Dave Eggers Thinks Privacy Is Dead
The author of "The Parade" on economic imperialism and the future of social media
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Two men are tasked with building a road in an unnamed country recovering from a recent civil war. Most other details remain undisclosed in Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Parade. What we do know is that one man, referred to as Four, is determined to finish the road on time and according to procedure, regardless of the locals they pass by begging for help or the misfortune they see along the way. His coworker, called Nine, knows the local language but is lacking when it comes to an awareness of their employer’s policies. They clash; Four doing all he can to stick to schedule while Nine shirks responsibility in order to engage with the community.
With a perceptive eye, Eggers uses fiction to investigate patterns, both political and sociological, that exist around the world. In What Is the What, he critiques American immigration policy by recounting the story of a Sudanese refugee that he met in Atlanta. In The Circle, he explores the pitfalls of social media’s intrusion into our everyday lives. With The Parade, Eggers continues to offer insight into humanity with his characters and the way they interact, or fail to interact, with the situation in which they find themselves.
I talked to Dave Eggers about economic imperialism, the socio-politics of labor, and the future of social media.
Frances Yackel: What was the genesis of your novel?
Dave Eggers: The idea goes back more than a decade. I’d seen so many odd instances of contractors in unfamiliar contexts that I started taking note. The first instance was seeing a Swedish road crew in rural South Sudan. It just seemed so incongruous and counterintuitive that I was fascinated. Why a Swedish crew? Why import all this equipment from so far, when surely there would be road-paving technology available from, say, Uganda or or Kenya. I thought about the implications of the pavers’ work, and whether or not the laborers on the ground had any inkling about the socio-political context in which they were working. That was the first catalyst for the idea, but since then I paid attention to these sorts of contractors, whether it was Chinese pipeline-builders in Africa, or Filipino electricians in Saudi Arabia — and began to think a bit about their motivations and inner life.
FY: The protagonists of your novel are impeccable representations of opposing ethical codes. On the one hand, you have a man who believes staunchly in following the procedures implemented by his superiors and you have a man bent on fashioning his own rules. The former ignores the immediate cries for help surrounding him in order to finish his job on time while the latter allows his mercy to distract him from the task at hand in order to help the people he can.
Four and Nine are examples of two opposing extremes; do these opposing extremes represent a more subtle divide in humanity? Do you think you could pick out a person and ascribe them to one side versus the other?
DE: Well, the times I’ve visited NGOs in the developing world, I’ve seen a fairly stark divide between the practical-minded staffers and the more flighty adventurers. The adventurers can be very problematic. Very often they have a love for the world and an interest in all humans, but they proceed without caution and without regard for consequences. They drop in and when they leave — they always leave — they leave a trail of chaos. In contrast, the more businesslike workers get things done, but without contemplation, in many cases, for the larger context or implications of their work. And both types of visitors can be, and are often, subject of manipulation; they become tools to advance motivations beyond their reckoning.
FY: Four and Nine are employed by the same company, but their reasons for doing this work are vastly different. Could you talk about the differences between motivations in Four and Nine’s decisions to take on this as an occupation? Do they overlap at all?
DE: They overlap in that for both of them, ultimately, it’s a job. They are road pavers. They’re contractors and their presence is transitory. Four, the more capable and responsible of the two, would just as soon be paving roads in his home country. But he’s found himself valuable to his company, and they trust him with the complicated tasks abroad. He has, though, chosen to eschew looking left or right; he’s focused only on the point in the distance where the road will be finished. I’m intrigued by characters like this, because they are necessary to the functioning of the world. Nothing at all, anywhere, would get done without some vast majority of people keeping their heads down, ignoring the ultimate consequences of their labor. If everyone really contemplated the implications of their lifestyle, or the work they’ve chosen, billions would be paralyzed by self-doubt and even shame. So I don’t fault Four or Nine for their place in all of this. It’s the position all humans occupy for much of our lives.
FY: Four cares deeply about the completion of the road, which helps him to pay such close attention to the details of his job. He seems to pay less mind to the ultimate purpose of the road and his journey; the growth and development of the country recovering from civil war. Are there meant to be broader implications of this lack of sentiment surrounding the country itself?
DE: All over the developing world, as we speak, foreign companies are creating roads, deep-sea ports, railways and pipelines. Sometimes, in the case of China, for example, they take an ownership stake in, say, a port in Malaysia. So there’s economic imperialism at play there. Other times, it really is a case of a foreign contractor simply completing a task and leaving. Many years ago I saw a Swedish company building a road in South Sudan, and thought that was very odd and very intriguing. Why not a Kenyan company, for example? There’s something advantageous, for the commissioning government, about bringing a contractor in from so far away — free from any local politics, and disinterested in regional power dynamics. This way, they can be trusted to do the work without getting otherwise involved, and without being too concerned with the ultimate motivations behind the project in the first place.
FY: After finishing the novel, the journey appears to have a Sisyphean undertone. Could you speak more to the supposed futility of their job?
DE: For Nine, the work might have been futile. Then again, maybe Four sees it as far beyond his purview. The work was done, he was paid, and he moves onto the next project.
FY: I’d love to ask you about the Circle. Your 2013 novel feels eerily timely and prescient in our era of mass privacy breaches, never-ending Facebook scandals, and Instagram influencer culture. What is your view on social media now? Do you think we’ve given up too much of ourselves over to social media? Do you think one day we’ll all stop using social media altogether?
DE: I think it’s continuing to morph, which is overall a positive thing. Younger people, those under 20, aren’t using Facebook at all, and that’s a good indicator for the planet. There is, rightfully, almost universal distrust of Facebook, because their culture is not one built on trust or respect for users, and yet billions still willingly give the company much of their most personal information. High schoolers, though, have altered their behavior radically — they want to communicate with friends, but directly, using WhatsApp, for example. The movement is away from public sharing and into more private communication. Consumers’ behavior and preferences will drive what happens with social media in the next five-ten years, and I dearly hope the teens will lead it all into more sane territory.
FY: The pendulum tends to swing both ways. Do you envision that this movement toward private communication as opposed to public sharing will be a permanent one?
DE: Obviously most of the world is moving toward a complete evaporation of privacy. We get temporarily upset, for example, about the cameras on planes, but there will be cameras everywhere on planes within a few years. It’s a version of Moore’s Law — as cameras get ever-smaller and cheaper, they proliferate without resistance. Within a decade, they’ll be everywhere, certainly in every public place. Every neighborhood, whether urban or suburban, will have hundreds of cameras to detect any perceived threat or deviance. In concert with the Nextdoors of now and the future, this will lead to an unsettling future, where any departure from the norm will be sound an alarm, and all interlopers or supposed strangers will be suspected.
Regular people are creating our own surveillance state. It’s insane, of course, and represents a radical evolutionary shift, but it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of the world doesn’t care so much about any semblance of everyday privacy. The omnipresence of cameras will make us slightly safer, probably, but anyone on camera tends to behave differently, so we’ll become a different species — we already are, in so many ways. This is what I was trying to explore with The Circle — whether or not living an on-camera life made us more obedient, more acquiescent to what I like to call microfascism — where digital mobs punish those deviating from social norms — and overall less interesting as a species.
FY: In addition to your writing, you also founded 826 National to help young children with literacy and writing skills. Could you talk about this relationship? How does your advocacy work influence your writing?
DE: Speaking of that — we’re about to publish a book called True Connections, which will feature teens’ thoughts on social media and the digital world. And the vast majority of the students have written very worried, and worrisome, essays. None of them are settled and content with their relationship with digital media. That lines up with Jean Twenge’s studies showing a stratospheric rise in teen depression, tied directly to the rise of social media. So the book gives teens the chance to tell it straight.
FY: Do you have advice for teens and young writers with concerns about these topics? What is the best way to get those voices heard?
DE: With the International Congress of Youth Voices, one of our missions is to help teen voices get access to mainstream platforms like newspapers, news networks and the like. So we were able to help Samuel Getachew, a brilliant young writer from Oakland, place an op-ed [about 21 Savage’s ICE arrest] in the New York Times a month ago. And Salvador Gomez Colon, one of our delegates from Puerto Rico, wrote for and appeared on CNN, to talk about conditions there after Hurricane Maria.
Legislators concerned about digital issues, and how they affect teens, need to talk to the teens themselves. They tell it to you straight, and they’re far more clear-headed about the topics than most adults. My generation created and empowered most or all of the worst tech tools, and the only hope we have of turning the tide is with the teens who grew up in the shadow of the monster we made.