For the love of Dilbert

There is good news for us Dilbert fans! The latest compilation of Dilbert comic strips, Positive Attitude is out. In my family, we depend on our Dilbert compilations. We keep a stack of Dilbert books in our bathroom for our leisure reading. The only problem is we have virtually every comic strip its creator Scott Adams has ever written. We can quote from them like some people can quote Shakespeare. So Positive Attitude was very welcome, although it too has been quickly consumed and memorized.

Dilbert is the comic strip for us white collar Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers. The artwork may leave a little something to be desired, but the cast of strange characters feels very familiar. They are parodies of the sorts of denizens that we who inhabit cubicle-land meet on a daily basis. I identify with all the characters, which by itself is rather scary.

As a software engineer, I identify the most with Dilbert himself. Fortunately, my success rate with women is somewhat better than his is. Although no one would mistake me for Cary Grant, I can confidently say I am much more attractive than Dilbert. Nonetheless, I know his geeky world like the back of my hand. Until 2004 when I got a management job, I spent my white-collar career in a cubicle. For many of those years, I too was an impotent project manager and technical leader. Like Dilbert, I had the responsibility, but not really the authority, to accomplish my many tasks. Puppet masters far up my chain of command made regular ill informed and counterproductive pointy haired boss type decisions. A few, like this one, I have documented. Like Dilbert, I am socially awkward. I feel much more comfortable in front of a computer than at a party. I still do not understand why brutal honesty should be so frightening. Moreover, like Dilbert I know that even if I were not married, a real babe would no more fall in love with me than with Genghis Khan.

I also identify with the Pointy Haired Boss, not only because I have worked for more than a few of them but also because I am now one myself. I hope I do a better job of managing than the Pointy Haired Boss. However, since I have a position of power, I suspect my underlings must be whispering at least a few uncomplimentary things about me behind my back. I can guess what some of them are. Like the PHB, I must suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, for I seem to have a very limited attention span. I cannot see the trees in the forest most of the time. I am a big picture type, generally not interested in the messy details of actually accomplishing major goals. I also like to please my bosses, so I have a tendency to over-commit my resources. I hope I am not as susceptible to flattery or as terrified of the CEO as the Pointy Haired Boss, but I am hardly in a position to assess myself. So I may be a PHB too.

I love Alice because she when her hormones take over she can do or say things about which the rest of us can only dream. When her hormones are not raging, I admire her for her professionalism and fanatical devotion to her work. It is hard to know how she manages given her many fruitless projects. Even after all these years, every time Alice’s uncontrollable fists of death comes out, I laugh hysterically.

I also love Wally, the ultimate slacker. He should be a civil servant like me. I hasten to add that civil servant slackers are actually quite rare, but not so rare that they cannot be found. At least in the corporate world, the Wallys of the world tend to quickly be discovered and discarded. Thankfully, I now work at a highly functional agency. I can honestly say that no one I work with regularly is a Wally type. Yet I have known a number of Wallys in the other agencies I worked at during my 25 years in the civil service. With their tenure, they skate by on minimally satisfactory performance ratings. I even knew one coworker from my days in the Pentagon who, like Wally, could not be bothered to bathe. I will confess that even though I had a reputation as a hard worker, there were times, particularly when my management became progressively dysfunctional, when I slacked off like Wally. What I love most about Wally is how he revels in his slacking. Slacking is both his religion and his reason for being. He has refined the ability to skate through life to a fine art. Nothing motivates him. He seems to live on caffeine and popcorn.

I love the intern Asok too for his wide-eyed naivety. He does not quite understand cynicism and still operates under the illusion that his lowly efforts matter. He takes delight in the stupidest things, like being a “product process owner”. He is obviously so smart that he could run the company all by himself. The irony of course is that he is isolated into the most meaningless position imaginable.

Carol, the pointy haired boss’s secretary, is a very familiar character too. She should be married to Wally. Vain and vindictive, she is evil but is forced to exert her evil in small but nefarious ways. Without Carol’s continuous obfuscation, Dilbertland might occasionally work. She acts as the block that ensures total dysfunction.

In addition, what is not to love about Catbert? He reminds me of our late lamented evil cat Squeaky, but he is much more selfish and evil than Squeaky was. The more misery that he can dish out as Director of Human Resources the happier he is. He loves wandering around the cubicles and finding sadistic ways to make the employees apprehensive.

Rather than being immoral, Dogbert is simply amoral. He is the ultimate con artist. He has a sixth sense on how to exploit people and he does it with ruthless efficiency and genuine joy. Like Catbert, he can be cruel, but cruelty is not his primary motivation. Rather he thrives on exploitation.

Without a doubt, my favorite character is Ratbert. He never fails to crack me up. I love his tendency toward masochism and his total gullibility. He is gloriously unaware that his potential is so minuscule. Consequently, he is unafraid to step into assignments way over his abilities. He thrives on being immature and easily distracted. He reminds me a lot of George W. Bush.

Even the ancillary characters are fun. Tina the Tech Writer’s anxiety complex is always close to the surface and a source of frequent laughs. Anyone ever notice Ted? Ted has no personality, but he shows up a lot. It is always Ted who is invariably about to be fired, or was downsized, or will be played the fool. Phil, the ruler of Heck is a sardonic, low class and dispirited manifestation of the devil, sort of a Catbert-lite. Bob the Dinosaur plays a general buffoon.

The result is a brilliant comic strip where the cubicle denizens are always oppressed, incompetence is rewarded and ruthless exploitation is glorified. In Dilbertland, life is always futile. It is a consistent nihilistic vision of office life yet it is funny at the same time. The strip is nearing twenty years old. While it probably reached its peak in the mid to late 1990s, it remains quite fresh. With so many real life experiences coming in from his readers, Scott Adams should have no trouble finding sources of inspiration in the years ahead.

Scott may well be the cynical, amoral man he projects into his characters. I just hope he does not decide to retire prematurely. With the success of Dilbert, he must have made his fortune many times over. We cubicle workers need Dilbert. It is as vital to us as our daily jolt of Starbucks coffee. Dilbert gives us a means to laugh at our relatively tame office chaos. We are better with Dilbert in our life. For if the strip goes away we will find ourselves stuck forever in Heck. Yet with Dilbert we can somehow cope.

Keep them coming, Scott.

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