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At War With the Mother of All Blobs
PowerPoint has become the first resort of slackers and lowbrows
David Wilson (bambo1)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-01 15:59 (KST)   
Not so long ago, only one true holy war existed: the war between the zealots of the Apple Mac and the Microsoft PC. Suddenly, on the back of the iPod, Apple has developed into a juggernaut and forfeited its underdog status. As a result, the battle has lost momentum.

Sure, some diehards persist in manning the barricades. But, really, who cares?

I don't, especially because we now have a new war to fight: the war against PowerPoint, spearheaded by Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, an expert in the visual display of information. According to Tufte, PowerPoint's bulleted lists encourage "generic, superficial, simplistic thinking."

If that assertion sounds simplistic, consider the key charge he levels against the program. In January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in the air and NASA was judging the risk posed by tile damage on its wings, management received a PowerPoint slide. The obligatory minimal format squashed and marginalized critical information, which more or less went unnoticed.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board subsequently slammed the seductive "persuasion technology," saying, "It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation."

Allotting the issue a whole page in its 2003 report, the board attacked NASA's abandonment of rigorous analysis in favor of the "endemic use of PowerPoint."

I find it hard to imagine mere business software generating more serious charges. Whether PowerPoint's reputation will ever recover from the damage inflicted by the Columbia investigation looks doubtful.

That verdict spawned the theory that shuffling electronic slides may have helped U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell make his case to the United Nations for launching the still lingering war against Iraq.

Now, PowerPoint is the whipping boy of the new economy, routinely vilified by academics, hacks and geeks.

Peter Norvig, director of search quality at Google, panned its emptiness with particular panache in a sendup of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "Good morning," the parody opens. "Just a second while I get this connection to work. Do I press this button here? Function-F7? No, that's not right. Hmmm. Maybe, I'll have to reboot."

Norvig's lampoon reduces the complexities of the Gettysburg Address to six slides, among them one titled "Review of Key Objectives & Critical Success Factors." This breaks down into headings such as "What makes nation unique" and "Shared Vision," which features the gruesome subheading "Gov't of/for/by/the people."

Catty. Nonetheless, just to rub it in, I think someone should give Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech the same treatment.

I am sick of PowerPoint. It strikes me as the first resort of slackers who lack the discipline and brains to link ideas so that they flow and take on an overarching meaning.

But I cannot escape the curse of PowerPoint. I am forever receiving .ppt files as attachments which to me are only slightly more inviting than 419 scam pitches.

If I open a PowerPoint attachment, it is with a flat or even sinking feeling. Above all, I hate the sappy clip "art" that slides often flaunt. As I type, I am glancing at a PowerPoint image of a father raising his baby above his head in the glow of a seaside sunset.

With commentary supplied by a microphone-toting executive, usually a PowerPoint show is a yawn because the linear low-resolution style seems to arise from and promote linear, lowbrow thinking. Whenever I am forced to witness a guided PowerPoint parade, hypnotized by the procession of slides decorated with blobs and arrows, I enter a trance.

That may well be the point -- a mesmerized audience is a compliant audience. Marketers understand this, which is why this visual temazepam has become the symposium tranquillizer of choice worldwide.

It has helped make the conference a kind of ritualistic sleep-in. You remember nothing afterward, but vaguely feel grateful that whatever you just experienced was not really work.

Executive communication tools that graced the stage before the Red Peril arrived were hardly amazing either. Remember the overhead projector. On paper, it brought cinema to the boardroom but actually just seemed to cast pale shadows on the wall. Worse, it required organ-grinder-style antics to operate.

Despite the clip art, PowerPoint has a sterile aura invisible to apologists who portray it as a punchy medium that encourages users to cut to the chase.

But, at the last conference I attended -- a typical example -- the PowerPoint lectures stuttered on, sometimes alleviated by a blast of animation -- Crazy Frog did a turn. Tellingly, the speaker who made the most impact used no bells and whistles at all.

She just talked engagingly, peppering her discourse with one-liners and spinning anecdotes. Her performance earned easily the loudest round of applause and proved my point: anyone can embellish a seminar with diagrams, headings, subheadings, bullet points, fancy colors and arrows pointing at nothing.

But there is no substitute for the ultimate weapon: wit. Use it, and join the struggle for effective communication by making your office a PowerPoint-free zone.
This story first appeared in the South China Morning Post.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Wilson

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