So which internet firm is pure evil in Dave Eggers’ new book The Circle?

Best-selling author accused of coded hatchet job on search engine

Arts Correspondent

The Circle, the “world’s most powerful internet company,” sounds strangely familiar. With its sprawling Californian campus, free canteens and sports facilities and privacy issues, the fictional company at the heart of Dave Eggers’ new book has left American technology commentators in little doubt about the reference, calling it “Google-like” and “if Google was truly evil”.

Publisher Knopf surprised fans of the Pulitzer Prize nominee by revealing that Eggers’ next work would be released in less than two months. The announcement of his previous work, A Hologram for the King, was similarly clandestine, made with little fanfare just weeks before publication.

The Circle will be published simultaneously in the US and the UK on 8 October. Neither Eggers nor the publisher made any reference to inspirations for the company. One former Google employee told The Independent the descriptions in the publicity material “sounds familiar”, but the company itself declined to comment.

The 42-year-old cult author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius does not use the internet at home, and does not even have a WiFi connection, saying that he is “too easily distracted”. The book has been billed as potentially his most commercial title yet.

His novel follows protagonist Mae Holland, who is offered a job at the Circle. The company is described as linking users’ personal emails, social media, banking and buying with its universal operating system, “resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency”.

Her delight at joining the company, with its towering glass dining facilities, all-night parties and famous musicians playing on the lawn, gradually fades away after a series of strange encounters.

Yet The Circle turns into a story of suspense, and the publisher said the work raises “questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy and the limits of human knowledge”. It is unclear at this stage what stance the novel takes on the Circle.

Google is a giant in the real-life world of technology, hitting $50bn (£32bn) in revenues last year. As well as its search engine, its services include email, the Chrome browser, Google Maps, a social network, and mobile operating system. It has been praised for how it treats its employees and the facilities it provides. On its California campus, it offers free food at the staff canteens, while there are gyms, basketball courts and pitch and putt courses, as well as pool tables.

The company has the informal motto “Don’t be evil” but has caused significant controversy in recent months – particularly over privacy. This week in a filing to  a US court, it said that those  who use its email service Gmail should have no “legitimate  expectation” that their emails would remain private.

It is not the first time that writers have considered the dark side of the internet. In 2007, Cory Doctorow wrote “Scroogled”, a short story exploring what would happen if Google decided to abandon its “Don’t be evil” motto. Google would have been more delighted by the film The Internship, described as a two-hour promotion for the internet giant, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn.

Other works by Eggers include Zeitoun and What Is the What, while A Hologram for the King was a finalist for the National Book Award. He also adapted Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for the big screen version directed by Spike Jonze.

Who's who?

THE CIRCLE

* The world’s most powerful internet company

* Run out of a sprawling California campus

* Offers open-plan office spaces, athletic activities and clubs and brunches

* Offers “one online identity” linking email, social media, banking and retail

GOOGLE

* “The world’s most powerful technology company,” according to CNBC

* Run out of a sprawling California campus  of 2 million square feet in Mountain View

* Offers open-plan office spaces, free food, basketball courts, gym, and pitch and putt

* Said in 2011 that Google+ was an “identity service” and those logged in can access personalised services for browsers, social media, mobile, email and calendar services

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