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Dave Eggers and Tobias Wolff discussed digital ethics at Stanford last week

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Courtesy of Avi Bagla.
Tobias Wolff (left) and Dave Eggers (right) at Stanford. Courtesy of Avi Bagla.

Last Thursday, author Dave Eggers came to Stanford University to discuss his most recent novel “The Circle” with Professor Tobias Wolff. Although they touched on the book and his writing process, most of the discussion focused on technology and privacy in our modern age, which factored strongly in the novel.

According to Eggers, technology is very useful, but it has also inspired a need-to-know mentality. Using technology for the sole purpose of spying on others raises serious ethical issues. “Why trust when you can track?” Eggers asked. On a micro scale, parents can check on their child’s Facebook messages and notifications unbeknownst to the child. This act breaches the trust that parents give their children and vice versa. On a macro scale, the government can tap into our phones in the name of counterintelligence.

“It’s the original sin of the Internet, that all information had to be free, but with a catch,” Eggers said. He argued that even free sites like dictionary.com are potentially malicious. Trackers within the site can see who is searching for what and feed that information to third parties. “What do you consent to when you use these ‘free’ sites?”

But this lack of privacy isn’t the only problem; technology allows us to share media without the consent of those who created it. “How can creative people exist now and live?” Eggers asked. For a lot of us, sharing and torrenting music has become the norm. However, for writers and musicians, they “want copyright, but people violate it.”

Eggers then offered possible solutions for this recent problem. Eggers said that Germany has a Bill of Rights, but “digital rights are not popular here.” As both a writer and a person who comes in contact with technology on a regular basis, Eggers is looking for answers, and he challenged Stanford students to start searching for them. “At Stanford, you study social ethics, moral ethics. Why not digital ethics?”

During the Q&A section of the talk, Eggers admitted his own concerns about communication technology. “I have tape on my camera on my computer because I don’t know if anyone’s watching. It’s become a ‘Spy vs. Spy’ world…It’s not right, and I wish we didn’t have to live like this.” However, Eggers still hopes there will be some change coming soon. “I have every confidence [this] generation will figure out [how to solve this problem].”

 Contact Marty Semilla at msemilla ‘at’ stanford.edu

Marty Semilla is a contributing writer for The Stanford Daily who likes to write about and discuss pop culture. He is a junior majoring in English. He loves all forms of visual media equally but actually cares for television the most. Contact him by email at msemilla “at” stanford.edu.