Don't be like me and take your phone for granted

Commentary: It took a car breaking down on a California highway to trigger a newfound appreciation for those little computers in our pockets.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Our busted Toyota Sienna heads off to a garage for repairs.

Our busted Toyota Sienna heads off to a garage for repairs.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

I'll admit it. With monthly bills, network data caps, cracked screens, privacy invasion risks and guilt pangs about being glued to a gadget, my smartphone has lost much of its appeal. The novelty is gone, and the chime of a notification elicits more anxiety than excitement.

But a broken water pump helped restore my faith.

I was driving the family north on California Highway 17, returning to our San Francisco Bay Area home after a weekend getaway to the Big Sur coastline, when our minivan's check-engine light went on. The thermometer pointer on our minivan -- newly purchased but with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer -- rose and pegged itself in the danger zone.

Google's Pixel 2 XL has a single camera, unlike rival flagship phones from Apple and Samsung. The second circle is a fingerprint reader.

Google's Pixel 2 XL

Stephen Shankland/CNET

With a feeling of dread I pulled over. I'm no car expert, but enough years of experience with internal combustion engines told me that Bay Area traffic was now the least of my concerns.

I'm not going to pretend dealing with the problem was fun. We were three hours late home, spent more than 90 minutes waiting in the rain for the engine to cool down, and ended up spending big money on a tow truck and repairs.

But our phones -- an Apple iPhone 7 Plus and a Google Pixel 2 XL -- proved themselves invaluable. Among their uses:

  • Figuring out what the heck was wrong with our minivan
  • Finding suggestions about how to try to fix it at least enough to limp home
  • Locating the nearest open repair shop and talking to its staff -- yes, using a phone as an actual phone
  • Texting with a friend who came to collect our stranded family of four people and a dog
  • Sending our friend our location along a highway so she knew exactly where to collect us
  • Digging up our car insurance policy information and contacting the insurance company
  • Finding and calling a tow truck company
  • Checking auto repair shop reviews to figure out where to have our minivan towed
  • Entertaining the child who likes reading e-books

In short, I realized anew that these electronic slabs we carry in our pockets and purses are miracles of electronic utility. At least when you have network access and enough battery power left.

I had to laugh at my fresh appreciation of just what modern smartphones can offer nowadays, though, because the first time I really appreciated their usefulness in a clutch situation was -- wait for it -- dealing with a car problem.

It was 2008 when I had my iPhone 3GS, the second-generation Apple iPhone and my first modern smartphone. My mom was picking us up at the airport but had a flat tire. It was getting late in the evening, but the iPhone found us a shop that was open and gave its address and phone number. That seems basic compared to today's turn-by-turn directions and YouTube car repair tutorials, but it was enough to help us out during a time of need.

So listen, everybody. You may be jaded about Snapchat stickers and tormented by endless notifications and annoyed how big your nose looks in that selfie. But the next time you pull out your phone, try to see the glass can be half full sometimes, too.

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