By D.K. Row
He's sung songs about burning houses and psycho killers, but right now David Byrne, the frontman of the legendary '80s band The Talking Heads, is on the telephone talking in measured and thoughtful terms about…PowerPoint.
"I started playing (with it) without any direction, which ended up being a lot of fun," Byrne says about the slide-showlike presentation software that's used by everyone from chief executives to NASA scientists. "And not having to use it for what it was designed for, I realized you can make these ...little films that run by themselves. So I started making them."
Thus began a spirited and sometimes critical exploration of PowerPoint's -- and Western society's -- graphic universe, one that resulted in Byrne's combination book/DVD, "Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information" (Steidl Publishing), published in 2003. On Friday, Byrne will opine on all things PowerPoint at the Portland Art Museum in a benefit lecture for the museum's Photography Council.
Sound boring? Then you don't know much about the gently zany, 52-year-old "Renaissance Man of Rock," who started toying with PowerPoint a few years ago to give his lectures the tongue-in-cheek feeling of a sales pitch. The modest, quiet-spoken Byrne, who has done everything from scoring music for movies to exhibiting his own art since The Talking Heads split in 1991, has some trenchant observations about a mode of communication that has, in Byrne's opinion, become the message, not the messenger.
Oregonian: You're clearly fascinated by PowerPoint and have written a book that, in one sense, is an homage to it. But you're also deeply skeptical of its purpose.
DB: I probably have an innate bias (against) and skepticism towards business culture in general, which is partly unfair. But I know it's there. So I probably started out (with the intention of) poking fun at business culture but then exhausted that idea and eventually just thought of this as another creative medium with its own limitations, glitches and faults that you could use to your own advantage.
Oregonian: So is your book a critique of PowerPoint?
DB: No, I don't think so. Those critiques exist, but my book isn't that. When my stuff first came out, it was mentioned in the same breath with a pamphlet written by Edward Tufte (a professor emeritus at Yale University). He does these beautiful books on how to present information efficiently and accurately through graphic means. Just beautiful books. Lately, he's been on his horse about PowerPoint. He put out a pamphlet saying that PowerPoint is a very inefficient means of conveying information yet it's somehow become ubiquitous.
Oregonian: He also thinks that PowerPoint is dangerous, that it's a good way to hide or manipulate information.
DB: He thinks it's dangerous because it conveys information in a slick, simplified way. You know, it's like what's happened to TV news. It's been dumbed down extremely.
Oregonian: The implication seems to be that society is engaged in a language of nonsense.
DB: Oh yes. There's a lot of jargon that communicates nothing. It's just reassuring us that we're part of the same club -- but nothing's being communicated.
Oregonian: Peter Norvig, an engineer at Google, said, "...PowerPoint doesn't kill meetings. People kill meetings. But using PowerPoint is like having a loaded AK-47 on the table." Do you agree or is Norvig just being dramatic?
DB: I agree with that. It's like saying guns don't kill people, people kill people, but having a gun on the table means it's a lot more likely that someone is going to use it. The same thing with PowerPoint: having it so available means that it's a lot easier to use it than not to. Yes, you can get a lot of dead, pointless meetings. The most famous example (of how PowerPoint oversimplifies complex information) is the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.
Oregonian: Tell us about that. News stories after the crash revealed how NASA's internal reports before the mission mentioned the shuttle's vulnerabilities but they were presented in a PowerPoint language so simplified that their conclusions were obscured.
DB: Tufte goes into the details, but yes, the faults of the (defective) O-rings were hinted at in a PowerPoint presentation. But because it was buried in this format, it ...phhttt ...flew by. Well, you can't blame PowerPoint for the death of astronauts, but people used it as one more example of how little information gets communicated in this medium.
Oregonian: Communication has always been a central concern of yours. Just curious, what books are you reading now?
DB: Well, (laughs) ...For my Australian touring needs (Byrne has just arrived on the West Coast from the Australian leg of a music tour), I've brought along William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down," a meditation on violence. It's incredible. And I also brought along a biography of Imelda Marcos. Somehow, I think these two are linked.
Oregonian: You're often described as the smart person's rock star.
DB: That used to bother me. I think — and accurately — that it was not meant as a compliment but as a criticism. The implication was that my music was not sincere or heartfelt: It was cold, calculated. But I think ...well, I think my music has changed quite a bit since then. It has a lot more heart than it used to. I also think that that is part of a misconception that artistic types are stupid. It's a willful misconception. People like to think creative types are a ball of feeling and aren't smart. That smart people work in think tanks. It's the other way around.
Oregonian: What are your final conclusions about PowerPoint?
DB: I think we communicate graphically, through icons and imagery much more than we realize. And I think, for the most part, we are communicated to graphically, whether in advertising or movies or on television. And because it's not primarily text, and we don't have a grammar and understanding of it, we've never learned to talk about images and icons — at least the general public hasn't learned. So it becomes one-way communication: We're being talked at but we can't talk back. We can talk back verbally but that's in a different language and it pushes different buttons. That's part of what draws me to this and the other things I do: I want to learn the language that is being spoken to me.