♪ What can a citizen do?
That is the question of this moment.
What agency does any one of us have to get smart, think bigger, and activate our communities?
For 3 decades, Dave Eggers has been trying to wake us up to the way things are and the way things could be.
He's a journalist, an independent publisher, the voice behind 15 books for adults and another 10 for children, but perhaps most importantly, he is one of the founders of 826 Valencia and Scholar Match, which support thousands upon thousands of kids coming into their own lives as citizens.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here's my conversation with cartoonist, novelist, teacher, tech skeptic, and societal optimist Dave Eggers.
♪ So you had this super high-impact moment in college--University of Illinois, right?-- Yeah.
and you wrote a little piece, and it helped somebody.
I mean, this was my first feature article.
I'd been cartoonist at the paper, and I was a graphic designer, paste-up artist at the paper, and I had a features editor, Jennifer Kaus, who, like, taught me everything.
She assigned me a feature about a young woman who was a year younger than me, I think, who needed a double lung and heart transplant, and she was trying to raise awareness about organ donation, and so I interviewed Lisa, wrote a story, and the next few weeks, we saw an uptick in donations and awareness, and that feeling that you could have a little bit of impact, that's very addictive, I think, so that was pretty much it for me after that.
I just sort of committed, you know, more or less full time to journalism.
Your writing what became novels began as activism, almost... Yeah.
so it's not surprising, then, that so many of the novels you've written have such a point to them.
I mean, there's such social commentary.
I think it came out of that, and at that time, Joan Didion, well, she was always my hero, like, in college and afterward, and being able to sort of move between those two worlds, fiction and nonfiction, and observe the world as an invisible journalist, you know, like, she was the master at sort of being invisible but quite deadly, you know, and whether you translate that to fiction or not, you're still benefitting from actually talking to people, asking them questions, and that was important to me, and that's what journalism school taught me, was, like, you're not so important.
Other people's voices are probably a lot more interesting than your own a lot of times, and you're not gonna know anything unless you ask somebody.
Don't assume anything about somebody unless you ask them.
Well, that's one of your great assignments when you used to be teaching, is, you'd send kids out in pairs and say-- First minute, I said, "Put your bags down.
"Find a partner."
We'd hook them up, and we'd send them out into the Mission two by two and, "Interview the most interesting person that you see," and I remember the very first time I did it, one pair came back, and they had interviewed a woman two doors down at Modern Times Book Store that said she was the first test tube baby, right?
They just interviewed some random woman, and, of course, her story's extraordinary.
I was like, "That's what happens when you talk to somebody."
I mean, it's like teaching intellectual humility, basically.
Like, here's curiosity.
Like, try to stay on this end.
"Intellectual humility" is the greatest phrase, like, and if you can enforce that-- I guess reinforce that-- you'll be set.
OK, so this is your background, right, is in this, like, kind of one-on-one, the magical world of human interaction, and then you started collecting notes on the tech industry and what it's doing to society, and that yielded these two books-- "The Circle" and "The Every," so I want to talk about the way you use that tool-- the tool of fiction, the tool of satire, the tool of dystopian fiction-- to draw attention Yeah.
to what's happening in society that we may be sort of slightly asleep to, so have we traded 24-hour-a-day surveillance for free e-mail?
Yeah, from minute one.
You know, I got to San Francisco in '92.
My office back then was in South Park, so I saw everything come up around me.
"Wired Magazine" was two floors above us.
We were all in the same building, and I was always skeptical.
I thought e-mail would come and go.
I thought all of these things-- I thought Friendster was the funniest thing I'd ever heard, and, like, I always thought that nobody would fall for these things, like it should be, "Who really wants that?"
like, because I guess I always thought, like, the whole point of the tool was to spend less time on a screen.
Like, when I did graphic design, it would take a fraction of the time to do what we used to do paste-up, and then you could go out and do something else, but the fact that it led to more screen time was baffling to me, and the fact that while you're spending more time on screen, you're being watched and studied and your data's being sold just seemed-- I was baffled that we would tolerate this.
I just figured people would be out in the streets, you know, like, protesting outside of these buildings, you know?
And even all these data breaches, like, that doesn't drive anybody to the streets.
Like, we're very tolerant.
We've have sort of been a lot more compliant, tolerant, and sort of OK with any level of surveillance, like, you know, whether it's, like, the taxis-- One day, like, suddenly we're being filmed in every taxi at every time, then every restaurant, then every hospital, then every school, and then there was never any level that we think, "No.
That's too much."
It feel like the "boiling the frog" thing, like, you feel like.
Well, the last step-- I think it's inevitable-- is that cameras will be required in homes, and those will be accessible by local police because we've accepted police and camera surveillance everywhere else, and door-- Ring door cameras are everywhere, and we know now that police have access to these because they've made a deal with-- and sometimes they just access them through Ring directly and... We're never the wiser.
we're never the wiser and probably happy with it because it supposedly makes us safer.
My goal with "The Circle" was to tell a story-- the "boiling frog" story, basically-- sort of how you can go from the glittery ideals of democratization of information more of egalitarian society that might-- These were all the early promises of the Internet, and you go from that to this unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and surveillance from a handful of companies that I don't think any of the hippies that had all these hopes for the Internet saw coming.
I think that this idea of sort of free access to everything, they didn't see that somebody had to monetize it, and to monetize it, you're gonna have to surreptitiously study the people that are getting the free things, and I don't know why nobody saw that.
From the beginning, we should have been charging for access, something-- penny here, penny there-- like we do with everything else, and we wouldn't have had this issue, but the original sin of the Internet is that everything had to be free, so if you get it for free, somebody's gonna find a way to make a profit without your consent.
You came up with all these ideas in both those novels that were part invention but part just, like, iterating a tiny bit from where we are right this second, like SumNum.
I try to scare myself, right, like, "What do you do 5 years, 10--" what would be the very worst outcome, and also what's maybe likely.
I like ideas that for a second, they seem pretty OK, you know, like, "Oh, well, wouldn't that be nice if..." subjective, mysterious thing later, so why wouldn't we judge our worth on Earth through one 3-digit number that we can track at all times that incorporates everything from a parking ticket to grades in school to our interactions with people, our social-media posts, sort of like the Chinese social credit score but times a thousand?
And it's horrifying on its face to say, like, "Well, he's a 893.
"I could never marry a 893.
It has to be at least in the 900s."
"I'm only a 620, but I'm gonna do "this, that, and the other thing, see if I can get it up to a 700."
Who would object to this?
We put up with credit scores for decades.
Nobody fights credit scores.
Even those are done by 3 faceless, anonymous, subjective, and "accountable to nobody" companies, and then the social credit score in China has been relatively popular.
One of the people who would object would be you.
Can I see your phone, please?
Can we just take it out?
This is a new phone I just got.
I updated my phone into a very high-tech version where this one has a calculator.
I mean, where do you even buy it?
Where did I get this?
Oh, they sent this to me because of the 4G happened and I had to replace my other one-- it stopped working-- which I had for 8 or so years.
My old phone could only hold 148 texts, and if I went over, I had to delete some to make room for the next one.
This one seems to have a lot more room, which I have to get used to that idea, but I've got 11 phone numbers programmed into it, and I'm all set.
So you are pessimistic and skeptical about many things that many people have accepted without even noticing, but still, you call yourself an optimist?
I think it's just a medical condition, you know, like you wake up and you think, "I feel like people have so much power to change things and quickly."
I'm encouraged by the fact that, like, Facebook is hemorrhaging users right now, like, so I think that the end of that era of social media is upon us, and I think that we are gonna get into something... well, different, probably a little bit better maybe, and I think that if kids are aware of dangers, I think, and are unaccepting of surveillance at a certain level and fight, you know, these 5 monopolies that sort of increasingly run our lives, I think, I always feel like things can shift pretty quickly, especially when it comes to tech.
There's so much power that people have.
All they have to do is stop using something, and that company goes kaput, you know?
I do still wake up-- go to bed as a pessimist.
I wake up as an optimist, I guess.
I always feel by the time-- Some dark thoughts in my head at night, maybe that's where I write down the notes for these dystopian novels, but in the morning, I think, "Oh, we can change it.
"We can fix things, or the next generation could easily fix this thing that we broke."
So is dystopian fiction, like, a good tool for waking people up to this stuff?
Like, does it ever work?
Is there an example in history of, like, a novel that really shifted-- You go back to "Brave New World" and "1984," I think they scared the hell out of people for a hundred years or so.
I think that's good.
You see these alternate paths that maybe you don't want to go down.
I think that that's necessary, especially if they can appear at a time when you still can make a choice, you know?
Tech ethics should be required, you know?
It should be in college, and I do think that there are so many people in positions of power, if they actually all colluded and said, "You know what?
"Humanity is getting a little bit-- "We're not sleeping.
"We're rattled all the time.
"Our attention span has gone to kaput.
What if we all agreed on what's good for us?"
♪ So you did kind of an unusual thing when you went to publish "The Every."
Well, it was a book about the power of monopolies and companies like Amazon, so it didn't make sense to sell it through Amazon, so-- It's not that easy to do, though.
God, we realized their tentacles are everywhere, and so we basically had to form a new distribution company to distribute the book, you know, like a little, guerilla, crack squad to get the book into 800 independent book stores, you know, and so-- Did it ever get so hairy and problematic that you thought, "Oh, my God, I don't know if I have the heart for this"?
I mean, we'd been an indie publisher for 23 years now, so we've seen everything, and I know how hard it is, so it wasn't, like, the newest thing to kind of-- We'd done things around Amazon before, but not in this era when they've become so dominant, but it was worth it.
I think all those experiments, you have to see what happens, you know?
I'm always into that, just like to see what the hell you can do and what happens.
Nobody's gonna tell us no.
Yeah, and what did happen?
Well, we sold fewer books because, you know, you realize, like, you know, it's pretty big chunk of the market, but the independent book stores appreciated it.
You know, we've been symbiotic with them for 20 years.
Like, McSweeney's wouldn't exist without them, and so this is just a way so say, "If you want this, you have to visit your local store."
You have to get to know somebody.
Yeah, so--I don't know-- it's one of the many experiments we've done over the years, and this one was-- I would do it again.
We probably will do it again.
♪ So as far as I can tell, your first act of citizen journalism was in first grade when you made your first magazine?
I had a teacher named Mrs. Wright, and she made us write a book, and so she gave us-- It was, like, a whole semester that she spent.
You had to do a draft.
You had to lay it out.
You had to write it again and again and, you know, perfect it.
she held us to those, like, professional standards, basically-- I still have this book-- and that stuck with me, like, the fact that she treated us so seriously, and that sort of led to everything that we do at 826 Valencia-- just, like, "Make a book.
"Make it perfect.
"You're good enough, "and if you make it perfect enough "and polished enough, it'll last decades, you know?
It'll be read and passed along."
So Mrs. Wright and maybe Mrs. Eggers, I mean, maybe your mom were laying this foundation for teaching and 826 and that kind of thing.
She was first a volunteer in the schools when we were kids.
She didn't have a full-time job, but she loved kids.
Everybody in the school knew her.
She put on all the plays.
She did all this other stuff, and that was, like, my feeling like there should be this open door, you know, with the community at large, with parents.
It should be, like, they have a role to play to sort of fill in these gaps or put on enrichment programs and all that stuff, and then when I was in seventh grade, she became a full-time teacher.
When you first decided to start at 826 Valencia, there was some funny zoning thing that totally drove this idiosyncratic but actually really valuable element.
Oh, I have a lot of teacher friends who were teaching in the city, and they said, "We need more one-on-one attention, "especially with English language learners.
"They just need, like, two hours a day to bring them up to grade level," and I said, "Well, I happen to know a lot of people with time on their hands," meaning, like, writers, right, and so all the original tutors were just our friends, and so we found this building on Valencia Street, and I looked at it, and it was perfect, within walking distance of, like, a dozen schools, so we rented the building, but the landlord said, you know, "It's zoned for retail.
"You can't just have a tutoring center there.
You got to sell something."
We decided to sell pirate supplies, and so we actually did have to apply for a license from the city to sell pirate supplies, which just took a while, if you can believe it.
We had to find buccaneer wholesalers, you know-- a lot of them are in Tampa Bay for some reason-- and, like, you know, a replacement eyeball seller, and then we contracted with local artisans to make, you know, hooks and peglegs, and we still have people that make these for you.
I knew that we were gonna call it 826 Valencia because I didn't want it to be called the Center for People That Need Extra Help.
Like, you don't want to stigmatize it, but the pirate part, it really destigmatized it for the kids that needed extra help.
They could walk into this goofy place.
Behind the pirate supply store is the tutoring center.
Kids of all levels are working shoulder to shoulder.
It didn't have this sterile, institutional, shaming kind of vibe that maybe some learning centers would, and so every other center in New York and in L.A., they all developed their own theme.
In L.A. it was like a 7-Eleven for time travelers, so you go in, and it looks down to the last inch like a 7-Eleven, and then there's a secret door you go through, and then there's this glorious, open space with 22-foot ceilings and a hundred kids working with tutors, and so to make it go from, like, institutional and boring to something, like, really exciting and, like, magical is really sort of what you need if you're gonna ask a kid to spend 8 hours in school and then another two after.
You can't go from school to school, like.
It's got to be a third place.
It has to be something different.
If the kids are reluctant readers, reluctant writers, you say, "No.
"Everything here, none of it makes sense.
"It's very strange.
"Every idea you have is gonna be honored, valued.
We're not gonna judge here."
Like, the people working behind the pirate store are not gonna judge your story about, you know, 3-headed monkeys that want to, you know, start a ballet group.
You know, like, nothing you make up is gonna-- It's all fair game.
It's actually really rigorous.
Like, they do a lot of editing, the 826 kids.
This is one of our books.
We hold them to professional standards.
All of the books are professionally copy-edited.
They go through 5, 6, drafts, you know, to get to that point where it's ready to be published, and we feel like their work is worth the same rigor that you and I would got through to publish a book with a publisher or a newspaper.
Why say your first draft is good enough?
That's not how it is if you're an adult, so every part of the process is as it would be if you were a professional writer, down to the fact that it's in a book.
It's got an ISBN.
It's in libraries.
It's available is stores.
We feel like that deserve that and their work has that value.
That's been our ethos from the beginning, and these books hold up.
You can still read them.
They're taught in teachers colleges very often because we polish those voices to the point where they are their best selves.
Speaking of publishing, your second humongous side hustle is McSweeney's, which you named after your mom?
My mother was Adelaide Mary McSweeney originally.
I think we started in '98 partly because I had been in the magazine world and writing things that were getting killed and all my friends were writing great articles that were getting killed and never published.
I thought, "Huh.
There has to be some home for this Land of Misfit Articles," and so that was the first few issues, was just stuff that nobody else would publish of had given up on, and then it's morphed many times since then, but I love having it as a place where if a book isn't going to come out, nobody else wants it, or nobody else can figure out the economics of it, so we've always tried to do that, is, like, rescue books from oblivion or try to think about it in a different way or try to push the envelope a little bit formally and make-- You know, we have a book coming out.
It's got a bamboo cover.
We have a new edition of "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman's poem, that will be two volumes, thousand pages, all of his manuscripts included, full color, exactly as they are in the Library of Congress and just sort of because we wanted to do it.
And you want to make beautiful things.
E-books were eating up all this readership for so long, and then I think that the book industry woke up and said, "We have to actually reinvest in the craft."
You know, I love, I collect old books.
I'll buy them just for the binding and just for the design and just for the way they're put together, I mean, and if you want it to last, if you want the words within to last, you have to put something into the craft.
I mean, all of these forms are still available.
All the printers can do them.
They want to do them.
You just have to give them the opportunity, and you have to be willing to spend 8 cents more per copy to get that done, and I think when we shave off every beautiful thing for just purely economic or just counting a penny or two, a lot is lost.
Your third side hustle that I wanted to talk about is Scholar Match.
826 Valencia had been giving college scholarship for a lot of years.
We offered 5 a year, and they were just, like, $10,000 for your freshman year, and we would get maybe 150 applications for 5 openings, and I thought, "If everybody could see both the need "and also how extraordinary these kids are, "maybe we could leverage more participation from the rest of the community," and then it's morphed into, like, so many different other buckets, like a lot of one-on-one help to make sure that students not only get into college and get into the right college, but get through because for first-gen students, like, the graduation rates were pretty bad.
They're 20%, right?
Yeah, and but then we found if you have interventions, if you have a mentor that's bugging you once a week, "How you doing?
You need any help?
What do you need?"
and then also helping with the calamities.
We kept finding students that somebody in their family died.
There's a funeral.
There's an expense.
They can't justify staying in college.
They're needed at home, all of these weird, unexpected sort of things that would happen and then they're out.
We find, with interventions, like, our students, you know, they graduate 85%, you know, which is, like, 65% higher than what the average had been for a long time, and it's just these-- having an advocate, having a coach, or having somebody that's, like, counting on you.
But the things that you guys identified is that the cost to help a kid stay in school and then the change in their income over a lifetime is, like-- And not just their lifetime, but generations, so one student, that first student that gets the foothold and graduates sets an example for dozens of, you know, others and multiple generations, so being that coach is key, so that's what the counselors at Scholar Match do.
We have a thing at "Tell Me More" called "Plus One" where we ask you to shout-out somebody's who been instrumental to your thinking or your well-being.
My teacher Mrs. Dunn from fifth grade-- I'm in touch with a lot of my teachers.
Mrs. Dunn I haven't found in a long time, and I still have the book that she had me write.
I just remember exactly what her eyes looked like when she saw something in you, you know, or saw you do something that was pretty good and how much she expected of me.
I haven't been able to find her, but I'd love to reach out and tell her how much she meant to me and us all, you know?
Like, if you had that gift for teaching and you have that gift of seeing kids really as they are and how much and what they can be, that's extraordinary.
That's why we celebrate teachers all the time and try to keep them in the profession.
It's like those teachers mean the world.
♪ Dave Eggers, are you ready for the "Tell Me More" speed round?
I think so.
Oh, yeah, "Seven and the Ragged Tiger" tour.
Best live performance you've ever seen?
That taught me a lot.
That was the most professional, like, 20 dancers, everybody caring, putting on a real show in the middle of a cornfield.
Like, that was the most concert concert I ever saw before or since.
What was your first job, like job job?
I actually was digging ditches.
I mean, I worked since I was 12.
Like, this was a neighborhood guy who said, "I got work for you, kid," a lot of landscaping.
What's something big you've been wrong about?
The Internet, I guess.
That's the most hilarious thing.
I really thought it was a fad, I mean, really, like, a fad, you know, in the early Nineties.
This'll never last."
♪ If you loved this conversation, You might also enjoy related episodes with Nick Hornby, Scott Galloway, and Father Greg Boyle.
For more on my conversation with Dave, please listen to my follow-on podcast at "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
Everything we've ever made for you is available on pbs.org/Kelly.
♪ ♪ ♪