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
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.