Monday, February 04, 2013

PowerPoint and Stupidity

Franck Frommer, translated by George Hollack. How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid: the Faulty Causality, Sloppy Logic, Decontextualized Data, and Seductive Showmanship that Have Taken Over Our Thinking. New York: The New Press, 2012. Hardback. $27.95. ISBN-10: 1595587020; ISBN-13: 978-1595587022.
bookcover: Powerpoint
          Despite its acerbic title and long subtitle, this book is not the product of an idiosyncratic Luddite, who is hotly airing his pet peeves. Rather, the French Frommer, a journalist and author, has meticulously researched the nature of PowerPoint and its application and results across various fields, particular business, the military, and education. In so doing, he brings what is increasingly becoming part of the background of contemporary life—as a “universal medium,” as he puts it—into the foreground. Although the author does not put it this way, he is exegeting the nature or form of PowerPoint against its cultural backdrop and in light of certain standards for knowledge and wisdom. Anyone who wants to acquire knowledge and avoid error will be well-served by his trenchant, well-documented, and in-depth analysis.
           PowerPoint began, innocently enough, as a multi-media device to present written and graphic material, particularly in the business world. But it quickly hypertrophied into a template for all manner of information presentation. When any medium of communication attains this much influence, the changes wrought in culture are not merely episodic or additive, but, rather, ecological.  That is, following Neil Postman, the widespread acceptance of and dependence upon any communication technology not only adds something to a culture (like as another piece of furniture in one’s home), but transforms culture at a deep (and usually unnoticed)epistemological level. It affects our habits of attending and thinking and feeling. It also subtly subtracts many previously valued aspects of life. Technology gives and takes away, usually under the cloak of ubiquity. For example, it gives the voice (or other sounds, such as music) a far greater reach into the ears of those far away. However, it eliminates the personal presence, as does the telephone.
The adoption of new a technology is usually seen as a novelty, and as such, stands out from the rest of accepted culture. For example, the first portable adding machines (now called calculators) were remarkable because of their miniaturized capacities (as were the first personal computers). At the beginning, calculators were rare and expensive. I bought one for about $70 in the early 1980s. Now (in 2013) they are everywhere and inexpensive. As such, they become part of the background of our culture. Few people consider them worthy of analysis or interpretation. So it now is with PowerPoint.
          Frommer understands the power of PowerPoint—and that its power is not always in service of the good, the true, or the beautiful. Under the cloak of ubiquity PowerPoint often robs us of knowledge by encouraging poor cognitive habits, given its very nature. As Marshall McLuhan said (and most people forgot), “the medium is the message.” This overstatement emphasizes the rhetorical nature of all communication. Every message is shaped by its medium. As Frommer says, “a medium is never neutral” (xv). A text message has a different form, and therefore a different effect, than a face-to-face conversation. A written card differs from an email message, even if the propositional content is identical. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, not only applies to spoken and written language, but to the objects and systems of communications themselves. It is no wonder that the greatest technological analyst of the last century (quirky, though he was), Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), was, by training, a rhetorician and not a technology expert or sociologist. McLuhan did not live long enough to sniff out the significance of PowerPoint, but Frommer continues his great tradition of principled suspicion. (The book mentions McLuhan only once in passing, on page 226, but his spirit is everywhere.) Frommer writes that PowerPoint “has invented a comprehensive rhetorical apparatus in which all the classical techniques of argument have been cleverly absorbed or transformed” (xii).
          That is a strong claim, and one that Frommer amply defends in 261 pages. What, then, are the distinguishing features of PowerPoint as a medium now that it has installed itself everywhere? PowerPoint will always reflect the intensions of its individual presenters, but those users are constrained by the form of the medium, just as a painter is constrained by the kinds of brushed, knives, or paints that she uses. But this enterprise is far different from painting. Consider the idea of a “point,” as in the bullet points so prominent in PowerPoint. Arranging information in pointed lists tends to decontextualize that information. There need be no logical association between points, as in premises leading to a conclusion through some argument form (induction or deduction). A student once asked me in 2000 if she could write her quiz in bullet points. I said, “No. I am old school. Use sentences and paragraphs.” PowerPoint, then, favors lists over linear, logical progressions.  As Frommer says, “the logic of the list thus fits into a more general cognitive ecosystem. It has become so preeminent that it has replaced the traditional methods of organizing information” (65). The phrase “cognitive ecosystem,” is apt, since, as Postman noted, communication media quickly form tacit systems of cognition. Books like Frommers’s help us crack the hidden codes so that we can attain a wider perspective on ourselves and our culture (see 1 Chronicles 12:32).
          PowerPoint favors a style of presentation that is, of course, graphically engaging. That is the point of PowerPoint. Thus, it emphasizes special effects over intelligible intellectual content. The entertainment element easily overrides or nullifies the pedagogic value. But this entertainment is usually couched in the model of selling things. PowerPoint was developed for the business world. As such, it emphasizes one of the three genres of oratory: the epideictic, which targets the common person as a consumer. “It prefers to charm through description to induce action, create reaction, or incite the audience. It thus creates utterances [or images] that do not need to be established, argued, demonstrated” (67). In other words, it casts a cognitive spell. I read of one professor who did not adopt a certain text for a class simply because it could not be “powerpointed.” Perhaps that serves as a good reason to use the text. To cite a personal example, after taking over a course from another professor midway through a semester, I noticed that my questions regarding the textbooks were greeted with eerie silence and puzzled expressions. I soon learned that the students were not bringing their textbooks to class because the professor used PowerPoint. Bringing books was unnecessary. This omission was rectified very quickly under my tutelage.
          In discipline after discipline, with examples after example, Frommer makes his case against PowerPoint as “a universal medium.” He does not view it as evil in itself. But like any widespread tool, it does some things well and other things badly. Just as a screwdriver makes a poor hammer (and vice versa), PowerPoint cannot virtuously bear the weight of all it now carries.  Frommer sums up nicely some of the salient weakness of PowerPoint as a medium of meaning:
A presentation tool should in principle facilitate the exchange of information. Through its graphic prolixity, however, Power Point gives rise to obscurity, confusion and cognitive fatigue. Moreover, the worldwide use of unreliable or doctored graphs and diagrams engenders doubt and the validity of discourse that has been given a layout intended to ensure a form of legitimacy. Finally, the proliferation of images responding to an ‘esthetic’ demand pollutes the argument. Emotion takes primacy over reason, exhibition over speech, spectacle over logic (99).
Rather than relying on general observations, Frommer carefully analyzes influential PowerPoint presentations such as those of Steve Jobs in revealing new Apple epiphanies, of Colin Powell before the United Nations making a case for the US to invade Iraq, and of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which was modeled on PowerPoint sensibilities. His close reading of these events adds great cogency to Frommers’s analysis of the structure and intrinsic limits, weakness, and deceptions of PowerPoint.
A few other points deserve mention. PowerPoint tends to eclipse the speaker as the center of attention, diverting it to the screen. It leaves the audience literally in the dark before the flickering screen, thus isolating people from one another. It also tends to diminish the need for note-taking, a highly intellectual skill of listening, analyzing, and recording important ideas taken from a lecture. One simply relies on “the slides” instead. The epidemic of PowerPoint also sets a rhetorical tone that resonates far beyond PowerPoint in our very language. People once lectured, now they present. But these two terms are not synonymous. A presentation involves far more than the speaker: electronic props are required. But in a lecture-discussion, there are no props (excluding the no-tech whiteboard or blackboard) and nothing to present to the audience beyond the speech of teacher and students. When teaching becomes presentation-oriented, the personality of the teacher is occluded by the technology.  The teacher qua technologist dwarfs the teacher qua learned speaker and intellectual provocateur.  Moreover, time spent preparing PowerPoint is time taken away from the rigors of actual study (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14). This ought not to be—if we care for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge.
I cannot do justice to the insightful analysis of this book. I was madly underlining and taking notes as I read it, particularly on the last hundred pages. It demands reading and pondering. It should not be put on PowerPoint slides.  If one agrees with Frommer’s theses, one will become a sign of contradiction to much of the contemporary world.. Near the end of this cogent work of social criticism, Frommer writes:
Although it may not makes us stupid, there is no doubt that PowerPoint, like many other media, helps to make the world illiterate and contributes to the abandonment of critical thinking, to blind acceptance, to a new form of voluntary servitude (228).
All those who seek to be literate, think critically, and have virtuous habits of knowing should pay heed to this book. Christians in particular should always ask what medium can best communicate knowledge about the things that matter most. We should not let the technological world automatically squeeze us into its mold (Romans 12:1-2). Frommer, who gives no indication of Christian conviction, gives a particularly egregious example of technological ignorance and abuse in the church. He cites a church service that used a PowerPoint presentation called, “The Death of Jesus Christ.” It consisted entirely of bullet points.
  • Jesus is brought before the court.
  • The soldiers clothe him in purple.
  • They crown him with thorns.
  • They put a reed in his hand.
  • They kneel mockingly before him. “And begin to salute him, Hail King of the Jews!” Mark 15:18.
  • They spit upon him.
  • They strike him on the head with a reed (59-60).
This “bullet point narrative,” as Frommer puts it, comes close to taking the Lord’s name in vain:
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name (Exodus 20:7).
Martin Luther exposited the meaning of this commandment this way:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not use His name superstitiously, or use it to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call on Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
The “powerpointing” the death of Christ does not directly denigrate Christ or use God’s name in a curse. However, I submit that this “PowerPoint narrative” (which may be a contradiction in terms) does not honor the realities experienced by the Lord Jesus Christ through his passion. In fact, PowerPoint works in a sense to “deceive” (as Luther puts it) the congregation into thinking that the Lamb of God’s final hours before the Cross were comprised of pointillist moments, essentially unrelated to each other. If so, much meaning is mislaid—at the very least. When the public reading of Scripture—long an essential aspect of divine liturgy—is given over to bullet points, much has been lost—and for no good reason. Technology may deceive, even as it promises to serve (2 Corinthians 11:14).
          How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid will anger, even outrage, and flummox many who have become habituated to and saturated in a medium they may not comprehend. But the truth often hurts before it heals. This important book it will also confirm the suspicions and hesitations of those less than dazzled by PowerPoint and its ubiquitous “presentations.”

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