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5 lessons from a lost iPhone

Sree Sreenivasan chronicles the lessons he's learned midway through 48 hours without a smartphone. Welcome back to the early '90s!

Screenshot from Find My iPhone app. After leaving the phone in a taxi, the app reveals, on an iPad or any web browser, where the phone was last seen before its battery died. Screenshot/Sree Sreenivasan

For years, I've been doing the Gadget Boy dance. It's what you do when you get out of a taxi in NYC, tapping various parts of your clothing to make sure you have your gadgets, keys, wallet, etc., with you.

On Sunday, as I exited a cab, I forgot to do the dance and left my iPhone 4S behind. By the time I realized it, the cab had left and I was iPhone-free.

I am supposed to get the phone back this afternoon, but here's what I've learned halfway through 48 hours without a smartphone for the first time since February 2008 (when I got my first BlackBerry; I switched to iPhone in October 2011). Incidentally, President Obama makes four appearances in this tale.

1. The "Find My iPhone" app is invaluable. This is a built-in app that can help you locate where your iPhone and/or iPad is (readers will tell me if there's a similar app for Android, BlackBerry and Windows systems). As you can see from the screenshot above, it shows you the approximate location on a map. After I got home, I was able to see my phone being driven around Manhattan until its battery died. The app allows you to type and send a message that gets displayed on your phone and will make a loud sound even if it's on vibrate. I was able to use it to get the next person in the cab to call my wife's cell. Long story short, the cabbie, who wasn't working Monday to avoid gridlock caused by President Obama's visit to the city, has promised to drop the phone off today, Tuesday.

The app -- you can read all about the features and how to set it up  -- also allows you to set a remote lock and, if necessary, to wipe its contents remotely. If and when you get the phone back, you can you restore your contents using the iCloud backup service.

2. I'll always pay for my NYC cabs with credit cards. Turns out the taxi medallion number (the unique number displayed on top of all yellow cabs in Manhattan) is recorded with every credit card purchase, meaning you have way of tracking down cabs you've taken. It was also the first time I had a reason to use Mayor Bloomberg's much-promoted 311 system, which you can use to report lost property (and much, much more) by dialing 311 or by filling in a form. Very impressive service -- and it works. One digital way to note the medallion number: check-in via Foursquare Even though taxis aren't official venues on the service, you can likely find your cab on it, or create a "venue" yourself, like in this example. The non-digital way, of course, is to just ask for a receipt every time you pay via cash or credit card.

3. I got a lot done without my iPhone. Not having the distraction of the iPhone turned out mostly to be a good thing. The instinct to check your smartphone every few minutes means that you are wasting a good deal of time and are distracted from the task at hand. You also pay a lot more attention to people you are with, instead of looking down at your phone. 

Between losing my phone and President Obama's graduation speech at Barnard College shutting down the Columbia Journalism School (where I work) for the day, I've had plenty of time to work on my most important task this week: getting the names right for 300+ graduates (for 40 countries and 35 states) at our Wednesday afternoon ceremony. I practice the names (and hometowns) for about 2-3 weeks. With a name like mine, it's critical that I get others' names right. Not having my iPhone helped a lot.

4. Being without a mobile phone is like being in the early '90s again. I recently met a professor in his 30s who doesn't carry a cell phone of any kind. He says people can leave him voice mail and/or e-mail him as necessary. He doesn't miss carrying around a device all the time. I marveled at his approach, not knowing I was going to be in his situation for a 48-hour period myself. The really hard part, it turns out, has to do with plans outside your office.

Yesterday, for example, I had to meet someone at a new address, and, for the first time in four years, I had to write down on a piece of paper the exact address before leaving the house. Otherwise, I usually have just a vague idea of where I'm heading and look up exact coordinates as I get closer. Also, while heading to our school's graduating cruise at a downtown pier, I ran into massive gridlock caused by President Obama's visit, but had no way to tell my colleagues that I was going to be late.

5. I really, really missed my iPhone. You get so used to having your smartphone with you at all times that you don't realize all the things you use it for. I keep up with the news (the real kind and that of my friends) using my Hootsuite, Flipboard and Facebook apps. I take photos throughout my day to post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I check-in using Foursquare. I record five-minute audio interviews on SoundCloud with interesting people for a series I call "5xSree". I shoot and share 15-second video clips using Tout. I do a dozen searches a day using the Google app. I read parts of a e-book or two using Kindle app's Whispersync (which means you don't lose your spot on your real Kindle or the iPad. And on and on and on. I even found myself in front of the presidential motorcade for the first time in my life (on his way to the airport after his fundraiser at the Rubin Museum of Art), but was unable to snap a photo or video.

Over Christmas last year, my family and I went on a cruise that took me offline for seven days for the first time in 15+ years. While I had withdrawal symptoms, I did have my iPhone with me to take pictures and jot down thoughts and such. I was forced off social media this year for an entire day by my students for the annual #SilenceSree scholarship fundraiser (we raised $1,000+ from 100+ people around the world). But this particular experience has been different from both of those situations.. 

How would you survive 48 hours without your smartphone? Let me know in the comments. 

UPDATE, TUESDAY, 6 PM: I arrived home to find the cab driver had returned my phone - a big thank you to him. Two more things I learned without my phone: one - since I don't wear a wristwatch, I had basically no idea what time it was when I was away from my desk and had to ask strangers for the time; two - pay phones still exist in Manhattan (still just 25 cents) as I had to use one today.

Note to readers: If you've been reading my posts here, you know that one of the things I am trying to do is learn what works and what doesn't on social and digital media. It's such a fast-evolving, confusing world that I believe we can all learn together. Please post your thoughts in the comments below or e-mail me or tweet me at @sree or #sreetips on Twitter. Thanks for reading.