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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


Disconnecting in a Connected World Matt Campbell

Soul Circuitry: Disconnecting in a Connected World

 

(Source: chartphoto - stock.adobe.com)

When was the last time you went several hours without looking at a screen? For many of us, driving used to be the last bastion of the pre-internet era. Being in the car would be a private, almost meditative experience. You only had what you brought with you, and whatever was on the local radio stations. It was prime time to get some thinking done. For many of us, it was sometimes the longest we’d go in a day without looking at a screen (assuming you weren’t texting and driving!). Personally, I enjoyed being unreachable and having zero obligation to attend to notifications my phone silently received.

However, I recently upgraded my 10-year-old car with a new head unit. Where the CD player used to sit, I now have an Android Auto / Apple Carplay capable display with dozens of widgets to choose from. I have voice control and phone notifications right on my dashboard. While this certainly isn’t novel technology, it’s exciting for someone like me who was still using an auxiliary cord in 2023.

Today on my drive to work, I couldn’t help but wonder, “is this too much?” With my car becoming an extension of my phone and competing with the road for my attention, I felt the digital handcuffs tighten on my wrists. Connectivity is a double-edged sword. We can access the world at any moment, which also means the world can access us.

Your Attention Is a Precious Resource

The constant barrage of notifications and distractions from our phones chips away at our attention span and concentration. Researchers at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas1 even found that the mere presence of your phone reduces your cognitive capacity even if you’re not looking at it. Having your phone within reach re-allocates some of your cognition into a constant loop of resisting the urge to look at your phone. Getting push notifications on our watches and dashboards while we drive demands even more of our attention. It makes the pull of our phones harder to ignore as we automatically start thinking about the text to come and how we may respond to it.

I’m a bit of an outdoor enthusiast, and last fall in the backwoods of Arkansas I had a conversation with a friend that captured one of the biggest reasons we love getting outside so much. We talked about how freeing it was to not have cell service because it forced us to be present. The world churned along all around us, but we sat in a bubble where our concerns extended only to the edge of our campfire’s light. Our own tiny Walden moment. Sure, you could always just turn your phone off in your daily life, but the McCombs study mentioned above found that even a powered-off phone was a distraction, because we know that a powered-off phone is only seconds away from being a powered-on phone. Spending multiple days off the grid where connecting to a wireless network isn’t even an option gives the brain time to recalibrate.

To me, the most surprising aspect of going off the grid is when I finally come back and connect to a wireless network. I expect opening my favorite apps to be as refreshing as those first sips of ice-cold water on a hot day. It isn’t. It’s underwhelming every single time. It’s the same content in the same format, just how I remember it except less enticing. After spending some time disconnected from the digital world, you realize how low the bar for your attention has fallen.

I’m far from the first one to consider the unique pressure of being connected all the time. Search interest for “digital detox” has been trending upward since 2013,2 which makes sense considering that 2013 was also the first year that the majority of Americans owned a smartphone.3 Much ink has been spilled (or rather, many pixels have been filled) on the cognitive consequences associated with the infinite wells of distraction living in our pockets. It’s not just distracting, it’s exhausting. Stress and anxiety from constant pings. Depression from comparing our lives to people’s curated online highlight reels. Poor sleep from a world of idle entertainment tempting us from our bedside tables.

So, What Do We Do?

For a growing number of Gen Z, the answer is flip phones. Having grown up without knowing a pre-internet world, turning away from smartphones and social media is one of the most countercultural things a young person can do in the digital age.

For the rest of us, we can set boundaries with our connectivity. This could mean configuring quiet hours where you receive no notifications or using apps to limit screen time. In our endless pursuit to push the limits of connectivity, we sometimes forget about our own limits. There’s no denying the benefits of carrying a supercomputer in your pocket, but we need to find a balance between having access to unlimited information and giving our brain a chance to process all this information.

 

Sources

  • 1. “The Mere Presence of Your Smartphone Reduces Brain Power, Study Shows.” https://news.utexas.edu/, June 26, 2017. https://news.utexas.edu/2017/06/26/the-mere-presence-of-your-smartphone-reduces-brain-power/.
  • 2. Google Trends, n.d. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=%2Fm%2F011c8bxy&hl=en.
  • 3. Smith, Aaron. “Smartphone Ownership 2013.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, June 5, 2013. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2013/06/05/smartphone-ownership-2013/.


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Matt CampbellMatt Campbell is a technical storyteller at Mouser Electronics. While earning his degree in electrical engineering, Matt realized he was better with words than with calculus, so he has spent his career exploring the stories behind cutting-edge technology. Outside the office he enjoys concerts, getting off the grid, collecting old things, and photographing sunsets.


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