The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

What do Calvin & Hobbes and Dilbert strips share in common with the “Gervais Principle”?

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Today’s post is a summarisation of a conversation that I’ve been having for a very long time (even more so lately). I felt it would be good to collect the thoughts into one post for easy reference. But first some history:

Venkatesh Rao, who blogs at ribbon farm achieved notoriety(*) of sorts in 2009 with his post The Gervais Principle (G-P).

(*) The Gervais Principle got slashdotted(!), and the resulting traffic crashed his server.

The Gervais Principle, in a nutshell.

The Gervais Principle a social commentary on hierarchical (organisational) models told using two unconnected plot devices. Although the title is a nod to the creator of the (somewhat notorious) sitcom, The Office, there are two plot devices at play in telling this story. So, you’ve been introduced to the first plot device above. The second plot device is this very telling cartoon below by Hugh McLeod.


The Gervais principle divides people into these three categories shown above, and goes on to try and explain what’s going on in institutions/organisations/schools or basically, any hierarchical management model. Caveat emptor: Please don’t get too value-attached to the labels – once again I repeat, they are “plot devices” from a cartoon on that link!

  • Losers: People who see the underlying game but don’t play.
  • Clueless: People who don’t see the underlying game and are played.
  • Sociopaths: People who see the underlying game and play (other people).

There are two categories that are not dealt in the Gervais Principle.

  1. A 4th category of people who don’t see the game and aren’t played. One way of tagging them would be “benefit-scroungers”?
  2. There’s also another category who choose to become “Free Agents”.

I would like to state that I greatly appreciated Venkat’s write-up on “Gervais principle”, mainly because I now have a convenient shorthand for that travesty that we know otherwise today as “modern workplace” :-D. But, in a recent post, Venkatesh wrote:

The Gervais Principle series was initially inspired by the question, “how is Office funny different from Dilbert funny?”

Which neatly brings me to the point of this post. 🙂 Because I’m sorry to say this. No, it is not.. In case you missed that one, no, it is NOT different to each other at all. 😐 Let me draw from my own experience as to why not (Warning: Empiric data presented below. If your “funniness” mileage varies, please leave your links in the comments ;-)).

Trying to find the similarities between Dilbert and G-P

Whenever discussions over the “Gervais principle (G-P)” gets stuck due to the prevarications over “sociopath/clueless…”(*), I always steer the topic back to the original discussions (as if by magic), by pointing out the following thing:
(*) Read as: ALL the time 😉

“Look”, I tell people who’re now in a complete twist over the words, “It’s a plot device, very much like using “Alice/Bob/Carol in cryptography discussions”. “For example, the author could have simply used a bunch of Dilbert cartoons, and instead of using those terms, used some Dilbert characters to tell the same story…..”

  1. Instead of “Clueless”, we can easily say “Catbert” or that famous “Pointy-Haired-Boss” or even “Ratbert”.
  2. Instead of “Sociopath”, we can easily tell the same roles and story via “Dogbert” or even “Alice” (she’s sort of a “true” sociopath as well 😉 )
  3. Instead of “Loser”, (this one’s easy….) there’s Wally, there’s Asok and of course there’s Dilbert himself!

By now, everyone has not only latched on to “G-P” but are nodding enthusiastically as well! :-|. Dear God in Heaven!

Added Bonus: Calvin and Hobbes also handles this

Another unifying theme is that both Dilbert and the Office are predominantly set in and around the workplace. By refreshing contrast, the canvas on which Bill Watterson paints Calvin and Hobbes is almost Kaleidoscopic. I could go on and on and on and on Bill Watterson, on Bill Watterson ;-)
about Bill and the strip, but since I don’t want you all to feel like Calvin up there, I’ll cut to the chase. On several other occasions, I’ve totally ignored Dilbert and used Calvin & Hobbes strips to make the exact points once again…..

“So”, I say again, wading into the melee that has erupted on the “clueless vs. loser” order; “if those terms confuse/offends you, how about looking at Calvin-and-Hobbes, instead”? I mean,

  • Instead of “Clueless”, I could simply use “Suzie Derkins” or even “Miss.Wormwood”?
  • Instead of “Loser”, I could simply use “Hobbes” or even “Calvin’s father”?
  • Instead of “Sociopath”, I could simply point out to either “Calvin”(^) himself, or “Calvin’s mother”?

(^) Calvin has enormous potential to become one, but only if he is able to suppress his non-conformist streak. That’s my theory anyway…..

Usually, I drive the point home straight away by literally opening random strips from both those books and pointing to the “relationship dynamics” written by Venkat in the G-P series (sociopath/clueless/loser behaviour patterns, baby-talk, posture-talk….etc.) on the strips. And in BOTH cases as if miraculously, from a melee, we have absolute silence from all of them, as the “idea” finally sinks in. It generally pains me to see their pain as the bitter truth of all of the daily drudgery sinks home with those terms and reality, but hey, that’s the truth, No?

There’s perhaps one difference if it may count as a difference. Venkat’s analysis is a brutal one when compared with the other two plot devices discussed here. In fact, they would count to me as too nice by comparison. In other words, “Wally” might make you sympathise/self-pity with yourself, but “loser” does shake you a bit….. “Ratbert” is funny, so is “Suzie”, but “clueless” sucks…..

Sooooo, with that I come back to my original conclusion. Venkat had what many would call an “epiphany”, and used a different “plot device” than the others (Watterson, Adams) had used before him to tell us all the (very same) “story so far”. It is important for us all to remind ourselves that human beings’ last evolutionary “big leap” was in terms of “walking straight”(#). 😉 Nothing else has changed since. We’ve only added new layers, removed old layers, ad nauseaum. Therefore, Venkat shouldn’t be harbouring any delusions of grandeur, please. (I mean no offence, honestly. :-|) Once again, I would like to state that I greatly appreciated this write-up on “Gervais principle”, mainly because I now have a convenient shorthand for the pitfalls in hierarchical models.

(#) We might all be well advanced technologically, but we are quite primitive culturally (which is the level where people-dynamics operate). Here’s a quote from someone more eminent than I am:

Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is so characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of lower animals — with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment.

— Influence, Epilogue pp. 208-209 (emphasis mine)
by Dr. Robert Cialdini Professor in Psychology, ASU.

Finally, to balance the topic somewhat, here’s a blog post from monevator that provided me with some food for thought. I provide a small sampler.

It’s my contention though that work was mostly always rubbish for the educated classes, and that it’s only nostalgia that causes people to believe otherwise.


Written by Surio

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