Dilbert's Doctrines

Cartoonist Scott Adams on cubicles, capitalism, and the angst of the knowledge worker. Interviewed by Virginia Postrel.

Scott Adams is one of America's leading social critics: an astute observer of the follies and pains of corporate life in the age of the knowledge worker, downsizing, PowerPoint presentations, and endless management fads. Unlike most social commentators, however, Adams isn't looking to change government policy or re-engineer capitalism to suit his tastes. He's providing criticism from within--the sort of knowing commentary that can get stupid policies dropped before they're implemented. And, of course, he makes it funny.

Before his Dilbert comic strip took off, Adams himself did time as an anonymous cubicle dweller, working for Crocker National Bank and then Pacific Bell. "I worked in a number of jobs that defy description but all involve technology and finances," he reports. An MBA with an undergraduate degree in economics, he nonetheless lived the life of a technical specialist--"My business card said `engineer,' but I'm not an engineer by training"--and Dilbert and his co-workers reflect that background.

Nowadays, he stays in touch with the cutting edge of business stupidity through the hundreds of e-mails fans send him. The Internet, he says, has been critical to Dilbert's success, building a fan base that spread the word beyond the strip's first few newspapers. Those fans were especially helpful when Bill Watterson retired from drawing Calvin and Hobbes, and many newspapers polled their readers on what they'd like to see take its place. "We want Dilbert," was often the reply.

Now Adams is living the "new economy" dream, having escaped the cubicle grind to do what he loves and make piles of money doing it. His Dilbert comic strip runs in some 1,700 newspapers in 51 countries, and its devoted fans support a merchandising empire of mouse pads, coffee mugs, dolls, calendars, and so on. A TV version of Dilbert debuts January 25. In addition to the usual comics collections, Adams has written three semi-serious books, The Dilbert Principle, The Dilbert Future, and The Joy of Work, that combine illustrative strips with observations about improving (or surviving) corporate life.

REASON Editor Virginia Postrel interviewed Adams at his home in Danville, California, where he lives with his longtime girlfriend, who still works at PacBell; two cats; enormous amounts of Dilbert paraphernalia; and gadgets galore.

Reason: Why do you think Dilbert is so popular?

Scott Adams: It's a whole range of things. Some people are just looking at it and saying, "This is just like my workplace, he's talking about me," and so they're really into it. There are some people who just like jokes--wherever they find jokes, they're happy. And kids under 12 are saying, "Hey, there's a talking dog."

I think people use the strip in different ways. Readers tell me a lot--I get so many e-mails every day. They often say that some policy got changed because while their management was in the midst of creating it, a Dilbert cartoon came out mocking that same policy. So I have been credited for killing a lot of bad policies, which I guess I'm happy about. The other thing is that [the strip] kind of realigns the balance of power. Employees don't really have much ability to do anything about a policy they don't like. But through Dilbert they can mock it, and nobody can really withstand the mocking factor. I've created a way employees can mock policies without it being personal. If you mocked it personally, you would get fired. But people can take my cartoon, point to it, and say, "I'm OK with this. But this cartoonist guy, he thinks you're silly." It's a way to offload the risk.

Reason: Dilbert has emerged as the new workplace Everyman. This is a change from the traditional workplace Everyman, who was often an assembly line worker and whose greatest obstacles were the pace of the machinery and grinding repetition. Dilbert's biggest problem is basically bosses who keep him from getting his work done.

Adams: It's about futility and absurdity. But he's got a different problem, too. If you're on the assembly line, at least you've made something. Whereas Dilbert is like I was in my career: work 17 years and never do anything for anybody. Nothing tangible came out of anything I ever did. There's a lot of people in that boat. They're working on something which, if it were ever actually completed, it would be tangible. But nine times out of 10, things get canceled or delayed. You change jobs before it's finished. You never really get the feeling that you've done anything useful. You feel like you're bluffing all the time. It's the big difference.

Reason: That's the existential angst of the knowledge worker?

Adams: Yeah. You have no traction with the real world and you lose any correlation between your efforts, your paycheck, and what you are doing in the world. Those three things are thoroughly unconnected.

Reason: Is that why more people are working for themselves?

Adams: It probably [has to do with] searching for meaning and a connection between what their effort is and what their reward is. I think workers want that connection. But it's also just bad bosses and idiot co-workers.

Reason: What do you think about the trend toward self-employment?

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