Author Dave Eggers warns LMU students that technology is eroding their privacy, turning stalker-like behavior into an accepted social norm and sometimes standing in the way of personal achievement
By Michael Aushenker
When acclaimed writer Dave Eggers returned to Loyola Marymount University last Tuesday to talk to students, little did they know he would spend the entire hour talking about a sword.
A metaphorical double-edged sword, that is: Technology.
Standing in the center of LMU’s Gersten Pavilion, Eggers praised the Jesuit university’s social justice mission and its “intellectually engaged” students before launching into an argument that advances in technology are giving way to its abuse, with cell phone apps and social media quietly lulling users into giving up privacy and civil liberties.
A San Francisco resident just a smartphone’s throw from Silicon Valley, Eggers, 44, admitted that he loves technology. However, he’s also baffled by it, distracted by it, and overall terrified of “governments and other agencies having these powers.”
Technology is wonderful, but “pivot just a little bit and it gets a little scary,” Eggers said during his first lecture on the Westchester campus since 2002.
After coming into prominence with his best-selling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and as the founder of McSweeney’s magazine, Eggers went on to write the screenplay for Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Eggers also worked on two vehicles for “The Office” star John Krasinski: Sam Mendes’ 2009 road-trip movie, “Away We Go,” and the 2012 fracking drama “The Promised Land,” co-starring Matt Damon.
Eggers has also been very active in educational causes. He co-founded the literacy project 826 Valencia and founded ScholarMatch, uniting donors with students in need of college tuition funding.
The deaths in short succession of his parents in the early 1990s — his father from brain and lung cancer; his mother from stomach cancer — forced Eggers to support his 8-year-old brother at age 21, the crucible out of which came “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”
Eggers began writing novels in 2002, and his second-to-last release, “The Circle,” became the jumping-off point for his Sept. 9 LMU appearance. Echoing the themes of his 2013 novel, which chronicles a young technology company employee who uncovers an ulterior agenda to her company’s ostensibly well-intentioned innovations, Eggers addressed the ever-evolving nature of surveillance in American society, from parents monitoring their children to NSA data-gathering on U.S. citizens. He gave vivid examples of apps and spyware empowering parents to secretly read their teens’ emails and texts (including deleted texts), locate their teens, lockdown their phones, and monitor and control their communication and social habits.
“It’s a giant expansion of the trust between you and your parents,” Eggers said. “Instead of trust, you can track.”
The author recounted a personal anecdote from 15 years ago of how a friend asked him about an email to which he hadn’t responded. When Eggers told his friend he had not yet read or opened it, the friend admitted he had used spyware to determine that Eggers had indeed opened the email, and even knew the exact time he did.
If his friend had snail-mailed him a letter, calculated the number of days of its arrival, and then hid in a bush outside of Eggers’ house as Eggers opened up his mailbox, that would be “out of the realm of social norm,” he said. But not tracking an email.
“I thought, ‘We’ve taken a really strange turn,’” Eggers said.
Eggers’ point: Easy-to-use, inexpensive technologies are moving the needle of what is acceptable in society. Vastly different from the pre-cell phone age, when people had to be at home in order to receive a call, people now expect instant responses to texts and emails.
“Their right to know has superseded your right to privacy,” Eggers warned, urging his student audience to take extended breaks from the Internet.
That advice was also meant for himself, he conceded.
“Anytime I’ve been on [Facebook] I’ve spent an hour and a half without looking up from the screen. They’re just too good,” Eggers said.
When working, he said, “I have to sit alone in a room with nothing, writing for eight hours. It’s hard — I too stray and I’m tempted — but it’s worth it.”