Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Web begs you to take time to waste time

July 28, 2012

I write extensively about using technology to boost productivity, which in my mind is the primary purpose of the stuff. Otherwise, you could save the money and use it to buy new carpeting for the office.

I have to confess that I sometimes use technology in a way that is the exact opposite of productivity. I waste good daylight hours using it for short bursts of enjoyment. But what’s a day without some surreptitious playtime?

“Webcomics” are some of my favorite time wasters. They tend to be a little less genteel than the usual newspaper fare, so peruse them at your own peril. That said, let’s examine some online commentary about office and techie life.

The undisputed flagship of office-centered strips is Dilbert (www.dilbert.com). Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, is now in the same league as Peanuts’ Charles M. Schulz or Garfield’s Jim Davis.

The Dilbert site features a blog that Adams writes. Dilbert and the blog can both be wickedly funny, but I can take them only in small doses. Adams’ flinty cynicism takes its toll on my attitude. His blog is rarely about office matters anymore, but if you want unvarnished and often funny blowtorch writing, Adams is your guy.

Dilbert is a rare injection of sophisticated harshness into the usually mushy humor of the newspaper funny pages, but it’s by no means unusual on the Web, which features many acerbic strips. Webcomics are often meant for adults, and educated adults at that. Techie humor abounds on the Web. XKCD.com is perhaps the most famous of them. It’s written by a physicist, and it shows in spades. If you need a test for true geek-ness, see if the test subject laughs at XKCD. If the test subject is still in graduate school, hit him or her with Piled Higher and Deeper (phdcomics.com), a webcomic about life in a doctorate program.

UserFriendly (userfriendly.org) is both a techie strip and a business one. It chronicles the lives of employees at Internet service provider Columbia Internet. To give you an idea of the technology in-jokes it contains, the office’s mangy little cat is known as “5.” Believe it or not, that’s a joke.

Some of the UserFriendly cast aren’t techies but businessfolk, people who worry about meeting payroll and scoring venture capital funding. In some recent strips, for example, the head of Columbia Internet is raising capital the old-fashioned way: by acquiring a thermonuclear missile and threatening world leaders. The strip has long since gone into reruns, but there’s such a massive backlog of strips that even this daily webcomic could go on a long time without anyone noticing repeats.

Webcomic artists are often snarky. The Joy of Tech (joyoftech.com ) is a great example. The artists are apparently enamored of Apple products and feature them in the strip, but frequently with some biting sarcasm thrown in.

BugBash is another strip about technology and the business of technology. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Dilbert in its themes, but quite different in the writing and drawing. Characters do truly strange things to get the job done. A recent example had the employees sitting around a table trying to work out an incentive system, when one of them suggests “bacon.” A subsequent vote reveals the nearly unanimous agreement on bacon. Believe me, it’s funny in the original.

Work Bytes (workbytescomic.com) is a tamer, if surreal, strip about cubicle dwellers at ElectroCorp, led by Norton, the resident engineer and genius. (Why do so many of these strips feature engineers as heroes? Must be coincidence.)

A more strictly business-oriented webcomic that’s been somewhat overlooked is 1.00 FTE (onefte.com). It’s a one-panel strip with minimal art but a sharply satirical view of corporate life. In one panel, for example, there’s a meeting about the “special” employee referral program. It’s special because it includes a flag for, “I’m referring this person only because of pressure from friends or relatives.” Like Dilbert, 1.00 FTE expresses what many of us have felt over the years.

Thanks to the immortality of material on the Web, it’s even possible to enjoy webcomics that have long since been dust-binned. Digi-Comic (digi-comic.com) is an example. The strips shown on the page date back to 2006, so some of the technology allusions may be a little stale. Moribund webcomics litter the landscape online. Sometimes it’s just fun practicing a bit of Google archaeology to find them.

I’m obviously not advocating chasing webcomics all day. But office work can be both tedious and emotionally strenuous, and small bits of relaxation are good for the soul. I’d rather have workers occasionally chuckling at their screens than growling into their phones. Technology makes our lives faster and more stressful, but it can lighten the load, too.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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