Your Phone May Be More Important Than You Think
This Thanksgiving break, my wife Charlotte and I went on vacation to Portland, Maine. Portland’s a nice, walkable city, and there was plenty to do there to fill a weekend. We stayed at the AC Hotel which is located on the northern bank of the Fore River, near where my sister-in-law lives.
So, we decided to go visit my wife’s sister since it was just a four mile to walk to her house from our hotel. We set out in the morning, took our time, but by the time we crossed the bridge to the southern bank of the river, we still had some four hours before she was available. My wife suggested we walk down to Fort Williams Park, a military base-turned park in Cape Elizabeth, and only a couple miles out of our way. We stopped to pick up a snack at a local grocery store, and as we came out, it started to drizzle. As we made our way south, the precipitation picked up to something that was more intense than mere misting, but not quite something I would feel comfortable calling rain, maybe drizzle plus. I’m sure there’s a term for it, but it was ominous. We reached the park, with our outer layers quite wet, and headed for the visitor’s center and gift shop to get shelter. The joke was on us, though: the visitor’s center was closed.
We found shelter in a pavilion and tried to decide what to do next. My wife’s phone had slipped off its charger overnight and what little charge it had was gone; it wouldn’t even start anymore. I still had around 60% battery, so I got in touch with her sister to let her know where we were and asked if she could pick us up when she got out of work. We settled down for a two-hour wait, but the wind picked up, freezing us to the bone.
My wife told me this would not do; she was cold and soaked through. She said we had to at least head back into town and find a coffee shop to get warmed up. We agreed, and after I took a quick call from a client who had an urgent question, I let her sister know not to get us, but that we’d meet her at her house. I asked for the address and got it via text. Then, I tried to see on Google Maps where it was.
Then, of course, my phone died.
From 45% charge to nada. No warning. Kaboom.
I would later find out that this was most likely because of dendritic buildup on my phone’s battery, which caused the electrical properties of the battery to change, allowing it to fail under a significant load (like firing up the GPS module). Regardless, we were now in a park in a city we were only passingly familiar with, with no communications, no navigation, and no coffee. Our only saving grace was that I had committed my sister-in-law’s address to memory, but I had no map to find it.
We remembered passing a public library on our way. Both of us agreed that it was the best place to hopefully reconnect to the Internet and get our bearings. Forty minutes of walking through the rain later, we arrived at the South Portland Public Library.
Fortunately for us, they had public internet terminals there. Unfortunately, you needed a library card to get into them. That was no issue, a librarian got us in. Now though, we had discovered a real issue.
Charlotte couldn’t remember her Google or Facebook passwords, since it had been so long since she had to use them. I use a password manager for most of my applications, but for situations just such as these, I make sure I have my personal Gmail password memorized. Triumphantly, I punched in my username and password.
Good old Google was looking out for me. It saw I was trying to log in from a strange location. Alarm bells rung at Google HQ and a team of highly trained ninjas were tasked to resolve the security break. But in reality, out of an abundance of caution, it sent me a confirmation code to make sure it was me. It sent the code to my phone.
My cold, dead phone.
As I mentioned before, I did remember the address we had to go to, so at least I was able to look that up. In the end, we did make it to sister-in-law’s place and got a chance to meet her adorable new kitten. The whole experience left me with an awareness of how reliant we are on our phones.
I spent most of my twenties traveling the world for business and I got used to the idea that I couldn’t depend on wireless telecommunications, or even that WiFi would exist where I was. I avoided multifactor authentication that relied on anything that could be lost or die on me, especially for critical systems. I wanted to make sure that, even if my gear ended up in a pit of crocodiles, I could find a computer and get myself back online. This experience made we realize that without me intentionally adopting it, I now required my phone to not only be working, but to have enough signal to get an SMS message to connect to my Google account, which is largely the hub of most of my online presence.
In this case I felt lucky; as cold and wet as we got, we never actually were in any danger. Our absolute worst-case scenario was to walk back or take a taxi to the hotel. If push came to shove, we could just buy a charger and go to a coffee shop or such. It made me think of other times I was overseas, though, or even in particularly remote parts of the USA. Having a “cold start” path back into your online life is important, because the assumption that every user will always have their phone is flawed.
I recommend to anyone who’s made it this far: run a drill for yourself of not having your phone available. Imagine it was lost, stolen, or damaged beyond immediate repair. Would you be able to work? Would you be able to get help? Would you be able to move yourself around? I learned in one of the kindest ways possible that my phone is a major Achilles heel in my life.