Imagine you send someone a letter. You are eager to know your recipient’s reaction to your correspondence. So you drive over to his house, park, crouch in the bushes so that you have a view of his living room window, so you can see the moment when he opens the envelope, and …
Wait a minute. It’s not so far from the truth. Author Dave Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s, recalled an incident a dozen years ago when he received an email. A few days later, his correspondent asked him what he thought about it. Eggers said he’d been buried in work, and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Not true, his correspondent said. He’d opened it at 4:27 p.m. a day earlier. The fellow had the ability to get a receipt when someone opened his email. For Eggers, it was a moment when “a friend crosses what would have once been a boundary” and “your right to know what happens to your letter exceeds my right to privacy.” While it’s commonplace today, Eggers felt the the friend had “stepped way outside the behavior I want in a friend.”
His newest novel, The Circle, studies our hunger for constant communication. The eponymous center of the book is a Bay Area high tech giant that feeds on our privacy as it creates a utopian culture for its employees. Sound familiar? “Some of the most idealistic people I know are working at these companies,” said Eggers.
He was in conversation with author Tobias Wolff last month, during a packed event at Encina Hall on “privacy, and whether it’s possible to have it anymore,” in Wolff’s words. The occasion, sponsored by the Stanford Creative Writing Program, the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Humanities Center, may have been a record-breaker for attendance, or at least among the Top 10. Staff hurriedly tried to put up an extra simulcast screen in the lobby to accommodate the hordes. I arrived late, having spent 40 minutes looking for parking, before finally abandoning my car across campus and sprinting to the event. I squatted in a corner in the simulcast room upstairs, and peered at the conversation on a big screen. The event had already started…
“An insatiable hunger to know drives everybody,” said Eggers, and it’s enabled by technological gimcracks and software that make information-gathering – or spying, in some cases – easy. For example, a father can track the movements of his daughter, whether she’s in another state or in her boyfriend’s car. “It’s cheap, it’s easy, you don’t have to get up or hire anybody.”
“Why trust when you can track? It gets scary.”
Wolff said his horror at the NSA revelations “will tell you where I am on the technological scale.” Although he was “shocked to learn all our emails and phone calls are vacuumed up by the government,” he got another jolt when, in a conversation, he learned that one of his bright young students “doesn’t see anything wrong.”
“How used to being under surveillance this generation is!” said Wolff. We’ve all heard the commonplace rejoinder – if you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, what’s the problem? Said Wolff: “Who decides what is ‘wrong’? It could be a political stand you have taken.”
“We’re so marinated in the custom of being surveilled that we have grown a thick skin to it.”
We live in a world where “your license plate is photographed sixty times a day,” said Eggers. Moreover, “if it can be collected and stored, it can be abused.”
“It’s hard to stop. All of these things have never been that easy. You can’t go back, you can only go further.”
Go further to what? Utter transparency, 24/7. A world where we swim in ever vaster oceans of information. A world where knowledge of everything, all the time, is an inherent good. Everything that everyone is doing is known to everyone all of the time. “Accumulated shared knowledge” is the new community, and it’s considered “selfish” to hold back anything, to have secrets, to want to be left alone. “That philosophy is expounded in a lot of places,” said Eggers.
In such a world, shame is futile, because inescapable. Besides, you can see what everyone else is doing, too, and it’s just as bad. Maybe worse. But, but, but … isn’t shame an aspect of conscience, and isn’t it part of being fully human? “It’s considered suspicious if you do want to hide anything,” said Eggers, and “deleting anything is inherently sinful.”
But what about the right to be a nobody, an inconnu, a nonentity? What about the right to be forgotten, to be invisible?
“By the time you ask to get the right to be forgotten, it’s already too late to be forgotten,” said Wolff. He recalled the case of a Columbia student accused of rape. The assailant’s name has been publicized, but the case has never been tried. Guilty or innocent, “that crime attaches to that person’s name forever.”
“The right of individuals to control their identity and narrative … should trump our right to know a person,” said Eggers. He called for a Center for Digital Ethics, perhaps at a place like Stanford, “to codify some do’s and don’t's.” He said much of what’s happening now “is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment – the unspecified collection of data on citizens without a warrant or a specific crime.”
“The original sin where we got to this is that everything had to be free.” Stewart Brand famously said, “Information wants to be free.” It came true: “It is free, but in a “non-transparent, creepy way,” said Eggers. It’s like all those “terms and conditions” you have to check online before agreeing to things – or the endless supply of mail for you to review with revisions to your terms and conditions. Who does all that? “Keeping up terms and conditions is a full-time job,” he said.
Not everyone is as unconcerned as the student Wolff described, as we slide towards a technological dystopia. Eggers was on hand when The Circle came out three weeks earlier in Germany. “Their memory of Stasi is very fresh,” he said – especially thanks to movies like The Lives of Others. In America, however, we are speaking of a generation that was in diapers when East Germany’s Stasi was dissolved.
Are you depressed yet? Apparently Eggers isn’t. “People will do the right thing when there are laws and when there are parameters which we have discussed,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the good of human nature.”