Somewhere on their 12-hour car trip up the interstate from Columbia, S.C., to Philadelphia, William Bilton, a former prosecutor with an infectious personality, turned to his 26-year-old daughter, Lauren, who was looking down at a small screen, preoccupied as usual, and made an offer. If she could go a full 60 minutes without reading the emails on her cellphone, he would pay her a hundred bucks.
She took the bet, and won. That should not have surprised anyone, especially not the father, because he and his wife, Jan, had trained Lauren in the political arts and watched her determined rise in South Carolina politics from the time she attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver as the youngest delegate, barely 18, to now, when she was the third vice chair of the state party and a seasoned veteran making her third delegate appearance. But taking her father’s challenge was one thing; taking on today’s techno-addicted culture was quite another.
For the 11 other hours of the ride, before and after her lucrative bubble of electronic silence, her thumbs were atwitter in the faint glow of an unremitting email stream.
Emails zinging and pinging everywhere in this wide world. Two and a half million messages per second. The fast food of human discourse. Billions and billions sent, read, answered, ignored, saved, deleted. Emails spamming, slamming, illuminating, obfuscating, connecting, informing, rumor mongering. And all too often creating havoc and embarrassment to politicians and governments when the private becomes public, as it did once again this week with the release of thousands of emails written and received by party functionaries at the Democratic National Committee, emails that Lauren Bilton learned about, of course, by reading her own emails.
WikiLeaks revealing. A chairman resigning. Signs pointing toward Russian hackers. A high-intrigue international political true-life spy novel all revolving around a form of communication probably first devised and used by a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson, who sent the inaugural network email from one of his computers to another in 1971. Tomlinson died four months ago, at age 74, in relative obscurity. Whenever he was asked about what he said on that first email, he answered that it was so prosaic it was not worth remembering. No Samuel F.B. Morse “What hath God wrought?” for the telegraph or Alexander Graham Bell “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” for the telephone. Tomlinson might have started with the first five letters on the upper left side of the typewriter, the ubiquitous if meaningless qwerty.
Put yourself in the early to mid-1970s and imagine looking at a televised meeting of the Florida delegation at a national convention and seeing disgruntled citizens holding up protest signs at the appearance of the DNC chair that said only one thing: emails. That is what happened Monday morning in a hotel room in Philadelphia. It would have been incomprehensible then, meaning absolutely nothing. What’s that E? You mean you can steal political secrets without hiring a band of Cuban exile burglars and picking locks and placing bugs and keeping doors unlocked with duct tape?
But now that one word said it all. Emails. There were layers of meaning. The protesters supported Bernie Sanders. The emails from the subalterns of DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz were not kind to Sanders, seeming to be all in for Hillary Clinton. And Clinton had a much larger email headache hovering over her campaign, the negligent but not criminally actionable fiasco involving her use of a private server when she was secretary of state. Once, early in the campaign season last year, Sanders warmed Clinton’s heart at a debate by coming to her defense with the words, “The American people are sick and tired of your damn emails!” If only it were as easy as a wave of Sanders’s dismissively gesticulating arms. Emails and their problems just keep keeping on. What hath Ray Tomlinson wrought?
When the Bilton family reached Philadelphia, they settled in with the rest of the South Carolina entourage at the DoubleTree hotel at Broad and Locust. By Monday morning, emails were the talk of the lobby. One of the South Carolina delegates was Richard Johnson, an African American from Aiken who was the bookend to Lauren; she the youngest, he the oldest. Johnson had served in the Korean War. He is a man of his times, meaning he has a cellphone and email, and before leaving Aiken, in fact, had tried to delete 400 emails backed up on his machine, but could not get through them all. In that sense, if no other, it was a lot easier back when he was a kid and his family did not even have a telephone, and heard about things by post or at church and the grocery store.
As Johnson was telling his story, the Bilton family whooshed by on their way toward an Uber that would carry them down toward Independence Mall. Lauren’s dad had rounded up his wife and daughter and two delegate friends, Walt McLeod and Mel Hart. Their first stop was the Christ Church Burial Ground, an old cemetery that provided shade and American history at the same time. What William Bilton most wanted to see was the gravestone of Benjamin Franklin, and they found it in a corner near the front fence. As the group stood there talking about Franklin and the unadorned granite that marked the grave, Bilton suddenly was transported from the 18th century to the present moment.
“Okay, we got some news,” he announced. His cellphone had dinged with an email. One of the many news lists he subscribed to was telling him the email story had ratcheted up a notch. The FBI was investigating.
They roamed the graveyard from one end to the other, until they ran into the cemetery’s tour manager and historian, John Hopkins, who, among other things, was an expert on Franklin. The creative old man of the American Revolution invented many things, but not email. Imagine if there had been an email scandal breaking out when they were writing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia? What would Franklin have thought of email?
“I think he would have liked it,” Hopkins said. “And he would have deleted a lot!”