Hero of a Thousand Workspaces

Scott Adams' "Dilbert" escapes from his cubicle to the bestseller list

Published June 3, 1996 7:55PM (EDT)

Every now and then a comic strip crosses the invisible line between minor diversion and age-defining phenomenon. It happened to "Doonesbury" during Watergate, when Garry Trudeau's characters vented a hip outrage that was off-limits to more dignified editorial pages. And for a time in the early '80s, no commentator better captured the high Reagan era's media-distorting dynamics than Mark Alan Stamaty's "Washingtoon."

Today, as politics has receded into the infoglut and many Americans find themselves immersed in the numbing realities of a wired world, we once more turn for relief to a comic strip. The newsstands and bookstores may be packed with articles and books that promise to make sense of the essentially nonsensical high-tech universe, to reveal its hidden inner workings or even give us an edge in its competitive rituals. But they don't get carefully clipped and mounted on the walls of a thousand workspaces. In the blindingly hype-ridden, buzzword-blitzed media landscape of the computer age, "Dilbert" is king.

Dilbert is a bespectacled bucket-head with a perpetually upturned tie and a pocket-protector worn as a coat of arms. He slaves as an engineer in some vast corporate cubicle hive, dodging lethal directives from dunderheaded managers. His creator, Scott Adams, writes from personal experience: Adams spent 17 years in a cubicle himself, first at Crocker Bank and later at Pacific Bell. His satires have now jumped from the funny pages onto the bestseller list with "The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads and Other Workplace Afflictions" -- a takeoff on management-strategy handbooks that interlaces comic strip reprints with sharp essays on business-world stupidities.

"The Dilbert Principle" will wind up on the humor shelves, and it's certainly a hoot, but beneath its quips it offers a surprisingly bitter vision of the business world as a parade of the moronic leading the blind in circles. Adams' determination to stand witness to the full range of human folly places him in the grand satiric tradition stretching back from Mencken to Swift to Jonson. His work is less surreal than hyper-real; often its observations land in a scarily honest zone halfway between pure observation and angry mockery.

Take Adams' discussion of the cubicle itself, a humiliation that "serves as a constant reminder of the employee's marginal value to the company":

The only drawback to the cubicle-oriented office is that some employees develop a sense of "home" in their little patch of real estate. Soon, pride of ownership sets in, then self-esteem, and poof -- good-bye productivity.

But thanks to the new concept of "hoteling," this risk can be eliminated. Hoteling is a system by which cubicles are assigned to the employees as they show up each day. . . Hoteling sends an important message to the employee: "Your employment is temporary. Keep your photos of your ugly family in the trunk of your car so we don't have to look at them."

"The Dilbert Principle" notes the absurdities of the '90s workplace and nails them with grim glee in venomously distilled haikus:

Somewhere between the hallucinations of senior management and the cold reality of the market lies something called a business plan. There are two major steps to building a business plan:

  • 1. Gather information.
  • 2. Ignore it.

The Dilbert Principle itself -- first expounded by Adams in a Wall Street Journal article last year -- states that "The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management." This is a successor to the Peter Principle, which stated that capable workers get promoted until they reach a level where they can no longer perform their jobs.

To Adams, the Peter Principle days were "Golden Years when you had a boss who was once good at something. . . Now, apparently, the incompetent workers are promoted directly to management without ever passing through the temporary competence stage."

Adams may be tough on managers, but his satire isn't limited to the apex of the organizational charts: "People are idiots. Including me.... No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot. That's the central premise of this scholarly work." "The Dilbert Principle" painstakingly and exhaustively chronicles manifestations of this idiocy until you can no longer pretend not to recognize it -- and your own participation in it. The book could as easily have been titled "Dummies for Dummies."

From its inception in 1989, "Dilbert" was just another oddball new comic strip -- one you might read but couldn't quite place. Then, one fateful day in 1993, Adams decided to print his e-mail address, squeezing "scottadams@aol.com" in between frames one and two of each strip.

As the artist tells it, that step put "Dilbert" onto a steep growth curve. Readers told Adams that what they loved most about the strip was its treatment of business and technology, Adams obliged them by concentrating more on that subject, and they proceeded to inundate him with tales of workplace lunacy that kept his creative pot bubbling. Dilbert came into his own as the digital age's Everygeek -- a Good Soldier Schweyk just trying to survive the corporate trenches while mad generals led suicide charges against phantom foes.

Some of "The Dilbert Principle's" best material comes in the form of e-mail missives from "Dilbert" readers sharing their woes with Adams -- like the Kafkaesque tale of a company where expenses are disallowed because they "violate company policy," but the company policies themselves are kept secret because otherwise "everyone would know them." These Dilbert's Believe-it-or-Nots cut in all directions, exposing the idiocy of employees as well as bosses -- like the worker driven to tears by a boss' memo that tells the troops "we can't stand pat this year." (Her name is Pat.)

Part of "Dilbert's" success, clearly, lies in the mirror it holds up to workplace realities. In "The Dilbert Principle's" introduction, Adams writes, "I routinely include bizarre and unworldy elements such as sadistic talking animals, troll-like accountants, and employees turning into dishrags after the life-force has been drained from their bodies. And yet the comment I hear most often is: 'That's just like my company.' "

If "Dilbert" were just a quasi-documentary chronicle, though, it could never have won its level of fanatical devotion. "Dilbert's" fans love it because it faithfully expresses the resentment felt by those who understand technology toward the people who don't, yet who nonetheless, inexplicably, hold positions of authority over them.

This undercurrent is constant in Adams' work. He writes, "You can test a person's importance in the organization by asking how much RAM his computer has." The more expensive memory chips you find in a person's system, the higher the rank, right? Read on: "Anybody who knows the answer to that question is not a decision-maker."

"Dilbert" takes a familiar tradition of worker-championing populism and mixes it with a little nerd-championing elitism. Yet it never partakes of technogeek-cultist obnoxiousness -- mostly because these technologists' sense of superiority is so patently a compensation for their powerlessness. In the '90s, the little guy isn't just getting stepped on; he's devoting his expert skills to optimizing his superiors' every stomp. What's worse, he knows it.

"Dilbert's" spare graphic style perfectly suits this sort of knowing fatalism. Drawn with no mouth, Dilbert himself tends to be a blank fall guy, all input and no output. The strip's most outspoken character, the megalomaniacal Dogbert, may periodically lord it over everyone, but he's still a round blob of a canine whose glasses barely reach over a desk when he sits behind it. Dilbert's human colleagues are most often found running around like little windup toys with arms outstretched, or occasionally surrounded by concentric vibration lines as if in the throes of slow-motion electrocution -- as in the banner screen of "Dilbert's" phenomenally popular Web site.

Adams' drawings are flat, prosaic maps of mundanity; they don't leave much room for dreams of liberation or fantasies of escape, and they can sometimes feel as bleak as a Samuel Beckett drama. In one strip, Dilbert, called upon to talk to students about careers in engineering, describes his life: "For the next twenty years I'll sit in a big box called a cubicle. It's like a restroom stall but with lower walls. I spend most of my time hoping the electromagnetic fields from my office equipment aren't killing me."

No wonder "Dilbert" has such a following among temps and lifers, employees and underlings everywhere. Who else is talking so bluntly about their lives, and getting away with it?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------