Editor's Letter Insights

On The Frequency Illusion

Written by Sam Wallace
August 2023 – Issue #397
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#397 Table of Contents

When I was a kid, my mom bought a white Chrysler LeBaron. Soon after, I noticed that a disproportionate number of cars on the road were also white Chrysler LeBarons, and I wondered how I had never noticed this trend. My mom explained to me that when you notice something for the first time, you tend to see it more often in other places too.

It turns out, of course, that she was right. Recently, I learned that this phenomenon is known as the “frequency illusion.” The current consensus is that it’s the result of a combination of selective attention and confirmation bias. And one of the most commonly given examples of the frequency illusion is an observer noticing similar cars on the road—red cars, for instance.

This tidbit of information doesn’t make the actual experience of the frequency illusion any less eerie when it happens. Certain themes—phrases, behaviors, concepts, objects—will suddenly seem to be everywhere in my life, sometimes to the point where it’s hard not to succumb to the idea that I’m experiencing a glitch in the matrix.

For that matter, maybe I am! Or, to ground my tech anxieties a little bit more in the here and now: how often is this frequency illusion not an illusion at all, but the real experience of my various smart devices sending me hyper-targeted marketing that reinforces what I’m thinking about and engaging in, which in turn reinforces the targeted marketing I’m (constantly) receiving?

These days, I’m noticing embedded systems absolutely everywhere. As the editor of this magazine, thinking often, when I’m not working, about articles I’m currently editing, or mulling over ideas for the next editor’s letter, I feel like I’ve been dropped in a world where everything around me has a little semiconductor heart beating somewhere inside it.

I notice it most when electrical devices have quirks. Our house’s thermostat has this maddening behavior in which, when we lower or raise the temperature by just one degree Fahrenheit, it will change the allegedly measured ambient temperature of the room to that set temperature without actually kicking on the air conditioning or heat. I found this baffling and, if I was in the right mood, infuriating. Is my thermostat trying to gaslight me? Is it merely lazy and prefers not to turn on, right now? Then I read Joseph Corleto’s piece in this month’s issue introducing control systems. Now, although I don’t have access to the programming logic used for my thermostat, I suspect it’s a bit of “hysteresis,” most likely used to prevent excessive wear and tear of our heating/cooling system’s components. Knowing this makes that quirk a little less aggravating when it pops up.

So, if knowledge is not quite power, it can at least be somewhat calming. With the rapid “embeddification” of everything, it’s hard to say if my experience with embedded systems is reducible to the frequency illusion, or if it’s a concrete, real-world phenomenon. But as everything becomes more and more connected, and “smart,” and quasi-“sentient,” it would be very difficult indeed not to succumb to some magical thinking were it not for the fact that I get to read so many exceptional articles on embedded design, each month. So, here’s to our writers, for keeping me (somewhat) grounded. And thank you for reading.

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Editor-in-Chief at KCK Media Corp.

Sam Wallace - became Circuit Cellar's  Editor-In-Chief in August 2022.
His experience in writing, editing, and teaching will provide a great perspective on the selection, presentation, and clarity of editorial content. The Circuit Cellar audience will benefit from his strong academic background encompassing a Master of Fine Arts in Writing and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics with honors. His passion for learning and teaching is a great fit for Circuit Cellar's continuing mission of Inspiring the Evolution of Embedded Design.

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On The Frequency Illusion

by Sam Wallace time to read: 2 min