[EAS] PowerPoint Torpidity

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Dec 16 02:37:06 EST 2003

Subject:   PowerPoint Torpidity

(from NewsScan Daily, 15 December 2003)

Columbia Accident Investigation Board has fingered the agency's 
over-reliance on Microsoft PowerPoint presentations as one of the
elements leading to last February's shuttle disaster. The Board's
report notes that  NASA engineers tasked with assessing possible
wing damage during the mission presented their findings in a
confusing PowerPoint slide so crammed with bulleted items that it
was almost impossible to analyze. "It is easy to understand how a
senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize
that it addresses a life-threatening situation," says the report. 
NASA's findings are echoed in a pamphlet titled "The Cognitive Style
of PowerPoint," authored by information presentation theorist
Edward Tufte, who says the software forces users to contort data
beyond reasonable comprehension. Because only about 40 words fit on
each slide, a viewer can zip through a series of slides quickly,
spending barely 8 seconds on each  one. And the format encourages
bulleted lists -- a "faux analytical" technique that sidesteps the
presenter's responsibility to link the information together in a
cohesive argument, according to Tufte, who concludes that
ultimately, PowerPoint software oozes "an attitude of commercialism
that turns everything into a sales pitch." (New York Times 14  Dec

Dear Colleagues -

Prior to having one of you forward me the NYT article (below) and
seeing the summary above, I didn't know that PowerPoint had been
implicated in the "culture" that led to the Columbia accident, but
I'm not surprised. Its often hilarious, though also tragic
dimensions have been the subject of previous mailings.


Tufte's trilogy of books on information design, and his pamphlet on
PowerPoint, are very much worth owning (and make fine presents). See



PowerPoint Makes You Dumb

December 14, 2003

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at
NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space
shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship's foam insulation
was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also
fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft's
well-known ''slideware'' program.

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on
presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of
by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports.
When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during
the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing
PowerPoint slide -- so crammed with nested bullet points
and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to
untangle. ''It is easy to understand how a senior manager
might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it
addresses a life-threatening situation,'' the board sternly

PowerPoint is the world's most popular tool for presenting
information. There are 400 million copies in circulation,
and almost no corporate decision takes place without it.
But what if PowerPoint is actually making us stupider?

This year, Edward Tufte -- the famous theorist of
information presentation -- made precisely that argument in
a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of
PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed
that Microsoft's ubiquitous software forces people to
mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low
resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually
contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of
reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on
bulleted lists, a ''faux analytical'' technique, Tufte
wrote, that dodges the speaker's responsibility to tie his
information together. And perhaps worst of all is how
PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The
Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average,
allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But,
as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts
with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded,
PowerPoint is infused with ''an attitude of commercialism
that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

Microsoft officials, of course, beg to differ. Simon Marks,
the product manager for PowerPoint, counters that Tufte is
a fan of ''information density,'' shoving tons of data at
an audience. You could do that with PowerPoint, he says,
but it's a matter of choice. ''If people were told they
were going to have to sit through an incredibly dense
presentation,'' he adds, ''they wouldn't want it.'' And
PowerPoint still has fans in the highest corridors of
power: Colin Powell used a slideware presentation in
February when he made his case to the United Nations that
Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, given that the weapons still haven't been found,
maybe Tufte is onto something. Perhaps PowerPoint is
uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation -- where
manipulating facts is as important as presenting them
clearly. If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just
the right tool to help you not say it.



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