Life & Culture

Interview: Daniel Sieberg

Tech addict who logged off


Daniel Sieberg's wife used to have a nickname for him. She called him "glow worm" because every night when the lights were off, his face was always illuminated by some kind of screen.

She began to get frustrated by her husband's compulsive online behaviour. He would be on social networking sites or surfing the internet and their relationship began to suffer. Canadian-born Sieberg, a technology reporter, was spending more time with his Facebook "friends" than with his real ones.

He recalls the moment that he began to wonder whether he might be obsessed by technology. He says: "I was immersed in social networks, gadgets and devices. I thought I was super-connected. But one day, sitting across the table from family and friends, I realised that I didn't really know very much about what they were actually doing and they didn't know a lot about what was going on with me. It was a wake-up call."

Sieberg began to rethink his habits. Once he had devised a strategy for keeping his technology habit within reasonable bounds, he decided to go public - with a blog on the subject. He laughs at the irony but then qualifies it by saying that technology can be a wonderful thing if used judiciously. Indeed, were it not for the mobile phone we might have spent several frustrating minutes searching for each other in a busy hotel lobby.

He explains: "I use technology all the time for things that can enhance my life. But addiction is when you are constantly immersed in the digital world, and not paying attention to the real people in your life."

His attempts to recover some balance led to him writing a book, The Digital Diet, in which he advocated a plan to break tech addiction. "The first step is awareness of the problem, the second is to reboot, which is a kind of digital detox, and the third is to reconnect, which is about trying to work out which technologies are best for which relationship. For example, should you be updating on your social network or should you be out having coffee with someone? You need to get these things in perspective. The last part is working out how to manage that technology in your life."

The scary part for Sieberg came when he decided to de-activate his Facebook account for a while. He did not realise how traumatic the process was going to be. "I quit Facebook in 2010. When I posted that I was going to leave, people reacted like I was dying. When you get as far as deactivating your profile Facebook gives you a little visual reminder of all those people who will be sad you'll be gone. You think to yourself: 'I really like that person'."

Of course, you do not have to go back very far in history to recall a time when none of us was on Facebook. Sieberg contends that the origins of technology addiction in its present form only go back about five years or so. "It used to be that using the internet was slow and unsatisfactory. You had to dial up to get a connection. You would log on, check your emails and then log off again. It was a finite experience. Now, since the advent of wifi and the introduction of the iPhone, it's a seamless experience. Unless you make an effort to shut your laptop or turn off your phone, you will be connected all the time. It's so fast and easy, you can lose track of time."

Sieberg feels that in this regard, the world might have something to learn from Judaism. "Having one day a week where you turn everything off could be very healthy. Even outside the Jewish world there is a whole movement for a digital Sabbath. I totally understand this."

However, he is advocating a diet not a fast. His strategies are all about how to deal with the technology rather than ignore it. He recommends using the technology but not being shackled to it. Sieberg, a former CBS employee who, in yet another irony, now works for Google, suggests that when you get home you should turn off your phone and stop checking your emails. "There's a guy I talked to who told me his company require him to reply to emails within four hours. Lots of people are tethered to their phones because they are scared their bosses will check up on them. My advice is to establish a time of day when you are no longer available - the cut-off point should be seven or eight o'clock. If you respond to an email at 2am you will be sending the wrong message - not that you are a hard worker but that you are obsessed. That will work against you."

He may have reduced his screen time and rebalanced his life but Sieberg still works in the tech world and is still excited by innovation. "It's about consuming technology in a way that allows you to enjoy it, not to be frustrated by it. And yes, I do still geek-out about stuff even now."

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