Dilbert's Doctrines

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

(Page 2 of 6)

Adams: I worry about a brain drain. I always wonder whether one of the reasons that the United States does so well and innovates so well is that the only people here are risk takers. You have to be, just to get here in the first place. But I wonder what happens when corporations are filled with people who don't take risks--even fewer risks than they already do. And it's pretty bad to begin with.

In The Dilbert Future, I talked about how the workplace would be more like the NBA, where the superstars get gigantic salaries and there are the people who are happy to have jobs, and a few middle managers in the middle to keep it together, but everyone else will just go off and work for themselves. The corporation is going to have superstars, irrelevant managers, and people who do real work. And that's about it.

Reason: Some economists have called this scenario the "winner-take-all economy."

Adams: There's a name for it?

Reason: It's supposed to be really bad. From the way you write about it, though, I get the sense that you don't think it would be that awful.

Adams: Not if you're a winner. The rap with capitalism is that in order for some people to do really well, some people are not going to do very well. Capitalism is just another form of discrimination. It discriminates against people who don't want to work hard or who are not capable. Why should they be discriminated against? We have internalized that it's the only kind of discrimination that is OK. You couldn't discriminate against skin color, age, and disability. Why could you discriminate against someone who is stupid? There's no reason. It's just we've all agreed--and by we I mean the people who are not so stupid. If everybody voted, I'm sure the stupid people would--well, who knows what the stupid people would vote?

Reason: They still might be better off than under any alternative.

Adams: I don't know. Would stupid people--people significantly below average, somewhere under a 100 IQ--be worse off under communism? I think they end up roughly the same. I think average people are doing just fine and would prefer capitalism.

Reason: Your strip certainly highlights the absurdities of corporate life. That's something you've also done in real life. Explain what you did for Pierluigi Zappacosta at Logitech.

Adams: I got a call from Tia O'Brien [an independent reporter on assignment] for the San Jose Mercury News. She wanted to do a story that was going to be interesting and different. We brainstormed and came up with the idea that I'd put on a disguise, go to a corporation as a consultant, and see if I could fool people into thinking that I was a high-paid consultant when, in fact, I was just full of crap. Zappacosta thought it would be a fun idea.

So we set up the scam. Tia acted as my assistant, and Pierluigi was the only one who was in on it in a room full of business executives at Logitech. For over one hour I took them through an exercise on how to rebuild their mission statement. I actually convinced them that the one they had was woefully inadequate.

Reason: Was the one they had bad?

Adams: That's part of the humor of it--all mission statements are quite useless. So to tell them the one they had wasn't doing the job should have raised a red flag to begin with. But people in corporations are so used to two things: First, absurdity--so nothing seems too unusual. And second, there is not enough payoff to rock the boat. It was much easier for everyone to listen to what I had to say than to jump on me at the first sight of absurdity. Certainly everyone in the room had at least a moment where they said, "Man, I'm wasting my time!" But I made sure I always skated just below the level at which somebody would call my bluff and would think it was worth taking the chance of calling me a fraud. I had them thinking, "What if it just turns out that he's just eccentric but the best consultant in the world?"

Reason: What did they do when they found out?

Adams: For the first 30 seconds, they were just stunned. It took them a while. They had to rebuild in their minds the last hour of their life to make sense of the moment that was right in front of them. Their eyes were open, but there was slot-machine activity in there, as they rewound and fast-forwarded through until they got to where they were, and then they laughed. They thought it was funny. Nobody seemed to take it bad.

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