By Tim McKeough
In an infamous parody of the ubiquitous Microsoft application behind countless business and classroom presentations, a Google programmer named Peter Norvig once reproduced Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address as a PowerPoint presentation, reducing its elegant, impassioned message to "Key Objectives" bullet points like:
What Makes Nation Unique:
• Conceived in liberty
• Men are equal
In another celebrated example of the outright revulsion the software has inspired, one author went so far as to declare, "Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."
In short, PowerPoint, thanks to its habit of taking complex ideas and information and reducing them to a series of watered-down, slogan-like catchphrases, is seen by many as a chief cause/symptom of the dumbing down of our world.
Now, however, proponents of the program have an unlikely ally: David Byrne, the artist and musician who made his name with the groundbreaking art-rock band Talking Heads.
This month, Byrne delivered the annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture in New York, an event organized by the Canadian Consulate General that has featured speakers such as filmmaker Atom Egoyan and Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham.
Byrne's presentation was titled I ♥ PowerPoint, and, while the name is tongue-in-cheek, his affection for the beleaguered program is genuine.
The event was the kickoff of the artist's I ♥ PowerPoint lecture tour in support of a new book/DVD that bears the breezy title Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information.
Byrne began his presentation by summing up the well-known criticisms of PowerPoint, which is essentially a program that creates an effects-laden slide show that can be delivered from a laptop.
He went on to illustrate the unsuitability of the program for communicating complex ideas by using sample slides, one of which read "How to treat the poor — Compassion" and another that contained a bulleted list of pros and cons for Hamlet's two big options: to be; not to be.
The program's worst feature, Byrne said, is the AutoContent Wizard, which provides overly simplified instructions for breaking down arguments into bullet points. "So if you want to, you don't have to do anything. The software directs us into a narrow way of thinking."
But all software encourages its users to structure their thoughts in a certain way, he added. The AutoContent Wizard is just more obvious about it.
When Byrne first used PowerPoint on a presentation for a book tour several years ago, he started out making fun of the program. But he quickly discovered it had useful qualities.
"People groan and laugh at PowerPoint," he said. "I approached it not having any of that background. I realized this is kind of a fun thing."
For Byrne, the program's greatest strength is as a receptacle for anything he throws at it — text, images, sound, video. He has been using PowerPoint for major projects since last year, including the development of Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. His work with PowerPoint has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including one at the Condé Nast building in New York and another in a boardroom in Tokyo (where, he notes with much amusement, some visitors actually took notes).
While he is delighted to poke fun at the program, Byrne suggests that the medium itself is not the sole factor behind ill-fated attempts at over-simplifying complex information.
"I don't know if all the blame should be laid at the feet of Microsoft and PowerPoint," he said.
Byrne is challenging the ideas of the man who, in 2003, literally wrote the book on the evils of PowerPoint. The book, a 28-page polemic by Yale professor emeritus Edward Tufte, is called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.
It was Tufte who made the famous quip about PowerPoint corrupting absolutely. The book's cover features a photo illustration that makes the half-joking argument that the program would have been an efficient way for prosecutors to present their evidence at the Soviet show trials of the Stalin era.
The heart of Tufte's complaint is that, compared with printed media such as paper charts, PowerPoint is a low-resolution presentation medium that requires users to self-edit their content into as few words and images as possible.
"Impoverished space leads to over-generalizations, imprecise statements, slogans, lightweight evidence, abrupt and thinly argued claims," Tufte wrote.
An average PowerPoint slide, he pointed out, contains only 40 words, or about eight seconds worth of silent reading material.
"A vicious circle results. Thin content leads to boring presentations. To make them unboring, PPPhluff (PowerPoint fluff) is added, damaging the content, making the presentation even more boring, requiring more Phluff..."
Business executives are not the only ones suffering from the scourge of PowerPoint, says Tufte. "Especially disturbing is the introduction of the PowerPoint cognitive style into schools. Instead of writing a report using sentences, children learn how to make client pitches and infomercials. Rather than being trained as mini-bureaucrats in PPPhluff and foreshortening of thought, students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to The Exploratorium."
But is a Microsoft program really responsible for making our world a place where incoherent presentations and gross generalizations are acceptable?
While Tufte argues that the program itself may be having that effect, Byrne maintains that the proper use, or misuse, of PowerPoint lies in the hands of the user.
There is more audience interaction with PowerPoint than with traditional media but, he notes sadly, "really terrible speakers will put up a PowerPoint slide and just read from it.
"It has this unfortunate identity," says Byrne, "but it doesn't have to have that identity."