Satan's Overhead Transparencies (2004)

A "ping" broke the sepulchral silence inside the monastery as the abbot pushed a button on his laptop. Voices murmured as a large screen lit up next to him. The monks shifted nervously in their seats in anticipation. As students of suffering, they were familiar with hairshirts and knotted whips. They were now ready for the sophisticated self-abuse of bullet points in a large gothic font, and all the dark delights of the greatest intellectual torture device ever conceived: PowerPoint.

So what has a Microsoft computer program got to do with a resurgent medievalism? We’ll get to that in a moment. Anyone who’s ever attended enough lectures or seminars is familiar with PowerPoint, a PC presentation program consistently damned with faint praise.

In a landmark essay from two years ago, the well-regarded graphic designer Edward Tufte held that "power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely." Describing it as "slideware," Tufte called attention to the program’s derivation from overhead projections used in companies such as IBM and in the military. "PowerPoint's pushy style seeks to set up a speaker's dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

Tufte’s critique wasn’t merely a snooty, stylistic rejection of the program’s graphic and textual limitations. A doyen of designers and author of several beautifully illustrated books on information design, he argued that PowerPoint is a cognitive and social threat -- Kryptonite to the very superpowers of communication the program pitches. In business settings, each slide contains an average of forty words. In elementary school projects, it’s around twenty words. This fragmentation, which breaks discursive thought up into Lego-like modules, is especially toxic for young students, he insisted. Instead of learning to write a report using full sentences and paragraphs, kids learn to "formulate client pitches and infomercials."

As a result of PowerPoint’s inherent limitations, "audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentially, one damn slide after another." Context and interconnections go out the window with the program’s "chartjunk" -- a limited repertoire of pie tables and bar graphs. Sitting through a PowerPoint presentation is like a school play, he claimed – "very loud, very slow, and very simple."

It’s easy to get addicted to chartjunk. Tufte sums up his PowerPoint needling with the damage done to the US space program. NASA engineers, using the mind-numbing effects of the program to warn NASA management of the risk of tile damage on the Space Shuttle, unintentionally obscured the actual threat. The Columbia’s death and destruction might have been avoided by a more straightforward graphic and oral presentation, he says.

Enter Jane Jacobs. The respected urban scholar trots out Tufte’s charges in her latest book, A Coming Dark Age." A kind of "cultural amnesia" followed the collapse of empires, Jacobs claims. Within a few generations, entire systems of learning become as mysterious as the heads on Easter Island. But Jacobs insists this kind of forgetting is already happening right now in our own culture, which may foreshadow our own decline. PowerPoint is one example, she argues, of a form of communication that is paradoxically more primitive than it’s less technically sophisticated predecessors. As a clunkier, faddish form appropriates a previous technology, the culture begins to forget the values of the latter.

Academic alarmism? After all, it’s not like we all ended up peasants in the transition from beta video recording to the less superior VHS format. But Jacobs is concerned with a subtle, systemic phenomenon. Microsoft bloatware is simply one example of an overall trend in which technique and technology create more problems than they solve. It’s the old revenge of unintended consequences. As in the Disney Fantasia, where the sorcerer’s apprentice loses control of his brooms, the tools no longer serve the master.

Jacobs doesn’t argue a new Dark Age is a done deal -- and in any case it will take more than mediocre programming from Redmond to send us there. But personally, after sitting through "PowerPoint Hell" in classroom settings a few times this year, I can see how either a design Cassandra or an octagenarian urban planner might think of slideware as end-of-the-world stuff.

The idea of headache-inducing tools heralding a New Dark Age brings to mind the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remember the medieval pilgrims piously administering blows to their foreheads with wooden boards? If technical non-fixes really are ascendant in a culture growing increasingly stupid, we might as well be whacking ourselves in the heads with our laptops.

Geoff Olson