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[whitespace] Corpcult

Linus is a manager and Dilbert is dead

By Annalee Newitz

The problem with high-tech work at the turn of the millennium is that everyone is still trapped in the Dilbert paradigm. As far as most people are concerned, Silicon Valley is a cartoon universe populated by white men wearing strangely erect ties who work for computer-illiterate managers in buildings awash with cubicles. Perhaps the remaindered Dilbert management textbooks and horrifically awful TV show will prove once and for all that if Scott Adams had any dignity, he would have pulled a Gary Larson and retired.

Sure, there are some large companies who might be vaguely Dilbert-esque, but most corporate cultures have moved on. In fact, nobody even has corporate culture anymore, because things in the valley change too rapidly for that.

Now we have what I call "corpcult," a corporate lifestyle that can be transformed with one swift restructuring, or a quickie takeover that brings a tidal wave of suits into an office of pothead Java freaks who like to hang out with their dogs. Corpcult is also an office microculture. Ask yourself how Intel's campus can be so different from 3DO--both physically and socially. A company creates its own unlikely, unrealistic and bizarre corpcult civilization within a single building (or even a single suite).

The Dilbert scenario is frozen in 1990, back when most corporations still projected conformity-is-goodness--pre-World Wide Web, before the hegemony of multimedia startups, network hardware and psychotically rich VC magnates. Dilbert also lives in a time before managers and workers became interchangeable. In 1999, you almost can't tell the difference between them anymore, which means that the line between smart and stupid can become hopelessly blurred.

A gratuitously personal case-in-point: my friends and I just moved into a San Francisco group house, and we're interviewing for a fifth geek roommate. We posted an ad on Craig's List, so lots of netniks have contacted us. One day yet another coder clone darkens our door, looking to move in, and we start grilling him: where does he work, what does he do, what does he think of DSL and a house LAN with a Linux server? He starts with the first question.

"I kind of oversee day-to-day operations in a design shop," he hedges.

"Are you a manager?" asks Ed, a pseudo-manager at CNET.

"Well, uh, I was hired as a design monkey, so that's how they see me," says the clone, craftily merging the animal kingdom with his job description.

"Do you manage people?" presses Ed.


"Then that would make you a manager," I respond helpfully.

Clone Boy puddles his Gap sweatshirt, shrugs and offers the quintessential turn-of-the-millennium response.


The question is, does Clone Boy genuinely not understand that he's a manager? Of course not. He doesn't want to admit to being a manager because he's suffering from the leftover effects of the Dilbert paradigm--he's irrationally afraid that we'll think he's stupid just because he's a manager. But the fact is that I thought he was stupid for reasons that had nothing to do with his management position. ("Uh, I've seen that but, uh, never lived with it," he had stammered when I mentioned that homosexual behavior would occur in our geek house.) In short, I understood his job description didn't necessarily mean anything about his level of enlightenment.

Corpcult has inaugurated an era in which the concepts smart and stupid can't be used anymore. When products are called smart-this and smart-that (buy our new smart dishwasher!), it's clear that the idea of smartness has lost its ability to signify anything. And stupidity has become a matter of opinion.

Indeed, rule number one of corpcult is that there are no longer any strict definitions (otherwise it would be harder to change instantaneously), so everything always means something else. As a great philosopher once said, "All that is solid melts into air." Apps become devices; devices spawn platforms; cubicles become "creative office installations"; start-ups huff glue and have an IPO; marketers become coders, become managers, then become coders at another company. Smart people are everywhere--even in the boardroom. Hell, Linus Torvalds himself is a manager.

In a corpcult space, reading about the static, smart/stupid binary world of Dilbert is plain old corporate nostalgia. It's like reminiscing about olden times during a break with the Atari emulator. Then it's back to the full polygon engine to do 3D rendering with a texture map.

To conclude, dear readers, Dilbert is ready for the die.die.die suffix in the Usenet hierarchy.

Corpcult is morphing out of Dilbert's grave. But what is corpcult? Whatever.

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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