Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cartoonists have crystal balls

Title: The Dilbert Future
Author: Scott Adams
Bookmark: grocery list written on the back of a boarding pass. yay, recycling!

Scott Adams, according to one of his websites, has been a "cow herder, sap gatherer, gardener, snow shoveler, dish washer, bus boy, hotel desk clerk, security guard, bank teller, computer programmer, budget manager, financial analyst, loan officer, product manager, project manager, lab technical support, cartoonist, author, public speaker, restaurateur," CEO of Scott Adams Foods, and is apparently a budding futurist. (This is one of those professions, like "philosophy major," that always struck me as a particularly large steaming pile) The great thing about reading a futurist book by Scott Adams is that he's a wickedly funny man. Damn near every page had me laughing--maybe a little too loudly--in the thin-walled warren I call an apartment. The great thing about reading a futurist book eleven years after it was published is an extra dose of humor--laughing at all the things he got very, very wrong, and laughing a little uneasily at the things he got very, very right. There's also a bit of irony when he bemoans that although the petroleum industry can produce a fuel that has everything our car needs, including detergents (for those of us too lazy to dismantle and scrub out the engine after every trip), the food industry still requires us to search the entire grocery for all the necessary components of a meal, with little to no guidance as to what that meal should include. He proposes that someone should invent something easily portable--"like a burrito"--that would supply all of our nutritional needs for a day. He then suggests that if nobody else will, he might give it a try. His attempt was on the shelves two years after this book was published. Coincidence? I think not.

Believe it or not, this wasn't his only attempt at self-promotion. There are numerous references to his Dilbert books and the Dilbert Zone website, and none-too-subtle suggestion that readers of Dilbert books are far more discerning, educated, and attractive than the average Induhvidual, but these are done with humor and levity, and do nothing to detract from the rest of the book. Adams takes a very cynical view of human nature, and of the business world, and for someone like me, that cynicism is like a warm, comforting blanket loudly emblazoned with the words "TOLD YOU SO, BITCHES." He posits that people are motivated by three forces: stupidity, selfishness, and horniness, and catering to those caprices can make you wildly successful in business. There's a great chapter (probably the most famous in the book) explaining why life will not be like Star Trek. (Friends would use medical technology to seal your butt closed, you'd use a transporter to steal everything you ever wanted and stay in a pornographic holodeck until you died of exhaustion and dehydration) Business trends in the past and present are used to illustrate how he is right, and lay the dismal groundwork for a future where one guy does all the work, and everyone except Marilyn vos Savant is in jail. (oh, and Switzerland is a race of ultra-intelligent superbeings, but that's already happened)

It was the last chapter that killed it for me.

A few years ago, I found a free online copy of a Scott Adams book described as "a thought experiment." I made it to maybe chapter three. Maybe. Part of this was my inability to read it anywhere but the family computer in the living room (I refused to download it onto my laptop until I had decided whether I liked it. In the living room, I could read the PDF online without ever really downloading it, and leave it there without shutting down), but mostly it was because I thought it was another of those previously mentioned large steaming piles. Some of the ideas were vaguely interesting (God self-destructed because he wanted to see what it was like; this was the Big Bang), but the rest of it was offensive to my basic scientific sensibilities (remember the Weird Al song "Everything You Know is Wrong"? Like that, but not as catchy.) and it centered on a deliveryman talking to The Man Who Knows Everything (really, everything) when he shows up at the wrong address. I'm ok with the conversation taking place between those two particular people, but the know-it-all spoke only in riddles, and the book itself was so damned hard to read that it quickly passed the point of being worth it to me.

The last chapter of The Dilbert Future is like a preamble to God's Debris. It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it almost feels like he just slipped it in there as a way to get this message to the masses because he was afraid nobody would bother to pick it up otherwise. Almost like the previously mentioned burrito, it feels as though it was stuck in this book as a marketing piece for his later project. I read all of The Dilbert Future, but this last chapter felt like the kind of crap my philosophy major cousin (currently vying for the championship belt in asininity) would come up with while performing trials of especially potent herbage. It makes me wonder what's in those burritos.

Don't get me wrong; the rest of the book is great. A lot of it is wrong, but that only adds to the humor, because a lot of it right, too, and almost all of it includes keen and very funny insights into the natures of humanity and business. Plus, his points are illustrated with dozens of Dilbert strips.

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posted by reyn at 9:35 AM


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