McDonaldization of Society and Coolification of Professions

George Ritzer coined the term used in the first half of the title of this article in his 1993 book, “McDonaldization of Society”. He used the world-famous fast food franchise as the exemplar of a phenomenon of dehumanization that is sweeping through systems being used by industry.

My simple take-away from the book is that McDonaldization is a strategy to get a customer to provide service to himself and to convince him that this is better for him (but read the book, it has a deeper analysis). Would a rational person want to pay good money to go to a place where he has to stand in line to first pay for the food, then pick up and carry it to the table himself, eat it sitting on uncomfortable benches, and then put the remains in garbage disposal himself? On top of that, the food is always the same taste, and is seriously bad for health – see Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary.¬† Yet McDonald’s services more than 58 million customers daily.

McDonaldization is not restricted to burgers. This strategy  has spread to many other places:

  • banks (ATM’s),
  • airline check-in counters
  • airline baggage return
  • grocery store self-checkout counters
  • gas stations
  • customer-“care” phone lines of telcos, airlines, etc. who have a computer system, not a human, responding to menu choices on the other end

All of above are examples of self service where all these tasks were formerly done by other people, not the customers themselves. The workplace is also moving to the self-service model. If you are an employee, see what applies to you:

  • Do you type and print your own letters?
  • When you need copies, do you operate the xerox or scanner yourself?
  • When something breaks down at work, do you log a service request into to a computer system?
  • Do you do the paperwork and data entry for claiming expense reimbursements yourself?
  • who books a conference room when you are setting up a meeting?

Once society accepts self service as the norm for comparatively mundane tasks, it would be a natural progression for the McDonaldization phenomenon to spread out into more technical or specialized areas. I call this extension the coolification of professions.

coolie n. – An unskilled laborer (Hindi)

Just as the work of stenos, secretaries, data entry operators is being done by the common employee (and these particular jobs are becoming obsolete), the coolification of professions results in some of the work done previously by professionals now being done by the customer as self-service. Let’s look at some examples:

Medical

The physician or family doctor: almost a God-like figure 50 years ago. When common killer diseases were being conquered, and penicillin was king. The patient was cured by the doctor, else it was God’s will. Today the patient is well-informed about procedures, risks, and treatments, and expects the doctor to explain all the details. The patient will also go for a second or third opinion. Minor ailments are completely self-serviced using the internet, how-to books, and over-the-counter medications or treatments from alternative medicine. So today the tables have turned – the patient was cured by the medical system, else it may be a malpractice suit.

Legal

These days many people draft and print legal documents themselves, such as sale deeds, gift deeds, and wills, without involving a lawyer at all.

Publishing

Most in-house documentation in companies and institutions is produced by non-specialists. There may be a separate publications department, but it typically produces brochures, flyers, and user manuals for the end customers. And it is not just enterprises – churches, clubs, home owners, schoolchildren – all can manage their own publishing using DTP software. Authors can now bypass publishers all together, since authors can themselves compose and format their books and directly place them on the internet marketplace as pdf, epub, or kindle format (this major shift needs to be expanded as a different post).

Financial

Ordinary users can compute and file taxes online using easy-to-use software. This used to be done by tax consultants who would compute taxes and file the returns on behalf of their clients.

Information Technology

Programming used to be done by software professionals is now being by people from other walks of life. People solve their programming problems themselves using spreadsheets for financial analysis, accounting, even engineering calculations such as beam design. A mathematician will conduct research by programming Mathcad or Mathematica herself. The trend in IT is to create general purpose tools which the end users can themselves program and customize to their needs.

Coolification of IT Professionals

There was a time when building a car was an art. Skilled craftsmen would build a car one at a time. Henry Ford changed that into the assembly line. Now cars were cheaper, but the assembly line worker had little sense of worth – his job got coolified. Something similar is happening in the IT industry too. There was a time when programming was a black art and computer equipment was extremely expensive; a few talented individuals were programmers; their ability to squeeze the last bit of performance with ingeneous tricks was a highly regarded skill. But today, programming cost is a major cost factor and now today millions of people are employed in IT – coolification is inevitable. Evolution of higher level languages, frameworks, ready-to-use software components has led to a shift in skill sets need for the usual IT professional.
What today’s IT professional needs to know is how to translate business logic into a composition of high-level building blocks. The quality assurance team equals the size of the development team; QA needs to know how to write test cases that fits into existing testing frameworks.

No doubt there are still people writing the tools, frameworks and components. But how many automobile engineers are employed today compared to the number of cars produced?

The other shift is I guess the maturation from art to engineering. Now there are standards, processes, and some level of control and predictability is in place. The IT professional too is morphing from craftsman to assembly line worker.

I am not passing judgment here, nor bemoaning the passing away of a golden age, but rather just noting that the cheese has red-shifted. A lot of IT is now run-of-mill – consider that many non-CS graduates also end up working in IT. The day may not be far off when a high school pass or high school fail who took up low-paying jobs like gas station attendant will be able to take up low-paying jobs like IT executive.

Of course, there will always be some teams that are building the core systems, frameworks, and components. That is the place to be in. But it will get harder and harder to get in.

End Notes

Somewhat out of context, but I must refer you to a hilarious spoof on Agile Methodology.

Advertisements

Famous People Mumbles #16

famous people mumbles #16

famous people mumbles #16

Famous people Mumbles #15

famous people mumbles #15