August 31, 2021

We had a conversation on our family’s weekly zoom call where the issue of computer fatigue came up.  It seemed some have been claiming that computers get “tired” after being kept on for long periods of time and needed to be turned off to let them “rest”.  I have always heard that computers get slower when they are left on for long periods of time, but I wondered if technically that is true.  Often when people claim this, they refer to “electron buildup.”  My question became, does this really exist?  Do computers really get fatigue?

When I checked online, I found electronic devices do experience fatigue, but it usually happens after more than just a few days.  In the IT world, this is called “mean time between failures” (MTBF) and is used to determine product reliability.  MTBF is usually given in units of hours, and the higher the MTBF, the more reliable the product.  Typical MTBF values for parts of a computer vary with different vendors, but on average a CD-ROM (read only memory) drive is about 15,000, while hard drives are rated at 500,000 MTBF (57 years).  The MTBF is a calculated average and should be used as a prediction and not an exact number.  The concern is several days, not months.  For personal computers, the problem is more often related to misbehaving applications, heat, and related issues.  I wish I could work for 57 years before I experienced fatigue.  Then again, maybe that is not such a good idea.

One common factor of computer fatigue is memory consumption.  If an application does not release the memory space allocated to it and keeps repeatedly doing so, the computer’s RAM (random access memory) will be fully occupied.  That means additional applications will be sent to the swap space or will fail.  Another factor is related to temperature.  Electronic devices are designed to operate optimally in an environment that is usually too cold for humans.  If they are not kept cold enough, they malfunction.   Computers that work for several days may accumulate excessive heat and might have problems getting rid of it without being turned off.  I have been told newer operating systems are designed to run constantly, but the science suggests doing so will cause fatigue.

Thoughts:  I took a computer repair class many years ago where we dismantled and then restored a computer.  This gave me the confidence to preform many repairs and upgrades on the older computers I worked with.  Like new models of cars, repairs now seem to require sophisticated equipment.  One idea I learned does still work.  If your computer or device freezes or has a glitch, turn it off, wait ten seconds, then turn it back on.  If the problem is resolved, do not worry about it.  Now I realize the glitch was probably caused by heat or fatigue.  During the pandemic many workers have reported the undue stress of their jobs has led to mental fatigue.  We all need to find a way step back, take our “ten seconds” to shut down, and then reboot.  Do the work.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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