Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Evil That Is PowerPoint (or, How We Lost the War)

Marty Lederman

Turns out there was a plan to prevail in the Iraq War, after all -- and, like all other great mysteries of life, it can be displayed in a single PowerPoint slide. As they say over at Arms & Influence, "the Iraq disaster did not happen because someone in the JTF-IV planning group or the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) couldn't write a good PowerPoint presentation. The problem was that anyone used PowerPoint to plan a war."

Forget flag-burning: I'd be in favor of a constitutional amendment making Power Point presentations illegal. I realize this puts me in a distinct minority within the modern legal academy. But I've rarely, if ever, seen a PowerPoint presentation that added any value and that did not either infantilize its audience or grossly oversimplfy the issue, or both. I just don't get the obsession with PowerPoint -- after all, we weren't all that excited when our third-grade teachers pulled out the trusty ol' overhead projector, now were we? And how, exactly, is this any different, except that we're not nine years old anymore? (Exception that proves the rule: I must concede that Yochai Benkler's PowerPoint presentation last year at the Yale Constitution-in-2020 Conference was really engaging and fun -- informative, even. So there is hope.)

[UPDATE: Thanks to a commentor for reminding me that this isn't the first war in which PowerPoint has played so substantial a role.]


Though on a lesser scale in monetary and human terms, $400 million appeared substantial in 1997, when a US House of Representatives member began lobbying his peers with a slide show based on photos of ancient forests. The demo eventuated in several Senators assisting and the forest's coming under federal protection after a buyout sourced from federal coffers. The slide show evidently was assembled by a penurious college senior who retained a knack for show and tell. It is depicted here in words without graphics.

You didn't realize that the Gettysburg Address had been delivered in PowerPoint?

It's been argued that PowerPoint was partially responsible for the Columbia disaster as well. When the shuttle was still in space on its final mission, NASA assigned a team to investigate the damage to the wing (which would end up causing the shuttle to burn up on re-entry):

"[T]he engineers from the Debris Assessment Team... projected a typically crude PowerPoint summary... with which they attempted to explain a nuanced position: first, that if the tile had been damaged, it had probably endured well enough to allow the Columbia to come home; and second, that for lack of information they had needed to make assumptions to reach that conclusion, and that troubling unknowns therefore limited the meaning of the results. The latter message seems to have been lost. Indeed, this particular PowerPoint presentation became a case study for Edward Tufte, the brilliant communications specialist from Yale, who in a subsequent booklet, 'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint', tore into it for its dampening effect on clear expression and thought. The [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] later joined in, describing the widespread use of PowerPoint within NASA as one of the obstacles to internal communication, and criticizing the Debris Assessment presentation for mechanically underplaying the uncertainties that remained."

—William Langewiesche, "Columbia's Last Flight", Atlantic Monthly, November 2003

It's not Powerpoint that's the problem, it's conceptualism.

If I make a pretty picture or a tidy little causal structure and than choose to say that it represents the world, THAN IT DOES!

Powerpoint just facilitates stupidity.

Tufte's excellent screed against PowerPoint may be purchased from his website. Edward Tufte is one of the leading authorities on the visual representation of information.

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