Irony in XKCD Explained

November 18, 2009

I’ve started reading XKCD. I’m late to the party. I appreciate its subversive wit and brilliance, though I admit to missing a lot of it as many of the jokes are rooted in mathematics and computer programming.

Toby, Dave & Ian Explain XKCD is a helpful accompanying reader for people who sometimes miss the humor. Lately, I’ve tried to identify unwarranted intellectual conceit and admit when I don’t fully understand something (which is very often). When XKCD publishes a one-panel comic with an Ohm’s Law punchline, I could pretend that I know what they’re talking about, but I don’t, so why not learn from others that do.

Today, XKCD posted this comic.

On Toby, Dave & Ian Explain XKCD, they remarked with snark (re-snarked):

Academia: the intelligent female professor excitedly proclaims that this particular piece of code will yield them publishable academic papers, multiple theses and acclaim amongst their peers. This is a common response to anything done by students within a professor’s group. Whatever it is, no matter how trivial or specific, try and make a paper out of it and get funding. This is an effect of the constant cycle of publication and funding that forms a majority of the post-graduate academic ecosystem. I would draw a diagram of this cycle, but that is not my medium.

Business: in this case, an ignorant male boss responds to the man’s code without care or congratulations. He merely comments that the man has fixed a technical problem but more exist, such as the classic IT bug: outlook syncing. These two problems, while wildly different to the engineer, are seen as equivalents to the businessman.

The statement being made is this: in academia, solved problems and new algorithms themselves are important, whereas in business they are seen as things to be used.

Note: this is not new information to anyone.

I wanted to comment on their analysis, but their Tumblr blog appears to restrict comments to Tumblr users. I refuse to sign up for another blogging service or register another account to post my opinion. There’s no contact email for the authors. Also, they proudly link their Twitter account at the top of the page, but they don’t seem to converse with anyone over Twitter, instead autolinking it to their Tumblr so that every time they analyze a comic, Twitter broadcasts the new post.

I think their explanation of today’s comic is incorrect. I’m not too familiar with the canon of XKCD as I only recently became a regular reader. I think the strip illustrates the different perspectives that academics and business types take to certain problems, and I take issue with Toby, Dave & Ian calling the programmer’s boss ignorant.

The implication is that the professor is intelligent and the businessperson is not. I think, reasonably, both characters can be assumed intelligent; just because the businessperson doesn’t work in academia doesn’t mean that he’s not smart. Hopefully he rose through the business ranks on the basis of performance. But there are many unworthy leaders in academia as in business; tenure can bring with it lethargy that reduces a smart professor into an immovable academic object. Summary judgment that academics are smarter than businesspeople is pointless.

A businessperson might, instead, look at the academic’s response and think that it is the more contemptible response, a revolving door of publishing and grant money that they might consider a zero sum game. The programmer’s manager should be gracious, appreciate the programmer’s work, and reward him appropriately. He fails to do so and is worthy of that criticism. But the bloggers’ sardonic sign-off abates their credibility, proving the writers no better than the obtuse business executive: just as he disregards this impressive personal achievement, the bloggers dismiss businesspeople as incapable of appreciating good work.

It seems that Toby, Dave & Ian want the protagonist to exist in a commercial and intellectual utopia that simultaneously balances nuanced thinking with industrious efficiency. If they can transport me to that world, I’d like to live there for a few weeks so that I can tell my friends and colleagues what a continuous orgasm feels like.

As an aside, this is illustrated at the end of Season 4 of The Wire when Bunny Colvin chides Dr. David Parenti.  He says, “oh, they’re going to study your study?” in response Parenti’s assertion that even though Colvin’s education socialization program was abolished and won’t reach any more kids, it will become helpful research so that it may go through the same blender again.

Ironically, Toby, Dave & Ian’s walled-in blog exemplifies the internet’s failing as a medium for substantive debate, illustrated in an XKCD comic last week.