Tobias Wolff and Dave Eggers in conversation

Stanford English Professor and author Tobias Wolff, left, joined Dave Eggers in conversation about his latest novel, The Circle. (Photo: Rod Searcey)

Author Dave Eggers calls for ethical parameters on tech at Stanford event

Drawing on the theme of privacy in the digital age in his latest novel, The Circle, Dave Eggers and Stanford creative writing Professor Tobias Wolff question the ethical dilemmas of online sharing.

Celebrated author Dave Eggers' cautionary tale The Circle portrays a powerful tech company whose ultimate goal is to make everything known and transparent, at any cost.

However foreboding his tale may be, Eggers told a Stanford audience last week that he remains hopeful about human nature, especially when it comes to the ethical choices we all make regarding digital technology.

"People will do the right thing when there are laws and parameters and when there's a discussion about it," said Eggers, who added, "I'm a believer. I believe we're good. We just need to talk about how to be good."

Author Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor at Stanford, joined Eggers in conversation Oct. 2 at an event co-sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center.

Eggers, the author of numerous books, including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the 2012 National Book Award finalist A Hologram for the King, was the 2014 Stanford Humanities Center Marta Sutton Weeks Lecturer.

Wolff and Eggers used The Circle as a touchstone to discuss the lack of clear ethics in digital media and complacency about the amount of personal metadata companies and governments collect.

Eggers cited current digital technology examples where the "need to know" trumps one's right to privacy, some of which were fodder for his novel. One pertinent example he offered was how parents track their kids' locations through their mobile phones.

"Why trust when you can track?" Eggers quipped, but his tone became more serious when he asked, "What happens when you apply this easy, cheap technology to our government or to a less enlightened government?"

Wolff also described this kind of tracking as ominous, citing conversations he has had with students who don't see anything wrong with being monitored in such a "constant and pervasive" way. According to Wolff, some students seem to have the attitude that "if you weren't doing anything wrong in the first place, what's the problem?"

"But the difficulty," Wolff continued, "is who decides what is wrong at a given time? It could be a political position you have that is suddenly wrong." Wolff added, "I worry that we are being so marinated in the custom of being surveilled that we have grown a thick skin to it."

Suggesting the creation of a center for digital ethics, Eggers said, "There are centers for ethics, bioethics, medical ethics, legal ethics, but there is not an official study of digital or techno-ethics yet."

Co-sponsored by the Stanford Creative Writing Program and the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Eggers' visit was made possible by Marta Sutton Weeks. She endowed the yearly event that brings distinguished lecturers to the university to engage in meaningful discussion on a wide variety of humanities topics.

Exploring an insatiable hunger

Having known each other for many years, Wolff and Eggers had a warm and easy rapport throughout the evening. Wolff said he took real pleasure in the vivacious storytelling of The Circle and praised the book for its "odd sense of humor that breaks into hilarity." And Eggers in turn honored Wolff as a literary hero and "influential beacon" who changed his life.

Like many in the audience, Wolff wanted to know what sparked the novel, which features Mae Holland, a young customer service rep, rising through the ranks in a powerful technology company.

Eggers explained that as a long-time Bay Area resident, he has observed many close friends achieve success in the high-tech industry. He said he absorbed a lot about that world over the years and wanted to write about it.

Yet, Eggers adamantly denied that his book takes aim at any real tech company one might think of – Google, Facebook and Twitter come to mind. Even Wolff couldn't resist asking Eggers amid much laughter, "So did you take a tour of the Google campus?"

"I never visited any tech campuses or had any specific company in mind when I wrote the story, " Eggers insisted. Instead, he set out to write a book that captures our current dilemma with technology – how our desire to know every detail about something can often conflict with someone else's right to privacy.

Eggers said that he wanted to explore this "insatiable hunger to know, where it's seen as suspicious if you don't want to share … and it is so fun to seemingly have access to all the world's knowledge. It's hard to stop to think if something is right or wrong. Knowing everything is so easy – it's just a click away."

"The question the novel raises again and again," Wolff observed, "is whether it's even possible to have privacy anymore."

The author of This Boy's Life and Old School, Wolff also pointed out how The Circle departs from the usual dystopian narrative because of the "alacrity with which the characters give in and become complicit" with those in power.

A case for regulation

At Wolff's prompting, Eggers talked about the reception The Circle has received in Germany, where the memory of the repressive secret police, the Stasi, is still fresh in the minds of German citizens. Digital monitoring in China and Syria were also discussed, and Eggers expressed genuine concern about what happens when easy, inexpensive methods of collecting data are used in totalitarian regimes.

"If it can be collected and stored, it can be abused," Eggers said.

At the end of the evening, Eggers read aloud from a piece of paper he had tucked in his pocket. He described it as a declaration of digital rights drafted in Germany, and called it a good place to start when talking about personal rights in the arena of digital communications. The declaration stated that "a person under surveillance is no longer free and a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy." There was a burst of applause after he finished reading it.

Throughout the evening's conversation, however, Eggers repeatedly made it clear that he is not anti-technology.

"Technologies have great applications," he said, "but there is not enough thinking about how the applications should be regulated."

He added that "some of the most fantastic, idealistic people I know work at these [tech] companies" and they would "welcome parameters of do's and don'ts."

One audience member asked about the transactional nature of online sharing, and Eggers responded with both enthusiasm and caution.

"Some of the [Internet's] free services are amazing," Eggers noted. "You don't have to pay a phone bill to connect with your friends the way you used to." However, he said, it's "pretty unclear" how we are "paying" for these free services. He called for a clarification of the rules governing online services that might improve trust in the web.

When an audience member said she deleted her Facebook account after reading his book, Eggers responded that while he would not prescribe deleting any kind of account, he would encourage Stanford students to think carefully about how many hours a day they want to be in front of a screen.

"Experiment on yourself," he said, adding, "College is a good time to figure out how you feel most human."