21st: The cult of Dilbert

Scott Adams' creations keep extending their sway over the Internet and the bestseller lists. Now the cartoonist tells us that "affirmations" are the key to his success -- and ours. Has the master of cynical corporate satire gone New Age?


Andrew Leonard
July 19, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

there is a remarkable dearth of Chihuahua sightings in "The Dilbert Future," the most recent salvo of off-kilter observations from cartoonist-turned-author Scott Adams. This is something of a surprise. As Adams has moved beyond simply penning cartoons into his new, and virile, incarnation as prose pundit, he has evinced an unfortunate willingness to dramatize crucial points with strained analogies that involve Mexican rat-dogs.

But no more. Dilbert fans can rejoice -- and not just because of the well-established inverse ratio between the quantity of Chihuahua references in a given text and the quality of a writer's prose. When the ultimate goal is supreme domination of the universe, Chihuahuas only get in the way.

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Make no mistake, supreme domination is part of the inevitable Dilbert future. The only undecided question is the identity of our all-conquering overlord. Will it be Dogbert, the bespectacled megalomaniac mutt who moonlights as Dilbert's faithless companion? Or will it be Adams himself, the mastermind of the mushrooming Dilbert empire? Because the real surprise in "The Dilbert Future" is not the absence of yapping-dog metaphors -- it's Adams' own increasing competence as a writer and social observer, above and beyond his skills as a cartoonist. Forget about being forced to kowtow to Dogbert's New Ruling Class; Scott Adams is the one to be wary of.

Readers can be excused for imagining that the Dilbert phenomenon is ripe for overexposure and eventual burnout. Adams has made a career out of recycling the intersection of two basic points: Bosses suck and people are idiots. Just how far can one ride that pony? Last year's hugely successful "nonfiction" sensations, "The Dilbert Principle" and "Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook," were essentially the same book, albeit with different formatting. There isn't a niche in the consumer marketplace that lacks for a cross-merchandised Dilbert knickknack. Mugs, mouse pads, magnets -- Dilbert isn't a cartoon, it's a way of life. By this Christmas, there will also be a Dilbert CD-ROM -- "Desktop Dilbert."

Adams has even parlayed Dilbert's popularity with geeks and oppressed corporate employees into a budding career as pop personality. He gives motivational speeches. He has guest-starred on the television shows "NewsRadio" and "Babylon 5." He is in high demand as a freelance writer -- with or without cartoon accompaniment. But surely this Dilbertian tidal wave has to peter out somewhere. Is there no limit to Dilbertmania?

Apparently not. If he continues to improve his product, Adams may yet hold off the marketing disaster of Dilbert super-saturation for quite some time. "The Dilbert Future" (the third book by Adams to crack the New York Times bestseller list in the past year) is arguably Adams' best book yet -- fresh, funny and, more often than not, right on the money. Adams has widened his scope from the confines of the corporate maze, tightened his prose and served notice, again, that he is a pop-cultural force to reckon with. (His five-book deal with HarperCollins doesn't hurt, either.)

The implications for the future are profound. Scary, even. The Dilbert floodgates have only just begun to open! Ratbert and Catbert dolls are the least of it. Come the millennium, the geeks will inherit the earth, and Scott Adams will be there to lead them.

In "The Dilbert Future," Adams examines the future of gender relations, life on other planets (like Switzerland), marketing, "social stuff" and, of course, technology and the workplace. He delivers 65 predictions. Some are commonplace, impossible for any sentient being to deny -- corporate downsizing will continue, all work will be outsourced, life will not be like "Star Trek," and computer-using men will be the sexiest males.

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Some are more controversial, though not unthinkable, like Prediction 51: "In the future, the media will kill famous people to generate news that people will care about." And some probe directly into the heart of Dilbert darkness, like Prediction 45: "In the future, it will be easy to find customers who are gullible enough to buy any product, no matter how worthless and stupid it is." Dilbert push-up ties spring to mind.

Prediction 45 is comforting, as it emphasizes Adams' unwillingness to travel too far from his fundamental starting point. Underlying nearly every Dilbert cartoon, and certainly all of his most recent books, is his favorite observation: Stupidity reigns. Thus the subtitle of "The Dilbert Future": "Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century."

In the future, rest assured, managers will still be incompetent, and the majority of the population will still be, to use a favorite Adamsian put-down, "in-duh-viduals."

"You can never underestimate the stupidity of the general public," Adams writes. But don't worry, never fear -- in the future, scientists will learn how to harness stupidity as an energy source.

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It's easy to laugh along with Adams. We, the Dilbert initiated, are in on the joke. It's those "six billion idiots" using computer mice as foot pedals who are the terminally dumb. And if we want some objective proof of our status in the imminent new order, all we have to do is register for the Dilbert e-mail newsletter, which automatically conveys the status of charter member in Dogbert's New Ruling Class -- and, as a side perk, also provides early notification of the availability of new Dilbert products.

So just who is laughing at whom? Who is this Adams guy, anyway? Is he the geek prophet, a seer who will lead his 140 million (according to Adams) readers to Nerdvana? Follow me! You have nothing to lose but your cubicle chains! Or is he a huckster, an L. Ron Hubbard for the digital generation, a master of postmodern irony so skilled that he can insult his readers to their faces and still have them beg for more?

Regardless of how one answers the question, it is difficult to think of any other cartoonist who has so effortlessly transcended his original medium. Certainly the likes of Garry Trudeau, Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson pale in comparison. But with Adams' new eminence comes a new confusion. In "The Dilbert Future," Adams forges into new territory -- he professes to get serious, to offer some straight talk on how he sees the world. But given what he says, one still has to wonder -- is he for real? Or is this yet another ironic game of bait-and-switch?

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Prediction 65: "In the future, science will gradually free us from the optical illusions that restrict our view of reality."

This is not a joke. After a few hundred pages of fun and games, Adams turns "the humor mode off" and warns the reader that "the remainder of this book will be more bizarre and thought-provoking than whatever you expected." Again, he isn't kidding. The last chapter of "The Dilbert Future" is at right angles, not only to the rest of the book, but to all that has come before in the Dilbert Chronicles. The reader can expect to be befuddled. Suddenly, the master of the satiric jab starts to sound remarkably like one of those guys you see on TV touting the benefits of their astonishing new self-help 12-step program.

First, Adams proposes that the theory of evolution will soon be debunked, and then, in brief staccato bursts, offers new, off-handed interpretations of the concepts of time, gravity and perception. Then he dons the unlikely EST-like mantle of a philosopher of self-realization theory, proposing, quite seriously, that our thoughts can "influence things at a distance." In fact, we can achieve damn near anything we please.

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The key is a strategy Adams dubs "affirmation." By simply writing his goals down 15 times every day, Adams says he has achieved high test scores, targeted successful soon-to-rise stocks, become a famous syndicated cartoonist and, not least, made Dilbert "the most successful comic on the planet." Oh, and he also narrowly avoided the onset of cancer.

His affirmation prowess has left him so optimistic that in the conclusion to "The Dilbert Future" he argues that the year 2000 could be "the beginning of something better -- a world where our intentions define reality in a more direct way than we ever imagined possible."

The implications are clear. Anyone who hasn't already secured his or her place in Dogbert's New Ruling Class had better do so without delay. Supreme universal domination -- with or without Chihuahuas -- is within anyone's grasp through the magic of affirmation. And Scott Adams has got a serious head start on us all.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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