Dead Phone

My phone died the other day.

I was mindlessly tapping and swiping through something - (instagrammed photos of distant mountaintops?  some mindless action rpg?  snarky comment threads on hacker news?) - when the screen went black.  The home button was lifeless.  A few seconds later, it started up, a glowing white apple silhouette.  Then back to black.

The first feeling was both nerve-wracking and freeing: like jumping off a high dive. There's an element of freedom, but also gravity-assisted anxiety.  How screwed am I when I finally hit the water?

I took the usual course of action, attempting to restore from a backup, upgrade the OS.  No dice.  Most of it was drudgery sitting through menus and progress bars - attempting an update of the firmware, syncing and pairing with iTunes, then a full factory reset.

There's something unsettling about seeing perfected and designed iPhone in an infinite crash loop, the faintest glitch line illuminated behind the white apple logo before resetting and restarting the cycle.  With no way to stop it, enslaved to bad logic until all the battery is drained.

Walking to the apple store, folks lined up outside the glass door before it opened at 10 on a weekday, the only spot with any sort of traffic in the luxury mall.  The apple staff clustered in some sort of koolaid-chugging rally before the start of the day, all black tshirts and fashionably shredded jeans, white sneakers so clean they were manufactured yesterday.

The reality distortion field is still strong, the bright light and hipster attendants transforming the act of tech support into something cool, perhaps even transcendent.

Eventually, after my towering bearded genius went through the requisite diagnostics and my old phone was declared kaput, he pulled out a brand new shrink-wrapped phone.  I typed in my iCloud password once again, watch a final progress bar, and I was back to where I was.


All in all, I was without my phone, and my stuff, for less than 24 hours.  Close to only 12.

And on the surface, it feels a bit silly to make such a big hassle over a lack of smartphone.  I go out in the wilderness for days at a time, my phone locked away in a ziplock on airplane mode.  What's the big deal? The truth is, once you enable two-factor for most of the important web-apps in your life, you can't function without a smartphone. I wasn't able to work, which necessitated skipping my morning meetings and instead sitting in the whitewalled apple store, watching my device restore from backup.  Modern software dev really isn't feasible without access to cloud services, which are tied to google auth 2-factor (which is even more finicky than sms-based mfa, which isn't even recommended anymore). If you wipe a device, google auth mfa is wiped as well.  That state isn't backed up to iCloud.

Of course, I was able to get back to the original state, after much mucking around and re-entering passwords.  But it brings to question the methods of authentication in the modern web ecosystem.  Devs are chained down to an expensive physical device (smart phone), and usually some sort of cloud subscription service to maintain a back up of that device (iCloud storage).  Its incredibly priveledged that an expectation of security requires such a high barrier to entry.  If its annoying to me, I can't imagine a programmer in the developing world who wants to plug into all these cloud services.  Far more prefereable would by a rasberry-pi priced mfa hardware fob.

For most of the history of the computers, the big industry advancements (personal computer, network protocols, operating systems, web browsers) were following by community and open source versions.  Its been a driving philosophy of the hacker culture: give the power of tech to the people.  From the original Apple II to RFCs, linux, firefox and github; open source has been a democratizing force for good in tech.

Yet the current wave is proprietary tech, walled gardens, vertically integrated hardware and software far too high tech for any basement hacker to reproduce.  When the iPhone was the jewel in the crown of fun consumer tech, fine.  But now it (or an equivilant Samsung) are necessities in the toolbox of any digital worker.  it's made Apple the world's most valuable company.

But what kind of virtual prison have we constructed for ourselves, even one bedecked with shiny buttons and bezeled chrome corners?

Show Comments