Many spots in the lower circles of Hell are reserved for gargantuan American software companies. But an especially warm place is waiting for LinkedIn.
If you haven’t heard of it, lucky you. Based on the simple observation that most work flows though networks of personal acquaintance – if you know someone personally you’re likelier to trust them – LinkedIn attempts to reproduce these networks online. Harry recommends Sally who trusts Dick who studied with Mary, and so on.
The problem is one of scale. An informal set of 50 or 100 personal contacts like this can genuinely help to get things done, even if it does run the risk of creating insider cliques or group-think. Inflate that to several hundred million and you have a different beast.
LinkedIn now looks like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, replete with orgies of public back-scratching and CV-stuffing, governed by theologically refined hierarchies of recommendation and peopled with hordes of otherwise perfectly-decent people trying to sell their friends cheaply. Underlying it all is the lurking fear that if you’re not a member, you might be left on the outside, ignored and overlooked.
I’m a member.
What brings this on is a recent visit to America, “the cradle of the best and of the worst” in the words of Leonard Cohen. Good software is just a series of clever, precise machines and America makes the cleverest, most precise machines on the planet.
Because of this, it sometimes seems that American software companies (with LinkedIn as a prime culprit) see people as purely mechanical, just a clockwork set of complex interlocking behaviours and preferences.
Software is essential to family history. It is what makes modern genealogy possible, dismantling the haystack and finding the needle. But one of the most important lessons of genealogy is that individuals and individual families do not amount to the sum of what software can model. At the smallest, most important level, we do not obey the laws of history, or mechanics, or statistics.
We’re better than LinkedIn.