The Dilbert Future of Work in the 21st Century

If only.

Scott Adams is a very very strange person. You’d think given his pages upon pages of writing against corporate bureaucracy, the tyranny of hierarchy, the problems with individuals (or in “duh” viduals) having power, the issues of work and even just more generally the problems of humanity…that he wouldn’t endorse folks like Trump or Romney.

On the other hand he’s said he’s a libertarian “minus the crazy stuff” (whatever that means) and has also said (one time) he supported Gary Johnson. But then he’s also said he’s to the left of Bernie Sanders and has supporter Hillary but mostly in fear of his life. It’s hard to square all of these various positions with what he actually writes.

And while reading The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Business Stupidity in the 21st Century (TDF) I was and am still baffled by how confusing Adams can be in his political positions. He said he mostly enjoyed Trump because of his “persuasion” but he was mostly persuading people who were affiliated with racism, sexism, Nazism or like, everything bad.

Adams and other folks like him said that was fear-mongering or some sort of play on being divisive towards the populace but you know who is really divisive? The KKK, white supremacist groups, racism in general and other folks like that. And Trump had the support of many people like that. Does that make every Trump supporter a Nazi sympathizer, a racist or a sexist? No, probably not. But you don’t have to be any of those things to assist in them being elected for president.

At any rate, in reading TDF I was chuckling and even laughing out loud at times. Adams certainly seems like a fairly sensible person. He may have some mixed ideas about gender (his ideas about who controls the world, while mostly parody based are also rooted in harmful gender stereotyping) but when you focus on his ideas about work…

Well, okay, they’re mixed too. Mostly because Adams spends much of his time blaming anything but work itself. While Adam’s criticisms of corporate structuring, jargon, hierarchy, power and brown-nosing co-workers are valuable (and were certainly valuable when the first debuted) their lasting political power is limited, to say the least.

Of course you could say, “Well he’s not really trying to impress upon us some sort of political change! It’s just for a laugh or two!” But clearly it’s not. Clearly Adams has some real and genuine feelings about the culture of work and how it operates both in the past, the present and in this book…well still the past probably (it was written in 1997).

All art and creation has some sort of point and since Dilbert, whether just as a comic strip, or as an elongated text in the form of a book, it’s obviously saying some important political things. And even if Adams has never explicitly run for office on this platform of Dilbert he’s still speaking to current conditions and the laughs come from, “Oh god. How can we change this and how soon?”

So there’s a kind of implied political power and presence from what Adams writes.

But at the same time this presence is fairly weak and again, Adams only comments on structural issues of capitalism and democracy are pretty throw-away. He’s correct that there’s little point in voting statistically and because many of the people who vote are ignoring about the things they are voting for. But this does little in the way of pointing towards some sort of alternative. Then again, a humorist is often more invested in tearing down than building up, so perhaps it’s fair.

And though Adams biting wit may impact employers and employees in different ways, many of the times the punches are fairly soft. There’s no central criticism of what actually makes a corporation tick. I did enjoy Adams barb about how government are best at raising the taxes for the poor, that was a nice zinger. But ultimately Adams comedic volleys at people of power feels fairly hollow and mostly self-interested.

Which, you know, good for him. But it’s also an open question of how much Dilbert and books like TDF are really or have really changed the landscape of work. I’m sure it’s helped many people become more critical of work. But I also think it’s the sort of comic strip one can use to cope with work. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. But it’s also a thing that, if done in excess too much, can start excusing the unpleasant experiences you’re going through.

There are subversive elements of Dilbert, but it just feels like a soft or halfhearted middle-finger to corporate America. And as we’ve seen, when it comes down to it, Adams has no actual issue with corporate America being furthered. If there’s people who better accentuate the role of the pointy haired boss better than Trump or Romney, I’m interested to know.

That said, there are some funny ideas about work in here such as a long-range sensor so you can detect when your boss is coming around. As well as The Excuse 9000 which will add a selected background noise to your phone calls so you can call out sick with a bit more plausibility. There’s a few other cute ideas like that and their fun to read (and would be lovely to have, especially for those who still work in cubicles and those big corporations Adams is lampooning).

Adams also makes some pointed…well, poinst, about how technology will inevitably make our lives more difficult and yet we’ll be elated about it. It’s hard to argue that smartphones do indeed make our lives more “productive” in some ways but also much more tuned into what our bosses demand of us at every second. And yet most of us love our smartphones and enjoy the sort of access they give to the world around us.

One of Adams longest sections in TDF is, appropriately enough, on The Future of Work which mostly focuses on the incompetence of management as well as the prospects of self-employment. Adams unfortunately wildly overestimates how much self-employment will become possible but it has increased itself in some ways. You can partially thank advanced technology such as smartphones and the apps that come with them for that.

Things like Uber, Task Rabbit, Craigslist and many other options create a field of opportunities…to also be exhausted and probably work 12 “independent” jobs at once. Yay?

There’s also a great point made about recognition and the fact that employees are more and more recognized through awards, verbal recognition and symbolic gestures instead of, you know, money. This has continued through the 21st century and raises only seem to be some sort of mythical beast that some have claimed to catch and slay.

Adams also thinks the future of jobs will be much more in favor of employees. Given his prediction that so many talented and deserving employees will quit their horrible corporate jobs and become independent, this make sense. Unfortunately, given Adams was also right about the amount of added competition now that everyone has their resume online, these two things (to the extent that Adams first prediction is even happening) have more or less canceled each other out.

An interesting part of this section was the “Negative Work Formula” which highlights how you sometimes need some vital information from a co-worker but they refuse to give you it…unless you come to a meeting with them. Adams also notably points out how most of the interactions that men give to women is negative work, given that men tend to think that flirting counts as a type of work. Like I said, Adams has some mixed biting commentary on gender relations.

There’s a lot of other things to comment on in this book, but I’ll leave it there. I want to actually post this on the day that I said I would and y’all probably get the drift of the book. It’s a good and funny read and while it’s slightly shallow in the way that Adams typically is when it comes to critiquing work, it’s still funny and perhaps that’s more important.


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Disclaimer: I focused on the areas that mostly concerned work. I didn’t end up finishing this book like I wanted to…mostly because I took a nap and slacked off with a friend for a little bit. Oops.

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