June 15, 2009

Dilbert Is No Laughing Matter

The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh by Norman Solomon (Common Courage Press, 1997, ISBN: 1-56751-132-5)

This book is written by: Norman Solomon, a journalist and media critic who is known for speaking out against the illusion and doublespeak that shrouds the most sinister actions of the power elite. Solomon needed to write this book because "mesmerized with the sparkle of satire, many [Dilbert] readers have simply assumed way too much"(p.16), and he has come forward to speak the truth in a world where "the cyber-jargon and cyber-technology now pushing each other forward are symbols of how sour the dream of progress has turned; today's computerized office is a curdled replication of yesterday"(p.96).

What is in this book: Lobsters at Nuremberg. Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, "resembles a lobster who has crawled out of the restaurant tank and now sits at the table, napkin in lap, satirizing the spectacle of creatures climbing all over one another"(p.98). I cannot begin to describe how much I hate it when lobsters do that, but that's beside the point. There's a war on, and if you're not smashing lobster tanks and sticking it to the man, then you're part of the problem.
"The cartoonish Dilbert symbols […] have been conscripted as troops in a never-ending war: to mobilize employees for the corporate quest to enlarge the profit margin"(p.29). The Man may know that "the marketplace wars cannot be fought effectively with corporate soldiers lined up like redcoats"(p.76), but that won't stop him from fighting. "Thus are the arsenals of confusion stockpiled and fired, laying siege to our own futures—until, as Jimi Hendrix anticipated, 'the life that led us is dead'"(p.36).

What is not in this book? The terrible truth about what horrific projects Dilbert's company is really working on. Solomon cites a Dilbert strip from 1994 that explicitly states that they are working on missile guidance chips, but:

maybe Dilbert and his colleagues are working on management software for a global web of apparel factories in places like Honduras and Vietnam and Indonesia, where sweatshops provide optimum profit margins. Or perhaps they're getting the bugs out of nuclear-reactor software. Or complex public-relations algorithms for a firm that dumps toxic chemicals in areas where poor people live(pp.87-88).

This sounds scary at first, until you learn that the management software is going to allow a company with humane labor practices to remain competitive with their less-ethical peers in those regions, and the nuclear reactor is a Generation IV project designed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. While the algorithm is both troubling and sinister (as are all algorithms, especially public-relations algorithms), some glory-hungry trial lawyers have already brought a class-action lawsuit against the firm.

Would you recommend this book to the kind of sub-literate, knuckle-dragging corporate wage slaves that are enthralled by Dilbert? Yes. They need to know that "the man behind the cartoon has little solidarity for the multitudes of Dilbert fans"(p.8). Hell, you need to know it. "His depictions of the obnoxious and the asinine plainly apply to the jerks who try our patience and waste our precious time because they're so dumb—and, even worse, because they're our co-workers or even our supervisors. Later it might dawn on us that we fall within his big circle of disdain"(p.52).
Then again, it might never dawn on us. "The Dilbert tenor is often contemptuous of garden variety people—mockingly dubbed 'induhviduals'," but "Adams confers special dispensation on those who read Dilbert books, of course; their wisdom is attained by willingness to fork over money in his direction. As a clever marketer, Adams recognizes that the paying customers must be kept out of his nonstop line of fire"(p.51). Don't you get it? Dilbert's creator thinks you're dumb, and you're too stupid to realize it! Thank god this book is here to point out your ignorance. Better yet, thank god Tom Tomorrow's introduction to this book sums up more than 90 pages of Solomon's arguments in a single panel:

Would you recommend this book to Heidi Fleiss? I would actually like to have seen her write portions of this book due to the unique insights she could offer. "Dilbert marketing ventures may seem like logical business transactions. But that's because more impressive talents have so often undergone prostitution in recent decades"(p.67) and I'm sure she has a lot to say about prostituting impressive talents. She'd probably also add that while "a clever satire of inefficiency can go where no whip-cracking is able to penetrate"(p.39) it's a lot easier to find a hooker who can crack a whip, and penetration is overrated.

What was interesting about this book? Although "Scott Adams is an impish yet loyal subject, a court jester who has proven his eagerness to serve the royal highness in a land where cash is king"(p.34), this is no laughing matter. Okay, maybe it is, because "in this court of 'higher immorality,' Dilbert is a jester who elicits some chuckles while kissing the sovereigns and nodding to the corporate throne"(p.86), and what is a jester besides a clown with a good agent and a decent tailor? And who doesn't like clowns? Okay, who doesn't like clowns besides people who are afraid of clowns? Right, I should rephrase that. Who doesn't like clowns besides people who are afraid of clowns and everyone over the age of 8?

Special Award
For its relentless, scathing criticism of Scott Adams and his work, Bitterly Books would like to confer upon The Trouble with Dilbert the "Oh, Snap!" Shirley Hemphill Award for Sassy Put-Downs. Originally, one quote was going to be singled out as the most brutal:
"Dilbert may be 'antiboss.' But so is Blondie."(p.37)

But Solomon really throws down the gauntlet several times through the course of his work:
"Dilbert is among a wide range of products acclaimed for their high jumps over low standards."(p.35)

I wouldn’t want to be Scott Adams when he reads this sentence:
"Dilbert flourishes in the context of mass culture that shores up the status quo by defining the tepid outer boundaries of dissent."(p.13)

But really, if you only take one put-down away from this book, it would have to be this pithy zinger:
Adams pursues a mass audience while repeatedly striving to flatter it as distinct from the mass audience of 'Induhviduals.' He lampoons commercial charlatanism while implementing his own brand for maximum return.(pp.66-67)

Oh, Snap!

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