Dave Eggers on Finding Creative Refuge From the ‘Lunacy’ of Technology

EdSurge Podcast

Dave Eggers on Finding Creative Refuge From the ‘Lunacy’ of Technology

By Tony Wan     Feb 25, 2020

Dave Eggers on Finding Creative Refuge From the ‘Lunacy’ of Technology
Dave Eggers

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

We hardly think twice about spell-check and other auto-correct features in writing software—in fact, their absence would make some feel rather lost and empty. These days, text and email apps will even construct full responses that can be delivered with a quick tap of a finger.

But the increasingly sophisticated technologies that people have come to rely on should not absolve personal responsibility for learning how to spell, write or communicate, says Dave Eggers. And their growing presence in the classroom is especially cause for concern.

“I think that there is a mentality that’s sort of overtaken humanity that everything in life is being examined for how we might digitize it,” says the prolific writer and Pulitzer finalist. “Increasingly there’s less choice about when you use technology and when you don’t.”

By no means is Eggers a luddite. But he’s passionate about the need for “refuges that are havens for quiet creativity and analog creation … a place to be weird.”

That’s a spirit that is very much a part of 826, a network of elaborately whimsical tutoring and writing centers that Eggers helped launch in 2002.

Eggers recently joined us for an eclectic conversation about many facets of education—including teacher salaries and artificial intelligence, as well as designing what he calls “unnecessarily beautiful” learning spaces.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: You’ve written many novels, children’s books and stories for newspapers and magazines. You’ve also helped start a number of education nonprofits. Have you considered writing about education, or setting up one of your novels in a school environment?

Dave Eggers: That’s such a good question. We did a book about teachers’ lives and salaries, called “Teachers Have It Easy.” That’s an ironic title. We were trying to point out to people what teachers’ lives really were like, and to get past some of the noise, misconceptions and outright mistruths. We talk about how the low pay that so many teachers live with creates a system where they’re forced out of their jobs because they can’t afford to live in the cities in which they teach.

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This is key to so many of the issues that plague some of our bigger, and especially urban schools, where you have this unbelievable turnover. Teachers coming into the profession, finding they can’t support themselves and then leaving. That turnover is catastrophic for so many schools and for the ability of teachers to reach mastery and plan a life for themselves in the profession.

Is this a recent book?

No, we published it about 12 years ago … It led to a movie called “American Teacher” that followed the lives of four teachers around the country. It was narrated by Matt Damon, whose mom was a teacher.

Sometimes it makes you very mad when you hear about the lack of support the teachers live with. But at the same time, it’s also very inspiring to see these educators at work. I think you come away just wanting to find a way to keep these great teachers in the profession and avoid forcing them out. Some of the very best teachers I’ve known over the years have quit, especially here in San Francisco where the cost of living is so exceedingly high.

Your latest book is out about one of your most well-known nonprofit education efforts. It’s called “Unnecessarily Beautiful: Spaces for Young Minds On Fire.” What’s it about—and why “Unnecessarily Beautiful?”

826 Valencia is a writing and tutoring center here in the Mission District of San Francisco. Nínive Calegari and I built it back in 2002 as a drop-in writing and tutoring center for kids in the neighborhood. So it was really just designed to be a place to get extra help after school.

But the building that we rented at that address, 826 Valencia, was zoned for retail. So the landlord said, “You’ve got to sell something, you’ve got to have a storefront retail space.” To satisfy that obligation—and maybe give ourselves a laugh—we created a pirate supply store in the front. It sells actual working supplies for buccaneers. Students would walk through the pirate supply store that’s decorated very elaborately with flags, peg legs, eye patches and everything you would need.

It’s very silly, and it really looks like the hull of an old ship. But these kids who were coming in didn’t feel stigmatized going through the pirate store to the tutoring center in the back of the space. They felt alive, awake and amused, and they thought it a welcoming space—as opposed to an after-school tutoring center might feel clinical or somehow punitive.

Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia - pirate shop storefront and after-school tutoring center
826 Valencia in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of 826 Valencia.)

In terms of education design, when I grew up, a lot of schools were built with cinder blocks. Sometimes the same architects who designed prisons were also designing schools. That was a big thing in the ‘70s. So we have a very brutalist architectural mentality that goes into school design.

But what if you made it not just beautiful but silly, bizarre, witty, colorful and rich with fabrics and copper and woods and things like that? We decorated a room in one of the schools here in San Francisco where we put delicate linen and gauzy fabrics that kind of let in the light from the windows, but created a little bit of privacy and different sorts of private spaces in the room. It was something very different from their everyday atmosphere. I think that students and humans in general respond to that kind of beauty, that kind of what we call “unnecessarily beautiful” environments.

I still remember very vividly the first time I walked into the pirate store in Valencia and wondered “Why the heck is there a pirate shop in San Francisco?” And also, the trap!

When you’re at the front counter, you’re standing under a trap door that drops a net on you. In another part of the store there’s one that drops a bunch of mop heads. It’s very shocking. Of course, it’s totally harmless, but the kids get to pull the rope if they want to and drop the mop heads on their parents or teachers.

There’s a lot of goofy stuff like that … I wanted it to be very low-fi, no concentration on screens, to give a break from the digital lives that so many kids lead now. I wanted it to be calm.

One of the trends in education today is the adoption of new technologies in schools—like brand new Chromebooks and iPads. What’s your take on the role of technology as far as it being able to support the kind of creative spirit that places like the 826 tries to instill?

The centers all have laptops. They get used, especially by older kids when they [compose] their essay writing before it goes to press. With the younger kids, I have a pretty firm belief that a third grader doesn’t need to be doing their math on computers.

I have beliefs that are different from some here, especially in San Francisco. Kids are on screens so much, whether they’re gaming or using phones or watching movies. We have to carve out time when they’re not required to be on screens. I think that schools are in such an interesting place right now, where more and more I see the kids having to do their homework on screens or to get their assignments.

I think we’re working at cross purposes because we lament, “Oh my gosh, they’re on screens all day, and you can’t get them off and they’re always on their phone.” Then we require them to do their homework on a screen, which is really kind of counterintuitive and maybe working against our larger goals, which is to make sure that they have an attention span that allows them to read books and think deeply.

The most successful classrooms find the best uses of the technology for certain lessons, but it’s not an automatic go-to for everything. I don’t think that we have to channel every aspect of our lives or the school day through a screen. We’ve got to set boundaries.

Technology has given new ways for people and kids to communicate and to tell stories. But some say that can come at the expense of writing, and even blame technology for making students poorer writers.

I think it’s very manageable as long as we’re mindful of the ways that tools like autofill or auto-correct [work]. I see new kinds of errors and writing styles emerging now. It has diffused responsibility a bit in a weird way, where [students] sometimes don’t take responsibility for their own spelling or grammar because they assume that the machine will tell them when it’s not right. Then they respond to the machine, as opposed to knowing the rules and taking responsibility for spelling things correctly and getting the grammar correct on their own.

We have to not over-rely on algorithms to tell us what language is. I think we are on the verge where we might be heading toward over-reliance on machines that actually cannot parse sentences and their meaning.

There’s a very scary development going on right now. For a lot of standardized tests, the writing portion is being graded by algorithms. There are companies that sell software that judge students’ writing. It’s a ludicrous proposition, because even the software companies themselves will say on their website, “This algorithm cannot read.” They can’t tell meaning, they don’t know what is a logical sentence or isn’t, what is pretty language and what isn’t.

These tools claim to use machine learning, where they use past papers to train their models to detect patterns and make some assessment on whether something is good or bad.

Well, it’s a nightmare for our species. Kids’ writing is not made for machines. It’s made for humans. You can’t have a machine judge whether somebody is a good dancer or a good painter, or whether a poem is a beautiful poem—it will never be done. There is no way it can be programmed, nor should we undertake the project of even trying.

What kind of lunacy leads us to think that something like that should be undertaken? It’s not the job of a machine to judge a 12-year-old’s writing ability, and it never will be. And it shows so little regard for that student’s work, that student’s education, their soul, their artistry, what’s inside them. If we’re willing to give it to a machine to judge, it is throwing that person’s education away.

We have got to have respect for ourselves as a species, to say human writing is worth having humans judge it. And there will never be a machine that can read the way that we can read and to know meaning the way that we know meaning.

Your writing has often forecast technology trends that end up being real causes for concern. How can people push back?

Increasingly there’s less choice about when you use technology and when you don’t. Every year it becomes a little bit harder to do fundamental things without screens, without phones, without wifi. I think that that’s really unfortunate. I think it’s exclusionary, and it deprives us of a diversity of human experience on any given day. It deprives us of the ability to stop, to slow down, to disconnect, to contemplate, to meditate—all of these things.

I think that there is a mentality that has sort of overtaken humanity … that everything in life is being examined for how we might digitize it. Whether it’s a ceiling fan, a piece of chalk, a houseplant or, hey, a classroom, everything is being explored for how it can become mediated through digital tools.

That is very strange to think about. Why aren’t we setting aside zones of life to be organic and to be un-digital? Just like we would set aside National Parks to be free of development.

Just in the last five years, the rate of acceleration of the digitalization of the classroom has been very alarming to me. And I think that it’s going to come at great expense when you see students growing up who are being permitted very little time away from digital devices.

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