When Did 'Offline' Become the New Luxury?

An increasingly connected and digital world impact will have repercussions across nearly every industry. How will it impact workers in the data center space?

Bill Kleyman

July 13, 2023

11 Min Read
Lit buildings and bridges with connectivity icons in Prague, Czech Republic, at dusk.
Tuomas Lehtinen / Alamy Stock Photo

I'm sure this will hit home for a few of you. We're all technologists, or at the very least, technology users. And today, we're more connected than ever before. Based on leading trends, none of this is slowing down.

I was at a recent DCD conference in Silicon Valley when I got an alert that my flight was delayed by several hours. Unfortunately, the storms out East were causing havoc with travel. I remember having to change my flight in a panic, all while still leading the New Tech on the Block session at DCD. I was lucky to catch the only flight out that evening. I remember replying to emails on the flight, checking up on meetings the next day, and wrapping up a presentation I gave the next morning.

After landing, I realized that I was exhausted. Not so much from the conference. People give me lots of energy. Instead, it was from the constant connectivity I was experiencing, and some of it was stressful.

Also, as an older millennial, I still remember the sound of a dial-up modem and what it was like to have a landline in the house—oh, and one more useless millennial skill. I can still program a VCR to record a show airing the next day. I also remember real airplane mode when you flew. For those few hours, you were truly disconnected.

I remembered that there was a time when we could simply "disconnect." It was easy for one simple reason—there was nothing to connect to.

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Our world is increasingly becoming connected and digital. The recent Cisco Annual Internet Report (2018–2023) indicates some interesting trends going into 2021:

  • Nearly two-thirds of the global population will have Internet access by 2023. There will be 5.3 billion Internet users (66% of the worldwide population) by 2023, up from 3.9 billion (51%) in 2018.

  • The number of devices connected to IP networks will be more than three times the global population by 2023. There will be 3.6 networked devices per capita by 2023, up from 2.4 networked devices per capita in 2018. There will be 29.3 billion networked devices by 2023, up from 18.4 billion in 2018.

  • The consumer segment will have nearly three-fourths share of total devices and connections by 2023. Globally, the consumer segment's share of total devices and connections will be 74%, with the business segment claiming the remaining 26%.

  • Over 70% of the global population will have mobile connectivity by 2023. The total number of international mobile subscribers will grow from 5.1 billion (66% of the population) in 2018 to 5.7 billion (71%) by 2023.

  • 5G devices and connections will be over 10% of global mobile devices and connections by 2023.

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By 2023, global mobile devices will grow from 8.8 billion in 2018 to 13.1 billion by 2023—1.4 billion of those will be 5G capable.

These trends are truly global. Third-world countries are experiencing generational leaps when it comes to connectivity. We're not deploying phone wires in those countries; we're launching satellites and building cell towers.

Understanding the Impacts of "Constant Connectivity"

If you're in an industry that requires responsiveness and communication, disconnecting as you used won't be as easy. I remember driving through Yellowstone National Park without cell towers and zero connectivity. We spent the night in an area where we were "forced" to disconnect.

After a few minutes of anxiety, I felt a sense of calm that I had no choice but to disconnect. Have you felt anxious when you couldn't find your phone for over 15 minutes? Or if you were in an area disconnected for 30 minutes or more?

You're not alone. And these are becoming serious health concerns. Several studies have shown that technology can impact users' mental and physical health. Being overly connected can cause psychological issues such as distraction, narcissism, the expectation of instant gratification, and even depression. The next generation of young people adopting the ever-connected digital world is born between 1995 and 2012. While we know them as GenZ, some define them as the iGen.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says that members of this generation are physically safer than those who came before them. They drink less, they learn to drive later, and they're holding off on having sex. But psychologically, she argues, they are far more vulnerable. In her story in The Atlantic, Prof. Twenge states, "It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades." The reason for all of this? Smartphones.

Besides affecting users' mental health, technology can also negatively affect physical health, causing vision problems, hearing loss, neck strain, sleep loss, and more. A study by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health showed that the prevalence rates of smartphone-related compulsive behavior, functional impairment, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms were substantial. 35.9% felt tired during the daytime due to late-night smartphone use, 38.1% acknowledged decreased sleep quality, and 35.8% slept less than four hours due to smartphone use more than once.

Their study concluded that several independent positive predictors of smartphone addiction emerged, including depression and anxiety. 

For data centers, burnout and challenges with supporting a growing digital infrastructure business becomes a real challenge.

Tired People Cause Errors and Data Center Outages

Our staff is tasked with doing more with infrastructure growing in complexity and value. With things like alarm fatigue, longer hours, and an overwhelming amount of information, we're finding that burnout is a real challenge in IT.

Data center roles can generally be high-pressure, given the critical nature of the infrastructure they support. Any downtime in a data center can have significant business and financial implications, which puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the data center workers. IDC estimates that human error costs organizations more than $62.4 million annually. A significant part of errors created by humans is because of tedious tasks and manual processes. Further, a recent Uptime Institute study points out that more than 70% of all data center outages are caused by human error, not by a fault in the infrastructure design.

Data center specialists often have to be on-call to respond to emergencies, work in shifts to ensure 24/7 coverage and cope with the expectation of maintaining near 100% uptime. All these factors can contribute to stress and potential burnout.

Furthermore, the rapid evolution of technology can add to the pressure, as data center professionals must continually update their skills and knowledge. The ongoing talent shortage in the data center industry might also lead existing staff to take on additional duties or work longer hours, which could increase the risk of burnout.

As in any industry, employers in the data center sector can help reduce the risk of burnout by promoting a healthy work-life balance, providing resources to manage stress, offering training and career development opportunities, and fostering a supportive work environment. Employees, for their part, can help manage burnout by seeking support when needed, taking time off when necessary, and using any resources offered by their employers.

On that note, the pandemic didn't help our connectivity anxiety.

The Pandemic Changed the Way We Connect

Many researchers argue that we were over-connected during the pandemic. A recent study from We Are Social noted an interesting hypothesis where we as a society are actively "unwinding" the habits that we adopted during the COVID-19 lockdown.

That study found that the time we spend online has declined by almost 5% yearly. GWI reports that the typical user has reduced the amount of time they spend using the internet by 20 minutes per day since last year.

A year ago, the company's data showed that working-age internet users spent an average of almost 7 hours online, but that's fallen to 6 hours and 37 minutes per day in the most recent wave of research.

As the report notes, recent changes in online behavior aren't just the result of people emerging from lockdown. As GWI's trends team noted in their recent "Global Media Landscape" report: "Though notable drops in time spent online illustrate a decrease in pace—reflecting the post-pandemic landscape and how people now have less time to spare—a combination of media fatigue, subscription churn, and the cost-of-living crisis play an equally important role in flattening the curve."

Similarly, there's a great quote from the "Connecting the Dots 2023" report with a clear perspective: "There are only so many hours in the day, and people want to know their online time isn't being wasted."

It's Not All Doom and Gloom

A lot of these studies are correlational. This means that it's not often clear if, for example, smartphone use causes symptoms of mental illnesses or if symptoms of mental illness cause greater smartphone use. So, a depressed person may use social media to find comfort; or a person suffering from anxiety around FOMO (fear of missing out) may turn to the news and social media to stay updated.

There's still much to learn about the impacts on the ever-connected person. However, there are clear signs that too much connectivity is probably not good.

Putting the Phone Down

It's not just a phone. Binging on Stranger Things via Netflix can have negative impacts as well. Our brains release higher levels of dopamine when we binge-watch. This means we may feel worse or sadder when the series ends.

As a connected person, I've had to force myself to shut down and embrace the analog world. Here are some tips:

  • Everything needs to be in moderation. Log the time you spend in front of a screen or connected device. Actually, your phone does this for you now. You just have to be brave enough to look at those numbers. Now think about it. Is it something ridiculous, or is it manageable? Being connected doesn't have to be wrong, but you'll need to find time to turn it all off for your good.

  • Discipline is more potent than habit. I've found that discipline in working with connected technologies is far better than forming a habit. Habits can be broken; true discipline around your everyday activities is much harder to break. Create better discipline around your "disconnected" time, and enjoy it.

  • Help future generations understand what it means to be disconnected. Awareness is the first and most important thing to know if you have kids or work with young people. Be aware of how much time is spent on the phone; know this is not harmless. If too much time is spent on connected devices, this may be taking away from more beneficial activities for both psychological and physical well-being.

  • Avoid burnout in the data center industry. I'm about to wrap up a paper on human capital challenges in our industry. There are fewer of us, and we're tasked with doing much more to support digital infrastructure. Burnout can and will impact all of us. Sometimes, you won't even know it's hitting you until you're making mistakes and are unhappy. Know your limits and know the signs of exhaustion and burnout. You know your body best. Be sure to understand how much you can push.

With our growing reliance on digital devices, disconnecting doesn't have to be something drastic. In fact, going offline, even for a little bit, can be extremely helpful. "It's hard to imagine anything being as stimulating and engaging as a smartphone or digital device," says David Kessler, Co-Founder, and Clinical Director at The Willow Center for Integrative Health PLLC.

"Thankfully, nature provides this stimulation in abundance. Every rustling leaf, every sound, every texture you step on, and even the pressure of the wind provides a tremendous amount of neurological stimulation (that you don't get from a smartphone). For those needing a small break or to recharge, leave your device at home and simply go for a walk. Taking a break doesn't have to be rejecting or turning away from the device. Rather, make it easy on yourself and leave it at home for 10 or 15 minutes while you go for a walk."

As discussed, several studies have demonstrated the mental and physical health implications of excessive Internet browsing, gaming, texting, emailing, social networking, and even phone calls. Whether you're noticing increased headaches or anxiety when you don't have your phone, you must find time to disconnect. I know it's easier said than done, but it needs to be done.

There is no slowing down in the digital age. Smart cities, connected users, augmented realities, and now ChatGPT and Generative AI are all changes we'll have to live with. But you can still put that phone down and go for a hike, read a book, or go for a walk. Just a bit of genuinely disconnected time per day can do wonders. But make those disconnected activities mindful and beneficial for you, your friends, and your family. Find that new luxury and disconnect.

About the Author(s)

Bill Kleyman

Bill Kleyman has more than 15 years of experience in enterprise technology. He also enjoys writing, blogging, and educating colleagues about tech. His published and referenced work can be found on Data Center Knowledge, AFCOM, ITPro Today, InformationWeek, NetworkComputing, TechTarget, DarkReading, Forbes, CBS Interactive, Slashdot, and more.

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