A few years back, Edward Tufte (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information) wrote a particularly damning piece about “slideware” — PowerPoint is Evil (which, by the way, I blogged about at the time). I recently revisited Tufte’s piece and some counterarguments.
Don Norman’s In Defense of PowerPoint makes the straightforward point that PowerPoint didn’t create the problems it’s blamed for:
We have had poor talks long before PowerPoint. We have even had bullet points long before PowerPoint — long before computers. In the old days, people typed, stenciled or hand-lettered their slides onto transparencies which were shown with the aid of overhead projectors or wall charts, or photographed them on to glass-plated photographic slides and then, later, 35 mm. slides. These talks were also dull and tedious.
Norman points out that these three things should be separate documents:
- The notes the speaker will use (which should be seen only by the speaker).
- The slides the audience will see.
- Handouts that will be taken away for later study.
Tad Simons makes similar points in Edward Tufte doesn’t hate PowerPoint, he hates the culture that spawned it:
Tufte’s gripes about PowerPoint sound an awful lot like 1960s criticisms of television’s corrupting effect on the mind, and before that, the stupefying nature of vaudeville. This isn’t to suggest that Tufte is wrong, just to clarify that our culture has been engaged in an extended conversation about the impact of technology on human thought and communication, of which the debate over PowerPoint is only a small but significant part.
If anything, PowerPoint is the culmination of a decades-long trend in all types of media used to distill complex information into ever more easily digested pieces, making it all but impossible to communicate any kind of complex or nuanced message. Sound bites, campaign slogans, ad copy and bullet points are all part of this evolution toward content-free language. And, for better or worse, this trend has been exploited most profitably in the worlds of business, politics and media — worlds in which, not coincidentally, PowerPoint is extremely popular.
Tufte’s true beef is not with PowerPoint, it is with the entire larger culture outside of academia: the culture that favors get-to-the-point practicality over ivory-tower idealism; the culture that prefers action over dialogue and fists over philosophy; the culture that doesn’t trust people who speak in complete sentences; the culture that says don’t think about it, “just do it”; the culture that, hate it or not, seems all too willing to deceive itself in the name of freedom, democracy and the American way.