Dave Eggers whipped out a $25 flip phone and the crowd gasped, cackled and jaws dropped.
His book, "The Circle," follows a "bright-eyed" young woman as she finds her way in a dystopian society in which privacy has negative connotations and going off the grid is no easy feat.
The surprise of an author practicing caution with technology after the release of a thought-provoking novel seemed to sink in instantly.
Eggers wasn't always so careful.
"It was easy to get caught up in that, sort of, early utopia ideal of the early internet — the egalitarian nature of it, the democratization of information that granted equal access for everyone," Eggers said.
The bright orange paperback books sat in a pyramid at the entrance of the Student Center Ballroom where students sat waiting for their 2018 Common Book author and his highly anticipated keynote segment. After being postponed due to weather at the start of the year, Eggers and Dan Moulthrop, moderator and colleague, took their places on the burnt nude couches, where he "instinctively wanted to recline," after an introduction by Provost Timothy Boosinger.
Eggers said whereas the story has a much deeper meaning and has many real-life issues and elements woven through dialog and description, the book is supposed to have a satirical tone.
"I wanted us to look at ourselves and think about people like us who get pictures of a cat and we click on a little red heart," Eggers said. "We are middle-aged men, and we are clicking on a little red heart."
Eggers and Moulthrop interacted with the audience, falling off of direct references to the book and onto relevant issues today. Net neutrality, technological privacy large corporations, Chinese social credit scores, depression and monopolies were trails that led back to individual characters or personal experiences of Eggers'.
"Instead of us just seeking online — going and searching for things, searching for knowledge or connecting — there was this encroaching sort of surveillance in part with any minute we spent online," Eggers said.
He said he was walking down the street and bumped into an old friend. "Did you get my email?" Eggers stuttered, mumbled and said he wasn't sure. The friend, or acquaintance now, confirmed that he knew Eggers had opened, read and ignored the email.
Eggers compared this situation to a snail mail scenario. The friend mails the letter, runs to Eggers home and waits in the bushes to watch for the retrieval, the rip of the envelope and the reading.
"That would be outside social norms, right," Eggers said. "His right to know had superseded my right to privacy."
The privacy that Eggers greatly appreciates is given up by the main character, Mae, in the novel. The assumption that all-knowing, on-going visibility eliminates bad choices and poor actions prompted the sacrifice of privacy.
He said without privacy the societal definitions of good and bad would change over time, impacting younger generations.
Deeper battles aside, Eggers said there is extreme value in technology as it stands and said he has supported Apple from the start. The Achille's Heel is the twists and turns coming from restless corporations running the operation.
Eggers said the idea for the story took over five years to solidify before he knew exactly what he wanted. Through researching at a pseudo-technologically based institution in California, he pocketed a few practices for his story while letting others foster and grow from a mind in a profitable environment.
"Everyone seems to be aware, collectively, of some of the problems with these increasingly powerful companies, but we can't turn back," Eggers said.