'The Circle' author Dave Eggers discusses technology issues during campus visit

Alison Kuznitz
October 11, 2016

When author Dave Eggers helped launched a small magazine in San Francisco during the early days of the tech boom, he was optimistic about the internet.

“We were steeped in sort of the utopian ideals of the early digital thinkers,” Eggers said. “I was always a little bit slow to believe, but also hopeful about the very best uses and outcomes for the tools. For a while, we had this idea that the democratizing powers of the internet were real and had become real.”

Yet, following odd encounters with longtime friends and a socially demanding job, his perspective changed. He began to comprehend the privacy and security risks that are inextricably tied to the digital age and big data.

In exploring these complex ethical dilemmas, Eggers was inspired to portray a dystopian society in “The Circle,” the 2016-17 Penn State Reads common book selection.

Eggers spoke to a crowd of first-year students, faculty and staff Monday night in Alumni Hall in the HUB-Robeson Center as part of his campus visit to further the missions of the Penn State Reads Program.

“Penn State Reads is a common book program designed to provide a shared experience for new students and encourage intellectual engagement,” Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas Jones said. “Beyond offering a further introduction to academic life at Penn State, we hope the program also fosters a deeper connection to this institution.”

“A Conversation with Dave Eggers” was moderated by Dan Moulthrop, the CEO of The City Club of Cleveland — a prominent free speech forum that has garnered national recognition. The event was livestreamed to students at all of the campuses.

Eggers said a single email he received from a friend was a catalyst for writing the book. The friend knew the exact time Eggers had opened the email and demanded to know what was prolonging his response.

“The fact that he could track this receipt of an email and know when I opened this letter from his computer without getting up from his chair enabled an aberrant behavior that you would never have thought to do without these tools,” Eggers said.

Another event was just as shocking. While at a dinner party, Eggers found out couples were using their phones to track their spouses’ arrivals.

The problem with technology, he said, is the direction it’s headed. Digital tools used to be like a telescope – one could look outward and “have access to all of the knowledge in the world.”

But, Eggers said the internet has taken an inward, microscopic approach.

“The ease of this technology and the convenience of it has created a surveillance society that surprises everybody,” he said.

What’s more, it has led to a “radical speciation” in which people must come to terms with technology addiction and learn how to recognize their “best self” online.

Marissa Cruz, a junior majoring in English and classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, said she came to the event because her contemporary literature class is currently reading “Heroes of the Frontier” – another novel by Eggers.

“I’ve definitely had thoughts about security and privacy,” Cruz, a State College native, said. “It’s interesting to hear what he has to say, and what other students and professors have to say, as well.”

Matt Gemmel, a mathematics major from St. Mary’s County, Maryland, said he was drawn to Eggers’ accurate depiction of people and ideas found in “The Circle.”

“He doesn’t condemn the internet or social media altogether,” Gemmel said. “He wants people to think about the implications and ethics that go with it.”

Additional information about Penn State Reads can be found at pennstatereads.psu.edu. A full list of Penn State Reads events can be viewed here.

Penn State Reads is run jointly by Penn State Student Affairs and Penn State Undergraduate Education

Last Updated April 19, 2017