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The Nice PowerPoint Panic of 2003

The Nice PowerPoint Panic of 2003


The new media expertise was going to make us silly, to cut back all human interplay to a gross sales pitch. It was going to corrode our minds, degrade communication, and waste our time. Its sudden rise and fast unfold by means of enterprise, authorities, and schooling augured nothing lower than “the top of motive,” as one well-known artist put it, for higher or for worse. Ultimately, it might even get blamed for the live-broadcast deaths of seven People on nationwide tv. The yr was 2003, and People had been freaking out in regards to the world-altering dangers of … Microsoft PowerPoint.

Socrates as soon as warned that the written phrase would atrophy our reminiscence; the Renaissance polymath Conrad Gessner cautioned that the printing press would drown us in a “complicated and dangerous abundance of books.” Generations since have frightened that different new applied sciences—radio, TV, video video games—would rot our youngsters’s brains. In simply the previous 15 years alone, this journal has sounded the alarm on Google, smartphones, and social media. A few of these critiques appear to have aged fairly effectively; others, not so effectively. However tucked amongst them was a techno-scare of the very best order that has now been virtually completely forgotten: the idea that PowerPoint—that the majority enervating member of the Workplace software program suite, that common metonym for soporific conferences—is likely to be evil.

Twenty years later, the Nice PowerPoint Panic reads as each a farce and a tragedy. On the time, the age of social media was dawning: MySpace and LinkedIn had been newly based, and Fb’s launch was simply months away. However even because the polarization machine hummed to life, we had been fixated on the existential risk of bullet factors. Did we merely miss the mark? Or, ridiculous as it could appear right this moment, had been we onto one thing?

Sixteen minutes earlier than landing on the morning of February 1, 2003, the area shuttle Columbia disintegrated into the cloudless East Texas sky. All seven astronauts aboard had been killed. Because the damaged shuttle hurtled towards Earth in items, it appeared to its stay TV viewers like a swarm of capturing stars.

The quick trigger of the catastrophe, a report from a NASA Accident Investigation Board decided that August, was a chunk of insulating foam that had damaged unfastened and broken the shuttle’s left wing quickly after liftoff. However the report additionally singled out a much less direct, extra shocking perpetrator. Engineers had recognized about—and inappropriately discounted—the wing harm lengthy earlier than Columbia’s tried reentry, however the flaws of their evaluation had been buried in a sequence of arcane and overstuffed computer-presentation slides that had been proven to NASA officers. “It’s simple to know how a senior supervisor would possibly learn this PowerPoint slide and never notice that it addresses a life-threatening scenario,” the report said, later persevering with: “The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides as a substitute of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic strategies of technical communication at NASA.”

PowerPoint was not then a brand new expertise, but it surely was newly ubiquitous. In 1987, when this system was first launched, it bought 40,000 copies. Ten years later, it bought 4 million. By the early 2000s, PowerPoint had captured 95 p.c of the presentation-software market, and its rising affect on how People would speak and suppose was already giving rise to a critique. A 2001 function in The New Yorker by Ian Parker argued that the software program “helps you make a case, but it surely additionally makes its personal case: about learn how to set up data, how a lot data to prepare, how to take a look at the world.” Vint Cerf, one of many “fathers of the web,” took to quipping that “energy corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts completely.”

By the beginning of 2003, the phrase demise by PowerPoint had effectively and really entered the favored lexicon. A Yale statistician named Edward Tufte was the primary to take it actually: That spring, Tufte printed a rip-roaring broadside titled The Cognitive Fashion of PowerPoint, together with his evaluation of the software program’s function within the latest Columbia catastrophe. Its cowl web page, a political cartoon that Tufte designed himself, reveals a photograph of military battalions, standing in good columns, earlier than an enormous statue of Joseph Stalin within the heart of Budapest. A speech bubble comes from one soldier’s mouth: “There’s no bullet record like Stalin’s bullet record!” One other calls out: “However why learn aloud each slide?” Even Stalin speaks: “следующий слайд,” he says—“Subsequent slide, please.”

The pamphlet’s core argument, channeling Marshall McLuhan, was that the media of communication affect the substance of communication, and PowerPoint as a medium had an obfuscatory, dumbing-down impact. It didn’t essentially create imprecise, lazy displays, but it surely definitely accommodated and generally even disguised them—with doubtlessly deadly penalties. That is precisely what Tufte noticed within the Columbia engineers’ slides. “The cognitive fashion of PP compromised the evaluation,” he declared months earlier than the NASA investigation report reached a really related conclusion.

Radical as Tufte’s place was, folks took him severely. He was already well-known on the time as a public mental: His touring one-day class on data design was extra rock tour than lecture circuit. Lots of of individuals packed into lodge ballrooms for every session. “They arrive to listen to Edward R. Tufte,” one author remarked on the time, “in the best way the traditional Greeks should have gone to listen to Socrates or would-be transcendentalists reduce a path to nineteenth century Harmony.” So when “the da Vinci of knowledge” determined to weigh in on what would quickly be referred to as “the PowerPoint debate,” folks listened.

Wired ran an excerpt from his pamphlet in September 2003, beneath the headline “PowerPoint Is Evil.” Just a few months later, The New York Instances Journal included Tufte’s evaluation—summarized as “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb”—in its recap of the yr’s most intriguing and necessary concepts. “Maybe PowerPoint is uniquely suited to our fashionable age of obfuscation,” the entry learn, noting that Colin Powell had simply used the software program to current proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations.

Just a few pages on was one other notable entry within the journal’s record of thrilling new concepts: the social community. At the same time as PowerPoint was being linked with actuality distortion and the rise of what People would quickly be calling “truthiness,” the jury was nonetheless out on Friendster, LinkedIn, and different such networks. Perhaps by supercharging social connection, they may alleviate our “profound nationwide loneliness,” the write-up stated. Perhaps they might solely “additional fracture life into disparate spheres—the web and the offline.” Or possibly they wouldn’t be all that transformative—no less than not in contrast with a expertise as pervasive and influential as PowerPoint.

Tufte is now 81 years outdated and has lengthy since retired. The “E.T. Tour,” which garnered, by his closing depend, 328,001 attendees, is over. Nowadays, he primarily sculpts. However he’s nonetheless himself: He nonetheless loathes PowerPoint. He nonetheless derives a kindergartner’s delight from calling it “PP.” And should you go to edwardtufte.com, you’ll be able to nonetheless buy his Stalin cartoon in poster type for $14.

In Could, I emailed Tufte to ask how he thought his critique of PowerPoint had aged. True to type, he answered with a 16-page PDF, compiled specifically for me, consisting of excerpts from his books and a few blurbs about them too. He finally agreed to talk by cellphone, however my first name to him went to voicemail. “In a land the place time disappeared, E.T. just isn’t accessible,” he incants in his outgoing message, with movie-trailer dramatics. “Your key to communication is voicemail. Or textual content message. Do it!” Beep.

After I lastly reached E.T., I requested him whether or not, after 20 years of regular use, PowerPoint had actually made us silly. “I don’t know,” he stated. “I’ve been on one other planet. I’m an artist now.” In some sense, he went on, he’s the worst individual to ask, as a result of nobody has dared present him a PowerPoint presentation since 2003. He additionally claimed that he hasn’t been “conserving rating,” however he was conscious—and appreciative—of the semi-recent revelation that his work helped encourage Jeff Bezos to ban using PowerPoint by senior Amazon executives.

Bezos was not the one one to see issues Tufte’s method. Steve Jobs additionally banned PowerPoint from sure firm conferences. At a 2010 navy convention in North Carolina, former Nationwide Safety Adviser H. R. McMaster, then an Military basic, described PowerPoint as an inner risk; he had prohibited its use throughout the assault on the Iraqi metropolis of Tal Afar in 2005. “PowerPoint makes us silly,” Normal James Mattis stated on the similar convention. And in 2011, a former software program engineer in Switzerland shaped the Anti PowerPoint Get together, a (type of) actual political social gathering dedicated to preventing slide-deck tyranny.

Tufte’s essay has confronted its share of criticism too. Some accused him of getting engineered an argument with a purpose to juice his course attendance. Others stated he’d erred by mixing up the software program with the habits of its customers. “Any basic opposition to PowerPoint is simply dumb,” the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker informed The Wall Road Journal in 2009. “It’s like denouncing lectures—earlier than there have been terrible PowerPoint displays, there have been terrible scripted lectures, unscripted lectures, slide reveals, chalk talks, and so forth.” Gene Zelazny, the longtime director of enterprise visible displays at McKinsey, summed up Tufte’s argument as “blaming automobiles for the accidents that drivers trigger.”

The issue with this comparability is that our transportation system does bear some duty for the 30,000 to 40,000 car-crash deaths that happen within the U.S. yearly, as a result of it places drivers within the place to trigger accidents. PowerPoint, Tufte informed me, has a similar impact by actively facilitating dangerous displays. “It’s handy for the presenter,” he stated, “and it’s inconvenient and dangerous to the viewers and to the content material.”

But when all of these dangerous displays actually led to broad societal ills, the proof is difficult to seek out. Some scientists have tried to take a formal measure of the alleged PowerPoint Impact, asking whether or not the software program actually influences our skill to course of data. Sebastian Kernbach, a professor of creativity and design on the College of St. Gallen, in Switzerland, has co-authored a number of opinions synthesizing this literature. On the entire, he informed me, the analysis means that Tufte was partly proper, partly improper. PowerPoint doesn’t appear to make us silly—there isn’t any proof of decrease data retention or generalized cognitive decline, for instance, amongst those that use it—but it surely does impose a set of assumptions about how data must be conveyed: loosely, in bullet factors, and delivered by presenters to an viewers of passive listeners. These assumptions have even reshaped the bodily atmosphere for the slide-deck age, Kernbach stated: Seminar tables, as soon as configured in a circle, have been bent, post-PowerPoint, right into a U-shape to accommodate presenters.

powerpoint style slide
The Atlantic

After I spoke with Kernbach, he was getting ready for a chat on completely different strategies of visible considering to a gaggle of workers at a big governmental group. He stated he deliberate to make use of a flip chart, draw on clean slides like a white board, and maybe even have viewers members do some drawing of their very own. However he was additionally gearing up to make use of common outdated PowerPoint slides. Doing so, he informed me, would “sign preparation and professionalism” for his viewers. The group was NASA.

The truth that the American area company nonetheless makes use of PowerPoint shouldn’t be shocking. Regardless of the backlash it impressed within the press, and the bile that it raised in billionaires, and the crimson alert it brought about throughout the navy, the corporate-presentation juggernaut rolls on. This system has extra month-to-month customers than ever earlier than, in response to Shawn Villaron, Microsoft’s vp of product for PowerPoint—effectively into the lots of of thousands and thousands. If something, its use instances have proliferated. Throughout lockdown, folks threw PowerPoint events on Zoom. Children now make PowerPoint displays for his or her dad and mom once they wish to get a pet or stop soccer or attend a Niall Horan meet and greet. If PowerPoint is evil, then evil guidelines the world.

On its face no less than, the concept PowerPoint makes us silly seems like a textbook case of misguided technological doomsaying. After I requested Tufte to revisit his critique, he demurred, however later in our dialog I pressed him on the matter extra immediately: Was it potential that his personal critique of a brand new expertise had missed the goal, simply as so many others had prior to now? Had been the troubles over PowerPoint any completely different from these in regards to the printing press or phrase processors or—

He reduce in earlier than I may end the thought. The query, he stated with evident exasperation, was unattainable to reply. “I don’t do huge suppose, huge bullshit,” he informed me. “I am down there within the trenches, proper within the act of communication.” By which he meant, I believe, that he doesn’t have interaction in any sort of remotely summary historic considering.

I attempted narrowing the query. At the moment’s issues about social media bear a sure resemblance to the PowerPoint critique, I stated. Each boil right down to a fear that new media applied sciences worth type over substance, that they’re designed to carry our consideration somewhat than to convey fact, and that they make us silly. May or not it’s—was there any probability in any respect—that Tufte had made the suitable critique, however of the improper expertise? He wasn’t having it. The comparability between PowerPoint and social media, he stated, is “hand-waving and bullshit and opportunism.”

This dismissal however, it’s tempting to entertain counterfactuals and marvel how issues might need performed out if Tufte and the remainder of us had frightened about social media again in 2003 as a substitute of presentation software program. Maybe a well timed pamphlet on The Cognitive Fashion of Friendster or a Wired headline asserting that “LinkedIn Is Evil” would have modified the course of historical past. If the social-media backlash of the previous few years had been current from the beginning, possibly Fb would by no means have grown into the behemoth it’s now, and the nation would by no means have turn into so hopelessly divided.

Or it may very well be that nothing in any way would have modified. It doesn’t matter what their timing, and no matter their aptness, issues about new media not often appear to make a distinction. Objections get steamrolled. The brand new expertise takes over. And years later, after we look again and suppose, How unusual that we had been so perturbed, the consequences of that expertise might be invisible.

Did the written phrase decimate our reminiscence? Did radio shrink our consideration span? Did PowerPoint flip us into company bureaucrats? If these improvements actually did change the best way we expect, then we’re measuring their results with an altered thoughts. Both the critiques had been improper, or they had been so proper that we will now not inform the distinction.



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