasionally, Giuliani’s Twitter “burps” achieve the artful incoherence of Dadaist collage. In a tweet on May 24th, Giuliani wrote, “ivesssapology for a video which is allegedly is a caricature of an otherwise halting speech pattern, she should first stop, and apologize for, saying the President needs an ‘intervention.’ Are.” An image posted alongside these words was equally baffling: a GIF showing members of the Atlanta Hawks celebrating a teammate’s dunk.
Last week, Schapiro broke a new story about Giuliani’s travails. In February, 2017, Giuliani sought help at the Genius Bar of a San Francisco Apple store: he had been locked out of his iPhone after entering the wrong passcode at least ten times. The incident came less than a month after Trump named Giuliani as his cybersecurity adviser.
In short, Giuliani represents a familiar twenty-first-century type: the Old Guy Who Can’t Figure Out His Phone. At this very moment, thousands of elderly American men are glowering at the touch screens of Samsung Galaxy S8s, hurling epithets like Lear on the storm-lashed heath. Of course, the spectre of a batty old man with a cell phone has taken on geopolitical significance in 2019, when a Presidential tweet has the power to jolt markets and disrupt the global order. From “covfefe” to the White House’s e-mailing of its impeachment talking points to Democratic lawmakers, tech blunders are such Trumpian hallmarks that they seem almost deliberate, part of a broader nihilistic project—flaunting incompetence and sowing chaos to own the libs. When Giuliani grips his iPhone with ten thumbs and tweets the phrase “Kimim ° has f,” he opens himself to the ridicule of millions. But he is also being a good Trump Republican.
Yet the news of Giuliani’s accidental phone calls strikes a different chord, stirring a more generalized anxiety. The butt dial doesn’t discriminate—it is a hazard that everyone faces, a veritable epidemic. Studies have suggested that butt dials are “wreaking havoc” on 911 systems, tying up operators who might otherwise be dispatching first responders to emergencies. In 2014, the commissioner of the F.C.C., Michael O’Rielly, estimated that “approximately 84 million 911 calls a year are pocket dials.” That number surely has grown in the ensuing half decade, a period in which almost a hundred million more Americans have acquired smartphones.
Behind these eye-popping statistics are countless individual accidents—thousands of little dramas, with dénouements ranging from farcical to tragic. Criminals turn themselves in by butt-dialling the police. Cheating lovers broadcast live audio of assignations to their boyfriends. Butt dials have prompted lawsuits, and the legal system has scrambled to keep up. In 2015, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that information gleaned through a butt dial could be used against the dialler. A butt-dialler, the court found, “exposes his activities and statements, thereby failing to exhibit an expectation of privacy, if he inadvertently shares his activities and statements through neglectful use of a common telecommunication device.”
To live in the digital age is to be aware that your privacy is under assault by your possessions. The gadgets we welcome into our homes are espionage agents, spooks for Big Data, recording the intimate details of our existence—our medical histories and shopping habits and secrets and lies—and reporting back to the home office. But if the Amazon Echo, flickering on a night table, prompts dystopian dread, the cell-phone butt dial belongs to a different genre. The butt dial is slapstick, the most inherently hilarious of twenty-first-century privacy perils. This may be why the vivid phrase “butt-dial” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and has eclipsed the more generic “pocket dial” to become the standard term, employed even when no butt is involved. Certain butt-diallers have no butt: last year, a gecko infiltrated the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center, a Hawaiian hospital that specializes in the care of monk seals. The gecko scuttled onto a phone in a laboratory and placed “a ‘bazillion’ calls” to numbers logged in the call history.
These episodes teach a lesson about the machines that dominate our lives. Smartphones are too smart for us; they’re also really dumb. The fact that you can telephone your cousin in Australia with a single finger tap is a marvel, a triumph of human knowledge and ingenuity millennia in the making. But this technology is flawed—stupid, even—because the same call to Australia can be placed when a phone is slipped into a pants pocket and gluteal pressure is inopportunely applied. In this respect, yesteryear’s analog equipment is more intelligent, and certainly safer, than the sci-fi devices of the present day. An old-fashioned rotary phone is impervious to the mischief-making of geckos, to say nothing of butts.
There are remedies for butt-dialling, in theory. A how-to literature has sprung up, with catalogues of hacks and interventions; there are apps designed to combat the butt-dial menace. But none of these addresses the underlying problem; namely, that cell-phone owners are human beings, and are therefore klutzes. Even the most graceful and godlike among us are prone to pratfalls. A matinée idol slides into a velvet booth at an exclusive boîte—and the phone in the back pocket of his tuxedo pants dials his mother-in-law. The proximity of mobile phones to our flawed and fleshy selves, the way that we keep these things on or near our spasming bodies at all times, means that accidents are inevitable. Tech support cannot fix this glitch.
The follies will surely increase as we age—as confounding new contraptions hit the shelves and operating-system updates outpace slowing synapses. This is why the butt dial hits us where it hurts, triggering embarrassment that grades into a deeper existential dolor. In modern life, there may be no surer measure of mortality than one’s ability to handle personal electronics. We squint at the liquid-crystal screen, and in that crepuscular glow we glimpse our own planned obsolescence. I’ve reached the stage of middle age where my sluggish iPhone swipes elicit howls of exasperation from my digital-native children, ages fifteen and six. I may not yet be Rudy Giuliani, blurting about Bahrain into a hot mike. But there’s no doubt that the coming years hold many indignities: chastened trips to the Genius Bar, unwitting phone calls placed—literally or figuratively—by butt. Time and tide, and tech, make asses of us all.