Silicon Valley labor law violator LinkedIn has a vision — “the Economic Graph” — and it’s sponsoring a $25,000 contest to find “researchers, academics, and data-driven thinkers” to help them make it a reality. Here’s the vision in short form:
There are approximately . LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for every one of them. The development of the world’s first Economic Graph will lead to making that vision a reality. This, of course, is no easy task. Our vision is grand, but it’s not unattainable.
And in more detail from the FAQ:
LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. The Economic Graph is our vision to digitally map the global economy, providing all the necessary elements to connect talent with opportunity at massive scale.
Specifically, a profile for every company in the world – and who you know at those companies up to three degrees – all the job opportunities those companies offer, every skill required to obtain those opportunities, and a presence for every higher education organization in the world offering a way to acquire those skills. It will overlay the professionally relevant knowledge of every one of those individuals, companies and universities to the extent that they want to publicly share it [and are not forced to by potential employers, or it cannot be inferred from metadata in the graph].
The Economic Graph will allow – intellectual, working, and human – [sic] , giving all LinkedIn members the means to begin, grow, and transform their careers.
Entries will be judged for novelty, impact, and feasibility (SlideShare with detailed rules). What could go wrong?
How LinkedIn Works
Personally, I don’t use LinkedIn because it strikes me as bogus — More social to maintain! More stupid tags! More people I would never want to meet trying to get in touch with me! — which I suppose completely disqualifies me for employment at companies where “HR” thinks LinkedIn is important, in “the feeling is mutual” fashion. So my understanding of LinkedIn’s benefits is shallow, though I have to say I don’t know anybody, personally, who’s ever benefitted from it; readers will doubtless correct me. That said, here’s how the Senior Director of Engineering at LinkedIn, Deepak Agarwal, who also posts to the “Economic Graph” blog, says LinkedIn works:
Since the inventory of items we can display to users (e.g., feed updates, ads, news, people, jobs and others) is selected from a very large and dynamic pool, it is infeasible to select the best items for every user visit manually. We have built sophisticated machine learning and optimization algorithms to automatically recommend the best “items” to users in a given context at scale. Such automation improves the relevancy of products at low marginal cost and hence contributes to the bottom line.
The algorithms we use are able to combine various data sources to perform such recommendations. We are fortunate to have rich profile data about our users; we know who they are connected to [this is the “graph” data structure], and we understand past user interactions on various devices.
For users who visit very often, we are able to provide deeply personalized recommendations. The sporadic visitors are automatically grouped into homogeneous cohorts by algorithms, and we provide best recommendations for each such cohort. We adapt our recommendations in real time based on what our users have consumed in the past. The entire end-to-end machinery has to work together to improve the relevance of our products.
So, OK. The more you use LinkedIn, the better the recommendations. What happens when Mr. or Ms. HR Person uses LinkedIn’s “Economic Graph” to broker recommendations is the subject of this post. As I hope the title flags with the word “Panopticon,” this is not a research paper; heck, I’m just a blogger working from simple, basic assumptions.
Let’s get a sense of reality about the global labor market — that 3 billion strong “workforce” — right away, because whoever authored that FAQ has a severely limited understanding of it, doubtless due to a meritocratic and/or technocratic déformation professionnelle. First, most of the people in that workforce, unlike the author, don’t have “careers”; they have “jobs.” Nor do the overwhelming majority of those people have “professionally relevant knowledge” (i.e., credentials), although many of them are highly skilled. Second, the global economy doesn’t exist to create “opportunity” (four times mentioned); it exists to accumulate capital. Third, the labor market isn’t about connecting “talent with opportunity”; it’s about connecting those who pay wages with those who work for wages, and there’s a significant and intrinsic imbalance of power and privilege between those two classes of people, which you know about if you’ve ever been called in to the boss’s office. Finally, if indeed “the Economic Graph will allow all forms of capital … to flow to the areas where it can best be leveraged,” one might well ask oneself which class will benefit most from that “best,” and how they will define it. My guess would be that the benefits will go to the owners of capital — those who pay the wages — “best” having been defined as having accumulated the most capital in the shortest possible time. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this, we’ve been doing this for a few centuries now, but isn’t it best to be clear?
Global Race to the Bottom on Wages
To begin with, let’s think through what happens when the “Economic Graph” really does profile all workers and all skills. What happens when Mr. or Ms. HR Person starts receiving algorithmically generated “deeply personalized recommendations” on global scale? Well, since LinkedIn adapts itself to the user, it’s going serve up recommendations that amount to the highest possible productivity for the lowest possible wage; since that will have been what the Ms. or Mr. HR Person has trained it to do. Here are a few ways these recommendations might work.
First, the recommendations will minimize the ability of workers to arbitrage wages based on their country of residence, rather like outsourcing on steroids. Some job categories, mostly to do with tangibles, will be more or less exempt from this — personal services (nail salons), physical labor (warehouse work, stocking, construction), conviviality and hospitality (restaurants, funeral homes), extraction (oil), but it’s easy to hear the giant sucking sound as professional services like computer programming, or graphic design, or the arts, all go the way of manufacturing. Lawyers and accountants may be able to hold onto their positions for awhile, because their subject matter is so obfuscated, but wait ’til TISA kicks in. Sure, we’re privileged in the States, even now, but will the hollowing out never stop?
Second, the recommendations will minimize the possibility of collective action by workers. You are Ms. or Mr. HR Person seeking 20 truckers. Do you hire the Teamsters for more? Or the independents for less? And how do the Teamsters prevent their own members from bleeding over into the Independent category?
The Panopticon and Your Permanent Record
Here let’s introduce the notion of your “permanent record,” which the “Economic Graph” clearly is: “a profile for every one of the more than 3 billion members of the global workforce.” As Edward Snowden says:
I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record. Particularly when we now have courts, reports from the federal government, and even statements from Congress making it clear these programs haven’t made us any more safe, we need to push back.
Well, I don’t think my work history should be completely opaque, but I’ve got concerns that basically fall into the “You’ll never work again” category. America used to be “the land of the second chance,” back in the day when there was a frontier, and back in the day when everything wasn’t digital. It was possible to fail, move, start over, and build a new life. I just don’t see how that dynamic is possible with the “Economic Graph.” Mr. or Ms. HR Person already hates a “gappy” resume; how much more will they hate a resume with those gaps filled in? Even if the gaps have nothing to do with your ability to do the job? I can think of two kinds of gaps, at least:
First, the downwardly mobile — like a ton of us in this economy — who see a chance to be upwardly mobile again. The “Economic Graph” makes it much easier for Mr. or Ms. HR Person to filter them, by which I mean us, out. When we’re seeking a job in the field that used to be ours, do we put those three years as a hospital orderly in our profile? Or do we leave a gap? The same applies, but even more forcefully, to those who moved into System D. Do we put “three years working under the table in construction” in our profile? Or do we leave a gap? In either case, gap, or not, will LinkedIn’s recommendation system helpfully filter us out? Remember that, already, being unemployed is already a disqualification for being employed again!
Second, not important numerically, but important societally, what about whistleblowers? Whistleblowers tend not only to be downwardly mobile, but to be retaliated against by their companies. How will LinkedIn’s recommendation system handle that?
The “Economic Graph” would enable “discrimination laundering” by Mr. or Ms. HR Person. They could:
- Hire on the basis of race
- Hire on the basis of age
- Hire on the basis of sex
- Hire on the basis of religion
- Easily create job requirements that could only be met by cronies
Think this is farfetched? It’s not. An “on line job search expert” gives 5 reasons why you should include a photo in your profile:
5 Reasons You Must Have a Photo in Your LinkedIn Profile
- Personal Appeal
- Personal Branding
All good reasons — especially if you’re so desperate for a job that “personal branding” appeals — but notice also that your photograph will certainly reveal your race, age, and sex, and may even reveal your religion (through dress or adornment).
Now, of course discrimination is practiced today; all these things are practiced already, and on LinkedIn, but not — in the phrase that LinkedIn is fond of using — at scale, using the “Economic Graph.” For example, Mr. or Ms. HR Person could scan “the Economic Graph” for the desired and discriminatory results, and then, by “parallel construction,” launder the discrimination by reverse engineering the job requirements to achieve them. How would anyone know?
The “Economic Graph” seems to be built on the idea that transparent hiring is necessary for capital accumulation. It may be. But I’m not so sure that transparency is a value in itself, any more than capital accumulation is. Here’s an example as described by Abbie Conant:
The representation of women in Germany’s major orchestras is is only 11%. It is also notable that many Central European orchestras have only have a token representation of women …
These orchestras are clearly misogynistic. The 16% representation of women in German orchestras is not even half of what it is in the United States and in several other European countries. These statistics are from 1994 and might have changed slightly since then, but the relative proportions remain similar. …
I did not know anything about the status of women in German orchestras when I arrived Germany. I did not know that I would be struggling through some of the worst experiences of my life, simply because I was a woman trombonist. I think that many of you might already know something about my tribulations in the Munich Philharmonic. To win the job, I defeated 32 male candidates. Briefly stated, the orchestra didn’t know that I was a woman, and when I stepped from behind , they were quite dismayed.
It was only the second time in the history of the Munich Philharmonic that had been used, and both times they ended up hiring a woman. In fact, we were the only two women in the wind section. To this day, eighteen years later, has never again been used, and no more women have been given permanent contracts in the wind section.
Like I said: An imbalance of power and privilege. The profiles of the “Economic Graph” would remove that screen for 3 billion people. That wouldn’t be fair. The “Economic Graph” as conceived and described by LinkedIn would certainly have destroyed “opportunity” for the “talented” Conant, not created it. Hence, I’m uncertain, to say the least, that LinkedIn’s vision is an unalloyed good.
Now, if there were a way, globally, to make the “Economic Graph” serve the public purpose of creating “a job for everyone who wants one,” that might be another matter. But I don’t see how Mr. or Ms. HR person can do that, or have any incentive to do that, given that public purpose is not their goal, nor, for that matter, the goal of the “Economic Graph.”
 What is it with these Silicon Valley types and decimal points? Considering the value of this project to LinkedIn if it succeeds, I’d say they must have meant to move the decimal point at least one notch right.
 To be fair, contestants retain ownership rights to their proposals, and results may be Creative Commons-ed (slide 6). On the other hand, LinkedIn “reserves the right to modify these terms at our sole discretion” (slide 10). Disputes will be resolved through arbitration (slide 11).
 Pet peeve: One does not “grow” a career, any more than one “grows” a business; this vile locution is a category error. Organic beings — plants, animals — grow and are grown. Careers and businesses do not and are not.
 Weirdly, LinkedIn’s policy is that “your photo can be removed by LinkedIn if your profile image is not your likeness.” How do they find out?