Scott Adams Has Some Ideas for a Calmer Internet

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Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert
A new book from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert who came under fire for supporting Donald Trump in 2016, lays out some proposals for online civility. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

After expressing support for Donald Trump in 2016, Dilbert creator Scott Adams estimates that he lost about 30 percent of his income and 75 percent of his friends. He says that that level of political polarization has created a climate of genuine fear.

“People will come up, and they’ll usually whisper—or they’ll lower their voice, because they don’t want to be heard—and they’ll say, ‘I really like what you’re doing on your Periscope, and the stuff you’re saying about Trump,’” Adams says in Episode 389 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They’re actually afraid to say it out loud. They literally whisper it to me in public places.”

Adams blames the current climate on social media and a clickbait business model that rewards sensationalism over fact-based reporting. Since the technology is here to stay, he says we’re going to need new societal norms to help foster a calmer, more constructive political discourse.

“When society changes, every now and then you need a new rule of manners,” he says. “So for example, when cell phones were invented, you needed a new set of rules about where can you use them and can you do it in a restaurant, etc. And social media has gotten so hot, I thought maybe we need a few new rules.”

He lays out two such rules in his new book, Loserthink. His first proposal, which he calls the “48-hour rule,” states that everyone should be given a grace period of a couple of days to retract any controversial statement they’ve made, no questions asked. “We live in a better world if we accept people’s clarifications and we accept their apologies, no matter whether we think—internally—it’s insincere,” he says.

His other idea is the “20-year rule,” which states that everyone should be automatically forgiven for any mistakes they made more than two decades ago—with the exception of certain serious crimes. It used to be the case that people’s thoughtless remarks and embarrassing gaffes would naturally fade into obscurity, but social media has created a situation where it’s easy to endlessly dredge up a person’s worst moments.

“We’re not the same people that we were 20 years ago,” Adams says. “We’ve learned a bunch, our context has changed. If you’re doing all the right stuff, you’re getting smarter and kinder and wiser as you’re getting older. So being blamed for something you did 20 years ago is effectively being blamed for something a stranger did, because you’re just not that person anymore.”

Listen to the complete interview with Scott Adams in Episode 389 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Scott Adams on Babylon 5:

“It was my favorite show at the time, and I said something good about it for an article I wrote in TV Guide, and their publicist contacted me and said, ‘How would you like to play a bit part in the show?’ Just sort of a thank you, and to bring more publicity to it. And I said, ‘Sure, can I bring my girlfriend at the time? Can she be in it too?’ And they said, ‘Sure, we’ll make her a Minbari.’ So I played a human character who was looking for my lost dog, and maybe I’m crazy and maybe I’m not, and my girlfriend at the time played a Minbari alien who was my assistant. … I don’t have any acting skill. I think my entire range of emotions that I can produce on my face are maybe three things, that’s about it. No nuance at all.”

Scott Adams on his novel God’s Debris:

God’s Debris is essentially a conversation between a deliveryman and a character that I invented who is the smartest person in the world, and so the smartest person in the world is describing to the deliveryman all the secrets of the universe, if you will. I’m a trained hypnotist, and I was always curious about writing a book where I would use the hypnosis skills embedded with the writing to give the reader a better experience. … And for some readers, and of course with hypnosis people don’t have the same reaction, the same experience—but for a number of readers, maybe a quarter of them, which would be really good, they have an experience that’s unlike reading a book. It’s a physical, mind-blowing kind of experience.”

Scott Adams on creating Dilbert:

“When they offered me a contract, I was talking to the editor, and I said, ‘You know, I’d be happy to get an actual artist to partner with me to do the drawing,’ and she said, ‘No, there’s no reason to do that, your drawing is fine.’ And I said, ‘Really? It’s fine?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, just the way it is. It’s fine.’ And that simple statement that I could do it made the quality of my art improve about 500 percent in two weeks, after being pretty much the way it was my whole life up to that point. But the simple fact that somebody who was credible—and exactly the right person in the world—would tell me that I was good enough, that actually made me good enough. It was a ridiculously quick transformation.”

Scott Adams on the media:

“When [media outlets] do these big feature pieces, and they send somebody to your house and they say, ‘Can you allocate the whole day? Can we hang around with you all day to get interesting context for the story?’ my experience has been—and this is just pattern recognition—that those are always hit pieces. … They’re not trying to find out what my opinion is, they’re gathering ammo, and that’s what all the ‘context’ stuff is. Because you could take anybody’s normal life, and by the way you word it it would make them sound like a freak. I mean, almost anything I do can be worded in a way that makes it sound like I’m the oddest person in the world, but if you heard me describe it, you’d say, ‘Oh OK. That’s nonstandard, but it makes perfect sense.’”

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