Thursday, April 29, 2010

PowerPoint Hates Freedom

A few weeks ago, I aired out some thoughts on webinars and their seemingly endemic suckitude. This week, several alert readers directed me to this story in the New York Times about how PowerPoint is directly responsible for the failure to catch Bin Laden.

Okay, that may be a slight overstatement. But apparently the military is starting to complain openly that boiling everything down to what will fit on a slide often requires leaving out important information. When the truth of a situation is complicated -- which strikes me as a fair description of, say, Iraq -- oversimplification can turn a good idea into a disaster.

The shame of PowerPoint is that -- unlike webinars -- it doesn't have to suck. PowerPoint can make sense for information that ought to be visual, like maps or charts. It makes a world of sense in, say, art history or architecture classes.

But bullet points are not inherently visual. Text is not inherently visual. And treating text as picture doesn't do justice to either. (This cartoon that made its way around the web last month captures my sense of it pretty well.)

Imagine if Winston Churchill had used PowerPoint.

Where We Will Fight Them:

- beaches

- hills

- trenches

It loses something.

We all have our PowerPoint Pet Peeves. One of my worst is the Abstract Flow Chart. Flow charts make sense in very specific contexts, like if you're tracing the path of approvals that a purchase requisition has to follow. But when you have a chart that connects "community" to "ideals" to "resources," with circular arrows everywhere, well, someone needs a punch in the mouth. It's a mystifying exercise in what we used to call "reification" back in the 90's. It implies a false concreteness, and thereby misses the point. It substitutes pretty pictures for the hard work of specifying actual transitions between thoughts.

Then there's the paper. One of the great laugh-out-loud predictions of the tech crowd a few decades ago was the paperless office. As anyone who has been to an academic conference in the last ten years knows, audiences expect full printouts of PowerPoint presentations to be handed out. Interestingly, they don't expect transcripts of talks, whether scripted or off-the-cuff. So an audience of fifty that in prehistoric times might have consumed a collective ten pages of paper taking notes will now easily consume 300 pages of printouts per presentation. PowerPoint hates both trees and freedom.

(For the record, I agree with Molly Wood that the next great tech breakthrough should be a printer that actually works on a consistent basis. Let's just admit that we're gonna use paper, and spend a little time figuring out how to get the printer to stop sounding like a pair of copulating geese. But I digress.)

It also completely disrupts the relationship between speaker and audience. Unless the point of the talk is to examine a visual object, the speaker's focus should be directed at the audience, and vice versa. PowerPoints have a way of diverting attention, and therefore making it harder to develop a good rapport.

Lest I be mistaken for a Luddite, I'll point out that I'm making this argument on a (%&+^# blog. This isn't mossback antiquarianism masquerading as high principle. It's an objection to using a sophisticated tool in an unbelievably stupid way.

Wise and worldly readers, what are your PowerPoint Pet Peeves?