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?
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.
Reason: What do you hate about cubicles?
Adams: I think it's the symbolism more than anything–the fact that you're a grown adult and well into your career and you have to sit in a box. There's just something inherently degrading about that. Even if the intent [was not] to degrade when they built the things, it's always the effect. The ones I was in were always brown. They were small, and you couldn't decorate them–there were rules against it. So you couldn't make your cubicle look the way you wanted. You couldn't bring your personality. You couldn't leave any pictures out because that would affect the "acoustic integrity" of the wall. You couldn't put anything above the sight line of the cubicle, so you couldn't have a plant. When I would come to work, I'd be walking through the parking lot and I'd be in a perfectly good mood. Outside the sun was shining, and as I walked down the hall, closer and closer to my cubicle, I could feel my spirit shrinking, and by the time I sat down, I'd be in a terribly bad mood.
Reason: What possible justification could there be for telling employees that they can't pay for their own customization–put some pictures of loved ones on the walls or have a plant?
Adams: I guess the big problem with any large organization, whether it's a company or the government, is that there's always a reason for everything in large groups. Like why people can't put things on the wall of their cubicle: There probably was a study somewhere that said that it makes sound travel more because it's hitting the paper on the walls and bouncing off. But real people would never have that kind of rule in their house.
Reason: How does that relate to government?
Adams: Nobody makes more laws than the government, and every one of them has a good argument behind it. But individually, if it were up to you and somebody said, "Look at these 10,000 laws," how many would you keep? You would keep three: Don't kill people, don't steal things, pay your taxes.
Reason: Another thing you write about a lot is diversity training. What have been your experiences with it?
Adams: I think everyone is in favor of the goal of diversity training–don't abuse people just for being different. It's just the mechanism they dislike.
There are logical problems, of course, with diversity training: Everyone is different in some way. I happen to be short and balding, which is an incredible disadvantage in business. It's every bit as big a disadvantage as those of people in protected categories. But it's one of those things you can't claim, because nobody would believe it and you'd get no sympathy whatsoever. Being fat and short and ugly and bald can be huge disadvantages, but they are not on the list. And there are other things that are equally legitimate which aren't on the list. So right away you get a little animosity: "I wanna be on the list, too."
But the problem is really the same one with most corporate training: It's conceived and set up by people who are, in many cases, intelligent and understand the issue. Then they hire people to do the training who are not brilliant people and who don't really understand the issues. What I usually hear from people is that they went to a training class and somebody of a persuasion they're not told them that they are evil. That's their training: somebody telling them that they are bad. So they leave and say, "I'm not on the list, and I'm bad."
Reason: I take it they don't leave convinced that they're bad?
Adams: Nobody is convinced that they are bad. Right there, you have a problem. So everybody just leaves bitter. I just think there's a better way to do it. I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert, but the concept of having everybody sit in a room so someone can tell you that you are bad because people like you (not even you personally, but people who look like you) have abused other people who look like them and that you better fix it–it's kind of an inherently offensive concept.
Reason: Do you get into trouble for saying that?
Adams: I don't say that, not in the comics. I only make fun of the process.
Reason: Do you think the law should try to make workplaces fair, as opposed to people trying to do it voluntarily?
Adams: It'll seem like I'm two-faced or hypocritical here, but here are my two points of view: For the individual, you should run away from your company and work for yourself. My advice for an individual is just to escape it. But given that there will always be companies and clusters of people that have to work together, you probably always need some rules to keep people from discriminating and doing things that a polite society should not do. So there's a role for it.
Reason: Do you think more people are able to have work that they enjoy now than in the past? Or is it always the lucky few?
Adams: Compared to a feudal society, more. Moving large amounts of bovine fecal matter from one place to another, if that was your job, you worried about the plague. I would say we've moved roughly sideways in the last 30 years.
Reason: Were things better when people thought, "If I'm loyal to the company, the company will be loyal to me. I'll put in my 40 years and they'll put in their 40"?
Adams: Yeah, they probably were better. But it doesn't matter, because it's gone. The reality is that as soon as downsizing came, the illusion of that balance–of what's good for you is good for me–was gone. It became obvious it was good for the company to get rid of an employee. I don't think that old sense will ever come back. And that is probably going to cause a seesawing of power into infinity. Right now the economy is booming and unemployment rates are low, so the employees have all the power because it's hard to get new ones.
As soon as that changes, if the economy crumbles and unemployment starts skyrocketing, all the employers are going to use their power again, because they know there's no point telling the employees that they'll be trusted and they'll be there forever, because they are not going to believe it anyway. The external events will drive that seesaw back down.
Reason: Downsizing isn't always done in the most intelligent way. But the theory behind it is that there are layers of management that were not just not adding value, but are possibly even subtracting value from a company. If you read Dilbert, you get the sense that there's something to that, don't you?
Adams: One thing you can say about downsizing is that it did make big companies more efficient. It clearly had negative effects–people's lives were dislocated, people who kept their jobs had to do more work. But there's no doubt about it: The fewer managers there are, the better things work.
Reason: In your new book The Joy of Work, you talk about Norman Solomon. Tell us about Solomon–what he said about Dilbert, downsizing, and why he was wrong.
Adams: Solomon wrote a book called The Trouble with Dilbert. Most of it sprung from one comment that I made and then later confirmed, which I didn't realize had been taken out of context. I was asked, "Are there any benefits to downsizing?" And I said that, in fact, there were: It made some companies more efficient, and once you get rid of all the managers, the companies' stock prices go up. Those are good things.
I said that in the context that I was one of the people who most made fun of the methods of downsizing and the turmoil that it caused. But Solomon took that as my core philosophy that downsizing is good, presumably with all of its ramifications.
Reason: The more pain the better?
Adams: That was implied, but he didn't come right out and say that I was in favor of pain. But he deduced that I was a tool of capitalists and that I was not in favor of the working man, as he felt I should be. Or rather I was opposed to the working man in some way. These are very conceptual arguments that are not entirely related to what I do in any given day, but he felt that those conclusions were valid, and they were a big surprise to me because most of them obviously were taken from that one comment.
Reason: People from the left don't seem to know what to make of Dilbert. They either want to make it them ("Dilbert is anti-business") or just the opposite ("Dilbert is a capitalist tool"). But you seem to be criticizing capitalism from within.
Adams: I would say yes to that. Capitalism being the thing which I know and love, I feel it's not above criticism.
Reason: How do you define yourself politically?
Adams: I find that I do not align with any well-established political viewpoint that has a name associated with it. So I've called myself pro-death. I looked for what commonality there is in all of my work and in all of my political views and realized that I support abortion, capital punishment, and a strong military. When I put together the things I'm in favor of, the only thing they had in common was that they all ended up killing someone, whether it was a fetus or a terrorist.
Reason: What's your idea of how government should work?
Adams: I've always thought that, if I led the world–and God help us all if that ever happened–that the first thing I would do is make a list of what I considered the top priorities. And I'd have a criterion for why they were the worst problems. Probably on the top of my list would be something like tobacco and cigarette smoking, because it kills people.
Reason: Smoking is at the top of your list of the world's priorities?
Adams: Well, of the United States'. Maybe a strong military is at the top of the list–but it seems to be under control and nobody is attacking us. Anyway, I would have my top 10 problems and then I would bring together the experts. Let's say the problem was what to do about teen smoking. I'd get 100 of them in a room. Sixty of them say we should do this one thing, 40 of them say to do this other thing. By and large, not knowing anything more than these experts know, I'd go with the 60. I'd say, here's the experts, here are their credentials, so this is my policy. You'd never see that because it would never be politically viable to do that. But I've always imagined that it was the most sensible form of government.
Reason: A technocratic ideal. Is there no room for people wanting to smoke for the enjoyment they get out of it? Or do you decide from above that it's bad for them, therefore they shouldn't be allowed to do it?
Adams: I think that everything in our society is this tradeoff between how much does the government meddle vs. how much does it need to do for our own good. We make people wear seatbelts. We pass safety laws. We clean up the water. We clean up the air. Cars have a certain emission standard. For virtually everything you touch during the day, the government in some way has decided what the tradeoff is. It's a conscious tradeoff of individual freedom in exchange for preserving safety of life.
Reason: Some people have described Dilbert as anti-technology. One cultural critic has even used the strip to suggest that we think of technology as a "killing thing." Is Dilbert anti-technology?
Adams: No, he's exuberantly pro-technology. He loves technology. I love technology. If it hums or beeps or flashes, I want one. But it's just like any other tool. You can use a hammer to hit somebody in the head. If people are reading that into [the strip], that's got to be something they are bringing into it. It's not anything I'm putting in.
Reason: The creator of Zippy the Pinhead, Bill Griffith, has called Dilbert more marketing than cartoon. What do you think of that?
Adams: He did that just before his book tour, I think.
You always have to sort out who is mad at you because you are marketing vs. who is mad at you because you are marketing better than they are marketing. I choose to look at that part of my life [marketing] as one I want to concentrate on because I think I can do it well. If I can get good results and somebody doesn't like that, then I don't know how to disagree with that. It's just pure opinion based on nothing. I'm not killing anybody. I'm creating things which people understand. If they want to transfer money in return for those objects, who dies? Who loses for that? It's a free world. If I were forcing people to buy it, then I'd understand. Or if it hurt people. But they're just jokes and dolls. Nobody is surprised when they buy a Dilbert item and put out their $10. They get something, and they know exactly what it is.
Reason: Dilbert is used in Office Depot ads. Recently the National Parent-Teacher Association also agreed to let its name and logo be used in Office Depot ads. The Associated Press had a story in which an anonymous Texas PTA official said she didn't like the ad with Dilbert because the character said, "Don't be a dork when you go back to school." The official said the comment runs counter to the association's goal of encouraging children to feel comfortable about their appearance. What do you think about the controversy?
Adams: Well, it's the first time I've heard of it. Three hundred million people in the United States, 300 million opinions. All humor offends somebody, and you can't really understand that fully until you've done as many cartoons as I have. I did a joke about barbecuing unicorns, and there is a society that loves unicorns and they were put off by the whole concept. It's the nature of humor that you are taking something which is not belittled and you're belittling it. Belittling the way people choose to dress seems about the most harmless target you can possibly go after. But somebody is going to think that how kids dress is very important to their self-esteem and their life and make a case for it. It's not wrong. They are not incorrect. It's just a question of whether humor is banned from the planet, or do you accept that as the natural result of allowing free speech?
Reason: One of your books is called The Dilbert Future. You've said that you tend to live in the next moment. What's so interesting about the future?
Adams: I've decided that the only reason I get up in the morning is because I'm curious. It seems to be my most fundamental driving force, because I've met all of what [psychologist Abraham] Maslow would call lower-hierarchy needs. I actually wonder, If I write another book, will anyone read it? I'm just curious at this point. I don't need the money really. Can I write another book? Would anybody care? Would anybody buy it? If I did that, what would that lead to? Like what would be the next thing that would make itself available if I was successful in the last book? So I'm just curious. I already know what happened yesterday, for the most part. I don't know what will happen tomorrow.
Reason: Many people are afraid of developing technologies, such as biotechnology. What do you think?
Adams: This is where the engineer part of my personality dominates. There is a whole ethical debate about twiddling with people's genes. Here's something that you can debate all you want. But there's no technology that we've developed that could actually do something important that we haven't used. Once you have the choice that your kid can be whatever height and have perfect health, which parent is going to say, "Well, I think I'll take my chances with the health of my child. I think I'll roll the dice on that one"? Once the capability is there, it's going to be widespread.
Reason: So, do you believe in progress?
Adams: Yeah, I'm a total optimist. I'm the biggest optimist in the world. I think everything will get better except those things which are somehow permanently broken. The people who are dead today will still be dead tomorrow, but for those of us still alive, thinking and healthy, I'm a total optimist. I always wonder if my optimism is a genetic thing. At any given moment, I'm never exuberant, but neither am I really depressed. But my optimism is off the chart. I always think everything is going to be much better tomorrow than it was today.
Reason: Is it just an emotional sense, or do you have an argument for why you think that?
Adams: No, there is absolutely no rational reason, because it would be so easy to come up with an argument that counters it. On the plus side of that, things do seem better now in general than they ever have been in the past. There are a few bumps in the trend line, like in the early '90s. But if you're in it for the long term, things get better.