The Dilbert myth

"Been doing any real work lately?" asks the Lizard of Fun, surfing its favorite cartoon Web sites. "I mean, real work, not that TV watching and newspaper scanning you call research."

"Sure," I say, defensively. "I’ve been interviewing interesting and important people. Media critics. They’re the ones who actually think about the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watch."

"Uh-huh. Sounds rough. I’ll bet you don’t work half as hard as these poor office drones do." The Lizard points at the Dilbert Web site, giggling at Dilbert’s latest annoying-co-worker-induced rage. "Man, that Scott Adams really knows corporate America."

I almost drop my triple-espresso macchiato. I can’t believe the Lizard, of all fun-loving things, has bought in. "Not another victim of the Dilbert myth! Tell me you see through the corporate lies!"

"Hey, don’t dog Dilbert," scolds the Lizard, pointing to its Dilbert coffee mug. "He’s the last real rebellion available to lowly cubicle hacks. He’s the anticorporate hero!"

The Lizard whips out a Dilbert tie, and wraps it around its head like a bandanna. "See, I don’t need to wear my tie around my neck. I’m a corporate rebel. No boss can stifle my inner spirit!"

Ah. Perhaps the Lizard is one of those disgruntled souls who’s been e-mailing hate messages to Norman Solomon. ("Moi?" says the Lizard. "On company time?")

Dissing dysfunction

Solomon, not so coincidentally, is one of the media critics I’ve been talking to. He’s a cool San Francisco-based writer who got up the nose of Dilbert creator Scott Adams a few years ago with a book titled, innocently enough, The Trouble With Dilbert.

"Hey, I read about him in the latest Dilbert book," says the Lizard. "There was something about ‘The Trouble With Norman’ in The Joy of Work."

True. Adams got so annoyed with Solomon’s critical look at the whole Dilbert thang that he spent eight pages ranting about how Solomon was wrong, wrong and even more wrong. He wouldn’t go on television to debate with Solomon, and even put Solomon in his cartoon.

"My 1.5 square inches of fame," Solomon notes.

The caricature didn’t bother Solomon as much as the Dilbert cartoon bothers him in general. As he says, it "challenges corporate dysfunction, but not corporate function."

As such, Dilbert gives office workers a prepackaged, sanitized defiance: It’s funny, but it doesn’t make them see the sick humor inherent in service to a corporate bottom line. Resistance without rebellion, irony without mutiny.

"Hey, corporate function is to make money," shrugs the Lizard. "Dilbert’s function is to make fun of corporate function. It’s so real!"

And yes, it does reflect – sometimes uncannily – the day-by-day grind of office culture everywhere.

But while Dilbert, the cartoon drone, shares experiences with real-life cubicle workers, Solomon argues that Dilbert himself doesn’t question key corporate values. He’s all for efficiency, all for productivity. Only his stupid bosses and insane co-workers interfere with his goals.

"But that’s what makes it funny," chuckles the Lizard. "Catbert, the evil human resources director – that kills me!"

"We need to get out of the habit of using the cynical quip as if that solves problems," Solomon continues. "It’s no secret that many people feel angry and alienated about their workplace experience."

But alienated as they may feel, workers shouldn’t fall into the Dilbert trap by trashing the people they work with. Instead, Solomon suggests, we should see the daily annoyances of office culture as symptoms of the way corporations work.

Built-in pomposity

"There’s a need for us to see humor in downsizing," says Solomon. "But not in a defeatist or corrosive way ... there’s a lot of pomposity and presumption and just fallacy built into the whole corporate culture."

"Too much analysis," says the Lizard, getting antsy, so I switch on UPN ("From cartoons to comedies" – the network of wide-ranging, diverse points of view) to watch the prime-time version of "Dilbert."

The episode, from what I can catch between bouts of boredom, is about what happens when lowly drones Dilbert and Wally get to be majority shareholders in their own company. Flex time for all!

"Hey, that’s not rebellion," says the Lizard. "Flex time just means you have to work weekends."

"Exactly," I nod, trying to pay attention to the show. I’m beginning to see why Solomon watched the premiere episode with a sigh. It’s really not very funny. And not very rebellious, either. But it’ll probably make money for UPN.

"Scott Adams," notes Solomon, "is touted as a management guru." Apparently, the Dilbert books are as popular with managers as they are with workers, and Dilbert’s potato head has graced many corporate handbooks.

"What better way to further the goals of corporations than to put them in the guise of being critical of corporations?" asks Solomon. "It’s the counterfeiting of dissent."

"Whoa, big words," says the Lizard. "Does he mean that Dilbert is a fake?"

"Kind of. He means that Dilbert is a sort of corporate deflector shield that keeps people from seeing the real issues. Remember, Scott Adams himself has an MBA."

"Dilbert is a corporate flunky?" asks the Lizard, whipping its Dilbert tie from its forehead.

I shrug. "Seems so."

"Man," says the Lizard. "That Norm Solomon. He really knows corporate America."

"OK," I sigh. "Does that mean I can turn off the TV now?"

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