Over the years, I’ve written, perhaps, a million words. I failed to predict the nineteen that would move the fastest.
Last Sunday, I went looking for the iPad. I was halfway through the documentary about the skinny guy who climbs cliffs with no ropes, but watching that particular movie on the couch was making me feel bad. So I had a brilliant plan. In kinship with the climber of mountains, I would prop up the iPad on the elliptical trainer that we got for my wife’s birthday.
I’d left the iPad in its usual home––an overflowing basket, on a low table, of mail, stamps, power cords, and partially broken earphones. The low table, it turns out, was a mistake. Our son Ollie, age three, gets to use the iPad on airplanes, but rarely at home, a rule he regards as unspeakably cruel. Now and then, when he finds it in his grasp, he’ll enter random numbers into the passcode screen, until a parent lifts the device up and out of his tiny hands, at which point he rendeth his garments and lieth on the earth.
The iPad was not in the basket. Ollie, it turns out, had got hold of it and gone to town on the passcode, trying one idea after another, with the fury and focus of Alan Turing trying to beat the Nazis. It’s not clear how many codes Ollie tried, but, by the time he gave up, the screen said “iPad is disabled, try again in 25,536,442 minutes.” That works out to about forty-eight years. I took a picture of it with my phone, wrote a tweet asking if anyone knew how to fix it, and went downstairs to dinner.
I didn’t think much about the iPad again until the next morning, when I opened an e-mail from the news division of CTV, a Canadian television network: “We’re doing a short post on your tweet about the locked iPad—have you been able to unlock it? How did you do it?” Three minutes later, another e-mail arrived, this time from the Daily Mail Online, in London: “Could we possibly get your permission to use the image in that Tweet, and preferably a picture of you as well please?” I didn’t reply.
A few minutes later, I was brushing my teeth when my wife showed me a text; a British friend was sending condolences on our iPad. He’d just seen a in the Sun, a British tabloid, headlined “LOCK SHOCK: Baffled dad locked out of iPad for 25 MILLION minutes after son, 3, tried to guess password.” (It was featured beside pregnancy photos of Meghan Markle.)
On social media, I discovered that the tweet about our predicament was travelling fast, kicking up the full, raucous spectrum of Internet sensibilities. Some people were : “What a coincidence. 25,536,442 minutes is also our current Help Desk hold wait time.” Others were : “I wonder why a 3yo is in reach of an iPad. Deserved this tbh.” Some scoured the photo like the Zapruder film and pronounced it a fraud: “Its display is not Retina and the wallpaper is from the first iOS series. Great work of deceiving people!” A lot of people responded with their own desperate situations, of their devices locked out for millions of minutes. (“What was the answer?” one person . “I am in the same boat.”)
Meanwhile, the story continued to spread, to CNN, Fox News, USA Today, and news organizations in more languages than I recognized. A tech columnist at CNBC examined the software implications. Parents.com wondered if our child was punished. (No.) “Good Morning America” e-mailed with the subject line “Time Sensitive Request.” We got heartfelt e-mails from many strangers, such as the woman who urged us to steer our child toward science. “Obviously, your offspring has the dogged, unfailing persistence required for a future career in a research field,” she wrote.
I was impressed by how many people posted substantive help, explaining that this was a problem especially with early iPads (ours is ancient)—they can have trouble with time and date, which in turn can send the lockout time soaring. They pointed me to on how to unlock it. It explained how to do a special kind of reset––connecting it to iTunes, turning the power off, and then holding and releasing the home and power buttons in a specific sequence––which put it in “Device Firmware Update” mode. We lost some data, but the iPad was usable again. The BBC asked for an update, and I reported that we’d unlocked it. Still, the story continued to spread. On Twitter, messages kept coming by the dozens, from yet further afield; people empathized (“Ngeri juga kalo gini kejadiannya”), chuckled (“Zuviele Fehlversuche 🤣 in 48 Jahren KENNT das Gerät KEINER mehr 🤣”), and appealed to the divine : وdاللهي.
In the end, why did anybody care? Was it just a pleasing respite from gruelling news? Like so much of our lives with technology, the episode could be read as a reason for either optimism or gloom. In an instant, people had raged and imagined conspiracies; most did not. Many helped. Above all, the scenario, in all its ridiculousness, seemed to satisfy the low-grade anxieties that have become our universal predicament, the feeling that we’re rarely more than a few clicks away from becoming captive to the tech we love. And, when it came time to share that angst, we did it online, of course. By the end of the week, the tweets were slowing down. The Internet had moved on. And the iPad was on a high shelf.
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Cracking the Code: A Toddler, an iPad, and a Tweet