Dilbert says…let’s automate everything!

Dilbert portraitI absolutely love ‘Dilbert’ – it seems to me that Scott Adams, the cartoonist, has seen into our very souls when it comes to our working lives.

You may also love the Dilbert cartoons but what you might not know is that Scott wrote a couple of (let’s call them) ‘essays’ as the introduction to his first Dilbert book1…I read them many years ago and they made me cry with laughter.

I’ve not thought about these for a long time, but they popped into my head recently when I was considering where the world is heading in respect of invention, and specifically automation.

I’d like to reproduce the core parts of one of his comedy essays here, for use in this post (I hope Scott doesn’t mind… this is, after all, a plug for his books 🙂 ). Here goes:

“Theory of Evolution (Summary)

First, there were some amoebas. Deviant amoebas adapted better to the environment, thus becoming monkeys. Then came Total Quality Management. I’m leaving some of the details out…

Anyway, it took many years to get to this lofty level of evolution. That leisurely pace of change was okay because there wasn’t much to do except sit around and hope you didn’t get eaten by wild pigs. Then somebody fell on a sharp stick and the spear was invented. That’s when the trouble started…

I wasn’t there, but I’m willing to bet that some people said the spear would never replace fingernails as the fighting tool of choice…’diversity’ was not celebrated back then, and I expect the ‘Say No to Spear’ people got the ‘point’ if you catch my drift.

The good thing about the spear is that almost everybody could understand it. It had basically one feature: the pointy end. Our brains were fully equipped for this level of complexity. And not just the brains of the intelligentsia either – the common man could find his way around a spear too. Life was good…almost nobody complained about how confusing the spears were….

Suddenly (in evolutionary terms) some deviant went and built the printing press. It was a slippery slope after that. Two blinks later and we’re switching batteries in our laptop computers while streaking through the sky in shiny metal objects in which soft drinks and peanuts are served.

I blame sex and paper for most of our current problems. Here’s my logic:

Only one person in a million is smart enough to invent a printing press. So when society consisted of only a few hundred apelike people living in caves, the odds of one of them being a genius were fairly low. But people kept having sex, and with every moron added to the population, the odds of a deviant smarty-pants slipping through the genetic net got higher and higher, When you’ve got several million people running around having sex all willy-nilly the odds are fairly good that some pregnant ape-mom is going to squat in a field someday and pinch out a printing-press-making deviant.

Once we had printing presses, we were pretty much doomed. Because then, every time a new smart deviant came up with a good idea, it would get written down and shared. Every good idea could be built upon. Civilisation exploded. Technology was born. The complexity of life increased geometrically. Everything got bigger and better. Except our brains.

All the technologies that surround us, all the management theories, all the economic models that predict and guide our behaviours, the science that helps us live to eighty – it’s all created by a tiny percentage of deviant smart people. The rest of us are treading water as fast as we can. The world is too complex for us. Evolution didn’t keep up.

Thanks to the printing press, the deviant smart people managed to capture their genius and communicate it without having to pass it on genetically. Evolution was short circuited. We got knowledge and technology before we got intelligence.

We’re a planet of nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilisation that was designed by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants.”

Oh, there’s so much in there to work with! But, first…

What about you and me?

…I believe that I am reasonably intelligent (don’t we all!) but I’m absolutely certain that I’m not one of the “deviant smarty-pants”. I use a fair bit of technology in my daily life but don’t really know how it works. Sure, I can read Wikipedia like the next ape and spout out that it’s all about 0’s and 1’s…but that doesn’t mean that I really ‘get it’.

Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but the vast majority of you reading this aren’t likely to be geniuses either…and if you are, then please consider our predicament and look after us 🙂

…and so, to automation:

With reference to Scott Adam’s evolution theory, I often feel like we have become a bunch of idiots within our world, and each fresh automation added to our environment likely makes this more so.

There appears to be a large push for the likes of robotics and artificial intelligence at the moment, with lots of super positive articles being written by ‘interested parties’.

I reckon that we would be wise to ponder the automation thing and to have a healthy regard to what it implies. This isn’t to be a luddite2 and try to hold back the tide of change. It is suggesting that we fully think through what it means, across a broad context, and not be easily persuaded by some futuristic promise of bliss (which we should constantly reflect is mainly coming from those selling it).

(By way of context: this post was triggered by a recent article in respect of a fatal accident involving Tesla’s semi-autonomous car. and a discussion with work colleagues)

The calculator as one of the simplest of examples:

Many years ago I trained to be a Maths teacher, along with a good mate called Dave.

We used to have a laugh whenever we asked one of our students how they had arrived at a particular answer and they would simply reply that “I worked it out with my calculator Sir”.

We did the usual “back in my day” lament about kids not knowing how to do simple arithmetic on a piece of paper and becoming reliant on a calculator instead.

Now, you might respond with “yeah, but why do they need to learn all that stuff if they’ve got a calculator!”…and, mainly, I’d see your point.

The problem comes when they accidentally miss-key into their wonder machine, get a result and blindly rely on it.

If you don’t understand the basics of what’s going on, then you can’t be expected to spot an error (often in our inputs or usage). How could you?

To the world of work:

To take the calculator example, and turn it into a generalisation: You can’t truly cope with a defect (or failure demand), let alone improve the system that created it, if you don’t understand what’s actually going on.

If we are going to automate things, then I’d suggest a few automation design principles should be used…such as:

  • it must be very obvious to the people utilising the automation as to what is actually happening (i.e. this is not hidden or over-complicated);
  • it must be possible, and easy, to take back control and experience the task for ourselves; and
  • taking back control (i.e. ‘switching to manual’) is encouraged…and even required on a regular basis.

This may add initially to any automation endeavour, but should pay itself back handsomely when in operation, by our understanding of (and retention of control over) what is actually taking place.

(I note Toyota’s thinking in respect of automation: i.e. automation may prove useful, but it isn’t the objective and could be a hindrance.)

Humanity, and customers:

Going back to that ape thing: Given that we are basically a bunch of “ninnies”, we should design accordingly.

My criticism of many (most?) automation efforts is that they are aimed at efficiency.

Our true purpose should be effectiveness, and that requires us to fully appreciate our customers, and their* (wildly varying) ape-like humanity.

(* again, I don’t exclude myself from this)

Every attempt at efficiency, say through pushing the likes of contact centre IVRs, self-service portals and ‘chat-bots’3 onto customers, is hugely wasteful and counter-productive if they aren’t effective (which means valuable for the customer, for their needs)

We should be pulling innovative ideas on the basis of clear value for our customers.

So, I suggest that the first automation design principle should be that the customer (a human being) would want it!

 …and, as a bonus for reading this far:

I share the following thought-provoking cartoon4 :

auto cars


1. Scott Adam’s book is called ‘The Dilbert Principle’ and was first published in 1996.

2. Being a Luddite: A clarification for all you early adopter ‘technologists’ out there. This post isn’t an attempt at denial. It is (hopefully) to provide some healthy self-reflection when putting forward the next hugely optimistic article on what’s coming to take over our worlds :);

3. Chat bots: I found this recent BBC article somewhat illuminating, particularly IKEA and ‘Anna’. “In the beginning, we tried to impersonate a person, and we found that there was no reason to do that”. This speaks volumes to me. By causing a confusion to the human as to ‘what’ they are interacting with, we create an unnecessary and yet fundamental problem.

4. Credit: This cartoon was found by a colleague. Thanks 🙂



4 thoughts on “Dilbert says…let’s automate everything!

  1. Well squire, what can I say other than another well constructed and stimulating post for another of us ninnies😉
    Given your observations above I have some trepidation with the idea of driverless trucks, especially on NZ roads.

    On another tangent, the difference between gold and nothing came down to purely the environment at the time, the rider is only as good as the horse is feeling.

    Oh and yes Toyota, rugby, and Japan now and in 2019.

    I await your next lightbulb moment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I concur with Ross,

    For me this was timely, as I have had my head buried in Jaques, Kegan, Graves and Laloux. These ‘deviants’ seem to be explaining how us ‘ninnies’ fit together and perhaps the next chapter of the Theory of Evolution according to Dilbert.

    Thank you for smile.

    Liked by 1 person

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