Sunday, November 21, 2004

Pet Peeve: Powerpoint

A discussion on Lubos' blog set me off on another of my pet peeves - Powerpoint. Lubos dismisses problems with Powerpoint as "pronouncements of left wing morons who want to fight against America, capitalism, Microsoft". I, of course, think differently. The problem is not with the technology as such, it is with the bad habits that it promotes.

Let me give an example of something else that puts me at risk of being a moron who wants to fight against America, capitalism, Verizon and Cingular. The cellphone is a very useful tool. But I've been in too many meetings, where people constantly receive calls on their cell, from their management, and so keep losing the thread of the meeting. It is not that the meeting is disrupted; people do put their phones on silent mode, and slip out of the room to talk and so on. But you do not know who has missed what part of the meeting, and whether any important points have been missed. "My boss can interrupt me at any time" becomes counter-productive.

In a similar way, Powerpoint promotes certain bad habits. In my experience, the problem is foreign to a physics department. Imagine a professor giving a physics talk with some slides as an exhibit. If physics is still done as I remember it, the slides are used as an outliner, or to display a complicated equation, or a figure, or a list of collaborators, or citations. The slides represent skeleton, the speaker provides the flesh and blood.

In the corporation, however, (and apparently in NASA as well, see Tufte's criticisms below), a powerpoint presentation may begin as something similar. For instance, an engineer may talk about a technical solution using some slides. But the slides take on an existence independent of the engineer. The slides, sans talk, accompanying notes, explanations, may be fed up the management hierarchy. An accompanying technical report is needed. But who wants to read? The next phenomenon is that managers stop accepting anything that is not given to them as a terse hierarchical bullet-point list.

Powerpoint became a pet peeve of mine many months ago, after some incidents at work. When I went online, I found that many criticisms pre-date mine and are more comprehensive. I do not really have much to add to the following, garnered from the net.

Feynman apparently was no fan of bullet lists, as some of his commentary on the first space shuttle disaster indicates.

Peter Norvig shows us how Powerpoint mangles Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He explains further, here.

Some of the problems with Powerpoint are explored in this essay from The New Yorker. The essay also gives the history of the Powerpoint software.

Edward Tufte has written extensively on the drawbacks of Powerpoint. A parody of his ideas in Powerpoint is available here. Tufte's own writings (and readers' comments) are available at his web-site. Two of the most relevant are this, and this which talk about the role of Powerpoint communications in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.