How PowerPoint slides ruined the world
If you haven’t already seen the graphic below take a minute to have a look.
This is an explanation the United States’ plan for victory in Afghanistan, and formed part of a PowerPoint presentation given by the US Military to some of its top brass.
This PowerPoint presentation is not only emblematic of what may have gone wrong in Afghanistan, but, without wanting to sound too alarmist, what’s gone wrong with the way we’re being taught to think.
The top US Military Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, joked upon seeing the slide: “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”
Speaking about the use of PowerPoint in the US Army Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster recently said disseminating supposed knowledge via PowerPoint can, at its worst, be dangerous.
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-sizable.”
Not only does McMaster have one of the best names for a military leader (perhaps only Staff Sgt. Max Fightmaster beats him), but it also a remark from somebody who speaks from experience, having banned PowerPoint presentations when he planned and led the successful mission on the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005.
As most of us are not following Brig. Gen. McMaster into battle, you may be of the opinion that the worst thing to result from a PowerPoint presentation is the possibility it will be in the room without the comfy spinning chairs, thus denying you the possibility of playing Mad Men in your head all afternoon.
But McMaster is on to something more widespread when he speaks of the “illusion” that PowerPoint provides.
That is that PowerPoint presentations can make us stupid because they have condensed the accumulation and explanation of often complex topics into 30 slides with arrows - perhaps with a hilarious interval slide of a monkey at a computer saying “this IT network has finally evolved!”
What began as a means to better explain ideas in a logical and chronological format, often results in the logic of ideas being replaced by the mode of their presentation.
Simply because a line is drawn between a picture of a kid kicking a soccer ball entitled “Goals” and “Results” with a big $ sign next to it does not actually demonstrate an understanding that you know how to go from “Goals” to “Results” -merely that your PowerPoint knows how to draw that line and can fill up a lot space in between.
Picking up on this trend back in 2003 Julia Keller wrote a great synopsis of the problem in the Chicago Tribune:
“It squeezes ideas into a preconceived format, organizing (sic) and condensing not only your material but – inevitably, it seems – your way of thinking about and looking at that material. A complicated, nuanced issue invariably is reduced to headings and bullets. And if that doesn’t stultify your thinking about the subject, it may have that effect on your audience – which is at the mercy of your presentation.”
In January Punch editor David Penberthy wrote about the insidious culture of meetings in the government and corporate worlds, which not only reduces the amount of work one can do in the office, but is resulting in increasingly bizarre government policy and corporate decision making.
If this meeting culture is the crime of the office world, then PowerPoint is the crack that is fuelling it.
The PowerPoint is so ubiquitous that it has seeped its way into popular art.
Below is one of the 2004 Turner Prize winning entries from British artist Jeremy Deller. It is a PowerPoint style painting that tracks a path of English music from brass bands to acid house.
I’m of the opinion that the piece itself is pretty cool, but can’t quite work out whether Deller is taking the piss or not. Either way we recognise the format and what it’s trying to explain, whether acid house and brass bands are at all related doesn’t matter: the graphic explains it all.
PowerPoint logic now allows people to sell off bad ideas in a manner that in the past we would have at least required some kind of crazy 900 page philosophical text to go with them.
Behind the more insidious products that were responsible for much of the financial crisis in the US, I have no doubt there was a PowerPoint presentation explaining their operation.
While the instincts of the layman would be to question how it could be possible for everyone to be making money off a bunch of people who couldn’t pay back their mortgages, Lehman Brothers I’m sure had a PowerPoint presentation showing how it could be done, regardless of the fact it wasn’t real.
To find the most disastrous example of PowerPoint logic one need only go back to the beginning of the war where McMaster had such success.
Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UN Security Council to justify the US invasion of Iraq will go down as a monumental stuff up in American foreign policy and has marred Powell’s otherwise outstanding and honourable career.
If you’re not familiar with the presentation here’s a good summary of what went wrong, complete with slides.
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