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Excerpt from The Trouble With Dilbert
Forthcoming from Common Courage
Forthcoming from Common Courage
By late 1996, Dilbert characters and cartoons were central to pep-talk booklets that Xerox was producing and distributing to employees. Dilbert cartoon characters or complete Dilbert comic strips adorn nearly every page of the Xerox employee guidelines, which include formulas like "Empowerment = Growth and Productivity." In other words, the handbook explains, "Empowerment results in Growth and Productivity."
Here's some sample language: "Why a do-it-yourself kit? Because nobody else can do it for you. And, because we believe that creating a truly Empowering Work Environment is critical to your success and to Xerox' success. We're serious. We can set the stage, clarify the concepts and provide the structure, but ultimately, creating an Empowered Work Place is something you do yourself."
Like Scott Adams, the Xerox corporate voice presents the Dilbert office environment as something negative. Also like Adams, the Xerox handbook says that true empowerment of individuals could be measured by what good it does the corporate coffers--"growth and productivity." (The "growth," of course, refers only to the corporation's growth.) Dilbert satire, Xerox declares, is beneficial "as a reminder of what empowerment isn't."
What, however, is "empowerment"? It's something that empowers people on the Xerox payroll to shed dysfunction, gain clarity, and function more effectively to make money for the corporation. That is the sine qua non of Dilbert-as-object-lesson, the Xerox handbook emphasizes: "It's been demonstrated that an Empowering Work Environment translates directly to improved business results and increased employee satisfaction--things we all care about. There's something in this for everyone. Even the skeptics among us."
Indeed, corralling "even the skeptics among us" is a corporate task that Dilbert imagery is well-positioned to assist. There's little point in denying that office work is often frustrating, dumb, demeaning. But what must be blurred and denied is that top management is the worker's adversary. The cartoonish Dilbert symbols, secured by Xerox in this case, have been conscripted as troops in a never-ending war: to mobilize employees for the corporate quest to enlarge the profit margin.
Since Xerox workers are a highly schooled bunch, the company manual gradually escalates its equations, reaching such algebra as "Empowerment = Direction and Communication + Ownership + The Way We Work Growth and Productivity."
"What's In It For Xerox?" a headline in the manual asks. The answer appears over a drawing of Dilbert: "Everything. A more committed, more productive work force. One that's closer to the customer and able to implement decisions that meet customer needs and exceed customer expectations. As we said--bottom line: Improved business results."
After drawing the cartoon that later became this book's foreword, Tom Tomorrow recalls, he "caught a predictable amount of flak from apoplectic Dilbert fans who apparently considered this tantamount to heresy." Tomorrow "was even beginning to wonder if perhaps I had overstated my case"--until someone sent him a copy of the Dilbert illustrated handbook put out for Xerox employees.
Xerox management has recognized what more gullible Dilbert readers do not: Dilbert is an offbeat sugary substance that helps the corporate medicine go down. The Dilbert phenomenon accepts and perversely eggs on many negative aspects of corporate existence as unchangeable facets of human nature ("immutable"). As Xerox managers grasped, Dilbert speaks to some very real work experiences while simultaneously eroding inclinations to fight for better working conditions.
"What's important here," Tom Tomorrow notes, "is that the purveyors of corporate gibberish at Xerox were not threatened by Dilbert. Nor did they feel that the inclusion of a cartoon in which Dilbert warns a new employee to run for her life from the company's new empowerment program in any way undermined their own empowerment program."
Rather than presenting a hazard to corporate authority, Dilbert provided Xerox with help in deflecting cynicism that everyone knows exists, while supplying a kind of targeted celebrity-endorsement for Xerox managers. Dilbert's make-believe office became a pedantic anti-model "the antithesis of empowerment," the Xerox handbook explains. "Dilbert's here to get your attention. So far, it seems to be working. He's here to remind us of the behaviors and attitudes we want to avoid, and change."
Yet Dilbert's imprimatur on Xerox inverts any shred of subversion that readers in cubicles might have imagined. Instead of being a weapon against mind-numbing corporate blather, Dilbert is a tool for propagating more of it.
Not content to draft Dilbert characters directly into its in-house propaganda army, Xerox also opted to sprinkle Scott Adams-style prose throughout the text. (Example: "Xerox's model of the Empowering Work Environment is a conceptual model. Because it's printed on paper, technically, you could fold it up and make a paper airplane out of it, but that wouldn't make it an airplane model. Besides, we'd prefer you didn't do that.") Every page or so, some effort at whimsical wit appears, as if to say a manager is just one of the guys.
Bottom line: Serving Xerox can be fun and meaningful. Seventeen pages into the handbook there's a drawing of Dogbert flat on his back, exclaiming: "Ahhh ... The Aimless Empowered!"
The Xerox-Dilbert liaison was hardly out of character for either party. In Tom Tomorrow's words, "it's just a minor artifact from a merchandising empire gone mad. But that's not an excuse. It's one thing to be selling everything from Dilbert Mouse Pads to Post-It Notes to any piece of crap with a flat surface large enough to hold a legible Dilbert logo. But there's something inherently dissonant in using Dilbert images to illustrate exactly the sort of corporate babble Scott Adams's entire career is predicated on deconstructing."
"What's next?" Tomorrow asks. "Zany Dilbert termination notices, so downsized employees can enjoy a heartfelt chuckle over the hopelessness of their plight as they're being shown the door?"
The flood of Dilbert products can be understood as a vaccine. A mild strain of irreverence--touted as full-blown rebellion--inoculates against the authentic malady of anti-corporate fervor.
Parallel to the fictional content of Dilbert is the real-life conduct of its creator. Like Michael Jordan endorsing Nike footwear and insisting that the workers making the shoes in sweatshops overseas are irrelevant to him, Scott Adams hasn't hesitated to align himself with immense corporations if they're willing to move large sums of money in his direction. Let's consider one of those firms--Intel, the world's biggest maker of computer chips.
While Dilbert seemed to ally itself with embattled workers, Intel's execs comprehended the shallowness of that alliance. For Intel, an arrangement with Adams was a compelling way to buff up its image.
As it happened, at the same time that Adams was endorsing Intel's Video Phone wares, the firm was blocking employees' on-the-job access to a web site put together by some dissatisfied Intel workers. The company programmed its workplace computers so that if employees tried to look at the web site, the effort would be fruitless--eliciting signals like "abort" or "fail."
Intel's management enforced the cyber-blockade without apology. After all, it abhorred the material on the website (wwwigc.apc.org/faceintel) maintained by a group of current and former employees called "FACE Intel." A company spokesperson told the Portland-based Willamette Week newspaper: "In our view it's defamatory. We have a right to control how our computer system is used, and we chose not to use it for this small group of people."
This, of course, is the kind of management arrogance that Adams might lampoon in Dilbert. But the contradictions go much deeper. As the blockaded web site spells out in grim detail, Intel is in the midst of making war on its work force with managers ordered to continue a downsizing process by implementing "termination quotas." The increased pressures on Intel employees have caused extreme and protracted stress for many. The FACE Intel group says it wants to inform the public "about how far Intel goes in the quest of higher profits and productivity, without regard to human needs or capabilities."
White posting profits of $5.2 billion in 1996, Intel persisted with its push to eliminate jobs. "Managers are forced to target the most vulnerable from those that are left," FACE Intel explains. "These competent, contributing individuals are unfortunately targeted for termination. Managers justify this corruption by attempting to build a case of inadequacy against the targeted employee. These cases are unfounded and unreasonable. Some of those targeted are employees who are too `expensive,' compared to the replacement employee, a new college graduate."
At age 53, former Intel engineer Ken Hamidi ruefully remembered how he sometimes put in workdays that lasted 18 or 20 hours. "They have you working 150 percent of capacity," he said. In the long run, many suffer: "A lot of people are seeing psychologists, having nervous breakdowns, heart attacks, suicides. It's the number one company in the world, but it's a miserable place to work." According to the sample survey done by FACE Intel, "over 90 percent of the employees targeted for termination are over the age of 40."
Perhaps it's no accident that Scott Adams displays special contempt for people who have been around for several decades. In The Dilbert Future, old people are targets of particular derision. Adams sees scant value in the elderly; as producers they're close to worthless and as consumers they're basically in the way, moving slowly and holding up progress in checkout lines. He writes that "the only thing worse than being surrounded by induhviduals is being surrounded by senior citizen induhviduals."
On May 22, 1996--a year before Dilbert became another marketing accessory for Intel Corp.--the company's chief operating officer, Craig Barrett, told the Intel stockholders meeting: "The half-life of an engineer ... is only a few years."
Dilbert humor is sublimely safe for Intel, and Xerox ($26 billion in assets), and the other conglomerates embracing it, precisely because the Dilbert boundaries are so reliable. The running gags stay inside the moat of the corporate castle. 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.
The contrast with the creator of Calvin and Hobbes is striking. Bill Watterson rebuffed all attempts to create spin-off products featuring the little boy Calvin and his come-alive stuffed tiger. In plush suites where multimillion dollar tie-ins are automatic, Watterson's stubborn sense of integrity was exceptional.
Zeal to squeeze every drop of commerce out of Dilbert is consistent with the temper of Adams's cartoons and books: The corporate contest is the only game worth playing, and the glorious option is for the few winners to run up the dollar score as high as they can. The many losers try to cope as best they can.
All this is in sync with the mass media scenery and hardly seems conspicuous. On the contrary, the ideology that enthralls Adams blends with the dominant messages from mass media every day--so ubiquitous that they're taken for granted as part of the natural terrain.
Institutional labyrinths keep promoting "a view of the world which controls perceptions of what is, and limits the possibilities of what might be," wrote political scientist Paul N. Goldstene. We continuously meet power "concentrated and screened from perception which it increasingly constructs"; we are moving to "a condition where the effects of power are pervasive, but where its identity is lost."
So Dilbert, like much other mass-marketed culture, adds to the despair that it evokes. The result is not so much laughter as sighs of recognition and further resignation. Dilbert is among a wide range of products acclaimed for their high jumps over low standards.
Like news media, mass-culture products routinely guide Americans away from awareness of how, and for what purposes, they're shaped by corporate forces so widespread as to be almost anonymous. We are guaranteed to have plenty of company in a disorienting--and numbing--process.
While language, art, dialogue, and debate are valuable tools for digging out of messy quandaries, words have been looted of meaning. After the thousands of times we've heard the word "freedom" used in political speeches and TV commercials, for instance, how readily can we invoke or feel its meaning? The Xerox-Dilbert employee handbook, by the way, promises that workers will gain "freedom" by following its cues.
A never-ending din of white noise equates the mouthing of a word with what it's supposed to represent. The image associated with a timeworn word commonly precedes, and preempts, thought. As Stuart Chase noted a half-century ago, "Identification of word with thing is well illustrated in the child's remark `Pigs are rightly named, since they are such dirty animals."' Words supplant meaning, with verbiage its surrogate and cliches its frequent enemy. 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."
All we ever have is daily life. When so much of it is taken up with doing things we don't particularly want to do, going through motions of being who we don't particularly want to be, our lives are slipping away. As one uneasy hectic day follows another, many workers yearn for a substantive remedy. Dilbert is a cynical placebo.
Praise for Adams reached a fever pitch with The Dilbert Principle's zooming sales in 1996. Newsweek proclaimed that "the contrast between Dilbert and real life is...almost nonexistent." Time asserted: "Every calamity has its bard, and downsizing's is Scott Adams." Business Week dubbed the top-selling book "part comic collection, part management-book parody, and all antiboss."
Dilbert may be "antiboss." But so is Blondie.
For decades, Dagwood's perennial enemy was Mr. Dithers, a boss with techniques of oppression ranging from the guilt trip and the blatant threat to out-and-out physical assault. But to read Blondie--or Dilbert--is hardly to partake of an anti-corporate polemic. Among their many functions, middle managers serve as flak-catchers in lieu of those with appreciably more power in the organization.
To vilify Mr. Dithers--or the fellow with the devilish pair of tufts on his head who afflicts Dilbert, Wally, and Alice--is to engage in a timeless shriek. Yes, Scott Adams's humor is more "sophisticated"--it's layered with countless references to maddening technobabble and fatuous management cant--but it remains in a pandering groove. Let's take Adams at his word: "Like any good business, I modified my product to make it more acceptable."
Dilbert has no major quarrel with the biggest bosses of all. While no doubt many Microsoft employees tack Dilbert strips to their bulletin boards, why would Bill Gates mind? Dilbert is no more likely to inspire an insurrection against his awesome power than the president's next State of the Union address.
In The Dilbert Future, Scott Adams writes with admiration, even reverence, about Gates. ("How smart is he really? Smart enough not to let you know how smart he is When a cartoon has Dogbert saying that he's writing an article to "explain why I'm smarter than the entire Microsoft Corporation," Dilbert bristles and retorts: "Actually, they're mostly geniuses. And many are millionaires." That's about as close as Dilbert ever gets to unabashed idealism.
"It's difficult to think of a company in the history of the world that's positioned to influence so many aspects of life as Microsoft is at the end of the 20th century," Silicon Valley investor Michael Moritz commented in late 1996. "In terms of a civilized world, you'd have to go back to the Roman Empire to find any organization that had as great a reach as Microsoft has today."
Dilbert's criticism of the Corporate Church is so diluted that it's now sprinkled like holy water as a Church ritual.
Implicit in many of the Dilbert comics, and in the writings of Scott Adams, is the assumption that efficiency should reign supreme. Efficiency Almighty. Bypassing this kingdom of goodness is idiotic--but more importantly, it is blasphemous.
To hear Adams spin his endless rant, the great sin of bureaucracies--and the "idiots" within them--is chronic inefficiency. Failure to come anywhere near the lofty ideal is frequent grist for the Dilbert mill. The credo of a worthy office worker--I am efficient, therefore I am--cannot be stated with honesty by anyone in Dilbertland.
It may seem surprising or counterintuitive, but in the corporate jihad of the mid-t990s, Dilbert became a stealth weapon against workers. After all, bosses cracking whips commonly have about as much credibility as a slave master threatening galley slaves. But a clever satire of inefficiency can go where no whip-cracking is able to penetrate.
Top-echelon corporate managers have good reason to smile on a popular cartoon that hammers away at some of their favorite messages aimed at workers: Inefficiency is really idiotic. Don't you yearn for efficiency? Isn't the lack of it the root of our problems here?
A lot of what's in mass media doesn't seem to have anything to do with our daily routines. But Dilbert affirms some firsthand experiences. The comic strip--fanciful yet weirdly realistic--seems to be "on our side" against the petty gauntlets of nonsense in the workplace.
Most people have very little control over their job. Employees are afraid to be open about perceptions that might not sit well with supervisors. At work we're supposed to strive to be smart--but not too smart. In fact, taking a mental dive often seems wise. A motto might be: Dummy up for safety.
Dilbert satirizes and reinforces the dumbness of the workplace. The comic says that middle-management emperors have no clothes--but the Dilbert material is part of the pop-culture fabric shielding the empire from scrutiny.
Many managers are happy to get on a Dilbert bandwagon that isn't going much of anywhere. Dilbert tells a daily cautionary tale that most bosses can acknowledge some truth in: Many workplaces are stifling. Alienated employees are less happy and, in the long run, less productive. Etc. And bottlenecked communication impedes feedback for creative solutions.
While workers are often frustrated and angry, it's hazardous to express such emotions directly. And yet the frustration and anger are clear realities. As the management of Xerox came to see, Dilbert can help to define very real problems in narrow terms.
Technical expertise is on a pedestal--great precision is sought in dealing with computers, for instance--but fuzziness customarily prevails with reference to power. Whatever is understood privately, little is discussed openly about dynamics of leverage and manipulation. Dilbert cuts only at the margins, dissecting management's techniques