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Dave, The Mechanical Turk, and the fate of ordinary people

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A few days ago I had a conversation with “Dave”.  This was part of an assessment of processes and software tools in use by a Fortune 100 Insurance company.  During the interview, I asked Dave some questions about what he did, how he did it, how what he did fit into the larger picture of the business unit that he was in, and what the future was for the applications and software tools he was using to do his job.  I also asked him what ideas he had to improve (make more efficient, easier, create more value for his effort, etc) the work he did or the work of the business unit in general.

Dave was an expert at what he did and how he did it.  As far as answers to the other questions, I got mostly “don’t know” or silence regarding ideas for changes or improvement.  When Dave recognized that he did not have answers to some of the questions he seemed annoyed that I was asking these things of him.  Dave said a very profound thing to me.

“I just do what my boss tells me to do”

The question to you is, … Is Dave the perfect employee?

Dave shows up on time – in fact, he has shown up at this company for the past 10 years.  Dave diligently does the work he is given.  And, every two weeks Dave receives a paycheck.  Dave has (so far) job security and perhaps a pension.  Dave does the work he is given and the company takes care of him.

Industrial age jobs in the 21st century

One way to look at this is as Dave as a cog is a giant machine from the Industrial age. Prior to the early 1900′s many things were made by hand by craftsmen.  For example, rifles were made by hand.  The barrel of one rifle would not fit another  rife of the same type.  The parts for each rife were hand fitted.  The revolution was “interchangeable parts”.  Parts made to a standard that were replaceable.  The Ford assembly line leveraged this idea.

Parts in this sense are commodity replaceable elements.  Here is a related idea.  To the extent that “production” can be broken down into a series and sequence of individual tiny tasks, the people who perform those tasks can be commodity replaceable elements as well.  Once a physical part becomes an interchangeable commodity there is a race to the bottom.  The same is the case with commodity labor.

How are people building todays business models?

This is from Michael Gerber

The business model should be such that the employees needed possess the lowest possible level of skill necessary to fulfil the functions for which each is intended. A legal firm ought to have lawyers and a medical firm should hire doctors.  But you don’t need brilliant lawyers or doctors.  What you need is to create the best system through which good lawyers and doctors can be leveraged to produce excellent results.

So what types of businesses are we building?  Products and services constructed by people with the minimal skill to do the job at the lowest possible wage with an over-supply of labor that accelerates the the race to the bottom for wages.

The concept of PERL

What is PERL?  Percentage of Easily Replaced Laborers. In the industrial age, the higher the PERL the less you had to pay these folks.  These were commodity workers – interchange disposable labor.  The less you pay people the more profit for the company.

How far can we go with “lowest possible level of skill” and “interchangeable disposable labor”?

The Mechanical Turk

What is the Mechanical Turk?

The name comes from Wolfgang von Kempelen’s mechanical “Turk” in the mid-1700s, which was an expert chess player dressed up as a wooden mannequin. Defeating challengers throughout Europe, including Napoleon, the Turk sat inside a wooden cabinet wearing a robe and turban. Opening the door to reveal gears and springs inside, Kempelen fooled people into believing this was a mechanical device with artificial intelligence.

So, on the outside is a mannequin that plays chess.  Inside is a guy that works the levers and gears that creates the illusion of a mechanical device playing chess.  The key to this is that the person inside is unknown and unseen.

If you think that only sells products you would be wrong. sells (brokers) labor – very cheap labor.  If you can break down what you want to accomplish into a series of tinywell-defined tasks you can use’s mechanical turk to do the labor.  Some tasks pay pennies.’s global marketplace for “commodity interchangeable disposable intellectual labor”’s Mechanical Turk is really a global marketplace for temporary, disposable, replaceable human intellectual labor.  Simple intellectual repetitive task-oriented labor can be had for a few dollars an hour or less.  Requestors do not have to file forms, don’t have to pay payroll taxes, and they can avoid laws of minimum wage, overtime, and workers compensation.

The fate of ordinary people

So let’s get back to Dave.  Dave has shown up for work for the past 10 years and he diligently completes his tasks “I do what my boss tells me to do” and, from my interview with him, he does nothing more and nothing less than what he is told to do.  Dave occupies a fabric cubicle in an office building and is paid an american wage and benefits.  Dave’s company is interested in reducing labor costs and standardizing on best practices for the insurance industry.

Show up for work on time, follow instructions, fit in, be obedient, keep your head down, and do what the boss tells you to do – no more, no less.  What is the fate of the workers with these hold-over attributes from the industrial age into the 21′st century?

The world has changed.  If you want to keep your job these days you can’t be ordinary.

You have to be extraordinary – take initiative, have insights, question the status quo, be remarkable, bring people and ideas together, create great teams.

Ordinary people creating companies and organizations employing the lowest cost commodity interchangeable disposable labor will create ordinary and mediocre services and products and a race to the bottom for wages and price of products.

Extraordinary people creating companies and organizations employing extraordinary and exceptional people will create remarkable products and a race to the top of value – with wages and job security to follow.   Got a doubt?  Apple, Google, Amazon, …  Want to keep your job?  Become extraordinary, remarkable, and indispensible.  You have a choice to make this decision every day.

Read more’s Mechanical Turk Global Marketplace for Labor –
Details on how to integrate your business workflow with amazon mechanical turk –
Labor On-Demand 24×7 – Crowdflower –
Watch a video on CrowdFlower –
Read an article from the Christian Science Monitor –
General Outsourcing –
Wipro –

Written by frrl

April 22, 2010 at 4:29 pm

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