Your football team is behind - way, way behind - and there's a
feeling in the locker room of heavy, clotted gloom. Everyone slouches on
the floor against lockers and benches. Doom-induced lethargy pervades
the place. Even the towels are too limp to swat at a teammate's
derriere. And then the coach appears. Moving purposefully to the center
of the room, he eyes the despairing players. He rubs his hands together
as if they were kindling for inspiration.
At this point, the coach can:
_Deliver a rousing, emotion-laced speech exhorting the players to
press on in the face of tremendous adversity and daunting odds, or
_Cue up a PowerPoint presentation on the six keys to victory,
including bulleted items such as "Proper blocking and tackling,"
"Exhibiting a winning attitude," "Turning weaknesses into strengths" and
"Don't focus on the scoreboard," along with a multimedia photo montage
of memorable game-winning plays set to the soundtrack of "Rudy."
Which approach is more likely to send the team back onto the field
poised for a comeback?
Your answer instantly drop-kicks you into one of two camps:
_Those who believe in the power of a freewheeling address, full of
digressions and personal chemistry, to change hearts and minds most
_Those who believe in PowerPoint.
And while the cultural scoreboard may be invisible, this much is
indisputable: The PowerPoint people are winning.
Actually, it's not even close. PowerPoint, the public-speaking
application included in the Microsoft Office software package, is one of
the most pervasive and ubiquitous technological tools ever concocted. In
less than a decade, it has revolutionized the worlds of business,
education, science and communications, swiftly becoming the standard for
just about anybody who wants to explain just about anything to just
about anybody else. From corporate middle managers reporting on
production goals to fourth graders fashioning a show-and-tell on the
French and Indian War to church pastors explicating the seven deadly
sins - although seven is a trifle too many bullet points for an audience
to absorb comfortably, as any veteran PowerPoint user will tell you -
the software seems to be everywhere.
The phenomenon parallels the rise of the presentation as the basic
unit of group communication. To be sure, there have always been
presentations - although Martin Luther managed to get his 95 theses
across just by nailing them to a church door - but they used to be
low-key affairs accompanied by chalkboards or large pads of paper on
easels. A great deal of interpersonal communication got done simply by
means of that reviled but effective tool known as the memo.
Then came the 1970s, the era that brought us role-playing games,
bonding and the sharing of feelings, soon to be followed by the 1980s,
an epoch of networking, business retreats and mission statements.
Communal settings began to be seen as the ideal venue for the transfer
of information, not only because of various economies of scale but
because the shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere seemed to add validation to
the material and a general bonhomie that helped cement the organization.
Suddenly, like oaks toppling unheard in the forest, ideas seemed to lack
existence if they weren't first trotted out in front of a large group of
colleagues by a presenter armed with "visual aids" - overhead
transparencies or photographic slides.
But slides and transparencies are often difficult to create.
Moreover, the thought of presenting was enough to paralyze many people
trying to make their way unobtrusively through the shoals of large
organizations and research establishments. Nobody could possibly have
enough slides to fill an entire presentation without verbal content.
Sooner or later the speaker would have to ... talk! ... doing so from
either a dry, prepared text or, God help them, from memory or even off
It was into this breach that PowerPoint leaped. With PowerPoint, you
could fit your entire presentation onto a computer disk and use a laptop
to project it, in sequential order, onto a screen that the audience
could watch. All your information and visuals could be arranged on
discrete "pages" or "slides" full of headings and bulleted points that
broke your talk down into coherent bits, similar to the outlines that
your elementary school teacher tried vainly to teach you in the days
when the only networking you wanted to do was watch "Scooby-Doo" and
All at once, no more slides, no more overheads. Visuals could be
scanned directly into the computer and inserted at appropriate places in
your program. If you wished, PowerPoint had a variety of graphics you
could also nab. Best of all, while you couldn't put all your spoken text
onto the screen, you could get enough up there to quell your fears of
At best, you could embellish upon the bullet points, confident that
nerves wouldn't cause you to lose your place as your talk proceeded. At
worst, you could stand up there and just recite the bullets as your
entire speech, reading them aloud off the screen as if your audience
were a tribe of illiterate backwoodsmen who had somehow wandered into a
presentation on "A Stochastic Approach to Inelastic Demand for Durable
Goods Using a Multifarious Economic Model."
But PowerPoint has a dark side. It squeezes ideas into a preconceived
format, organizing and condensing not only your material but -
inevitably, it seems - your way of thinking about and looking at that
material. A complicated, nuanced issue invariably is reduced to headings
and bullets. And if that doesn't stultify your thinking about the
subject, it may have that effect on your audience - which is at the
mercy of your presentation.
Eerily, PowerPoint was invented in 1984, that iconic year of
Orwellian mind control. That was when Bob Gaskins and Dennis Austin of
the Silicon Valley software company Forethought created a PowerPoint
precursor called Presenter, which soon was renamed PowerPoint.
Forethought and its promising software brainchild were acquired in 1987
by Microsoft, and a Macintosh version of PowerPoint went on sale that
year. A Windows version was added in 1990.
PowerPoint has been the subject of a jauntily amusing New Yorker
profile, a distinction generally reserved for heads of state, notorious
criminals or controversial entertainers. The program is so widely used
that it needs no introduction, no surrounding nest of associative
explanation. Nobody tells the audio-visual guy at the university that
has booked him or her to speak, "I'm going to use PowerPoint - you know,
that software application that lets you use your computer to put cool
stuff up on a screen with neat graphics and even a soundtrack if you
want." And the software said something about you. Just to show up for a
talk toting an old-fashioned carousel of slides is to label yourself the
kind of individual who still has a bag telephone.
PowerPoint is way beyond branding. It left branding in the dust long
ago. With more than 300 million users worldwide, according to a
Microsoft spokesperson, with a share of the presentation software market
that is said to top 95 percent and with an increasing number of grade
school students indoctrinated every day into the PowerPoint way -
chopping up complex ideas and information into bite-sized nuggets of a
few words, and then further pureeing those nuggets into bullet items of
even fewer words - PowerPoint seems poised for world domination.
Its astonishing popularity, the way it has spread exponentially
through the culture, seems analogous, in a way, to drugs. Think of it as
technological cocaine - so effortless to embrace initially, so difficult
to relinquish after that. People who once use PowerPoint generally don't
stop using it.
People who don't use it can't quite understand what all the fuss is
about. And then they use it. And neither they nor their relationship to
information is ever quite the same again.
Those who harbor reservations about PowerPoint, the iconoclasts who
dare to question whether technology is always an unalloyed good, are
difficult to coax into the open, so powerful is technology's grip on the
human imagination in the 21st century. Anyone who asks, "Yes, we can -
but should we?" about any technology risks being branded an
Author Lewis Mumford neatly captured this prejudice in a 1970 essay
in which he lamented a widespread "technological compulsiveness."
Western culture, he said, "has accepted as unquestionable a
technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most
primitive taboo: not merely (is it) the duty to foster invention and
constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to
surrender to these novelties unconditionally just because they are
offered, without respect to their human consequences."
PowerPoint may be an easier, spiffier way to present information, but
is it a better way? As the software spreads into more schools, as an
increasing number of teachers employ it in their lectures and require
students to use it in their class presentations, certain questions hover
persistently just to one side of the glowing screen:
Is PowerPoint changing not only the way we do business and educate
our young, but also the way we think?
"I hate PowerPoint," said Jay Phelan, an evolutionary biologist who
teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles and is co-author
of "Mean Genes" (2000), a study of how brain structure affects behavior.
"I'm one of the few," he added ruefully.
Most of Phelan's colleagues use PowerPoint in their lectures and his
students often request such presentations from him. But he resists
distilling the contents of his lectures - the creative interplay of a
teacher's knowledge and the students' hunger for ideas, as manifested in
rhetorical display - into a series of bullet items.
"I spend a lot of time identifying what works in lectures," said
Phelan. "It's not about a content transfer from the teacher to the other
person. The students have the information. It's something else that gets
conveyed in a good lecture. That gets lost when you use PowerPoint."
Is it changing our brains, though? Hard to say, Phelan replies, since
evolutionary changes occur over millennia, not decades. Yet it is
certainly affecting our creativity, he believes.
The point of PowerPoint - making presentations simple to prepare, so
simple that a second grader can do it during commercial breaks of "SpongeBob
SquarePants" - is what makes it dangerous to our imaginations, Phelan
warns. "In their (Microsoft's) attempts to make PowerPoint easier to
use, they have all these templates. They totally limit your ability to
express yourself. Everybody's using the same color palette. It's one
more way to choke the life out of creativity."
Indeed, the program helpfully provides something called AutoContent
Wizard, which all but writes the presentation for you. From a hefty list
of potential speech topics, you click on the one you want, say, "Project
Overview," "Selling Your Ideas" or "Managing HR's Changing Role," and
the software burps out some 10 to 12 slides with prompts and even some
Such principled contrariness as Phelan's may be fine for a
high-minded professor trailing an Ivy League Ph.D. - Phelan studied
under renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson - but for businesswomen and
men, resistance to PowerPoint is futile, said Clarke L. Caywood,
associate professor of integrated marketing at Northwestern University.
"No one in business today could pretend to be facile in business
communications without PowerPoint," he declared. "It's like being able
Caywood, an early fan of the software whose passion has remained
strong, said his own lectures and speeches are all done on PowerPoint,
and soon the whole world may be doling out information in bullet items
with diverting graphics thrown in. "I don't see anything on the horizon
that's going to bump it," he said. "This (PowerPoint) is really
More than 80 percent of the presentations given by business-school
students rely on PowerPoint rather than the old-fashioned flowing
narrative, Caywood said. And that's fortuitous, because once in the
business world, those students will be employing PowerPoint on a regular
basis, he added. Indeed, a Microsoft spokesman once estimated that some
30 million PowerPoint presentations are made daily by business
professionals around the world.
"I'm not guilty of any crime in asking my students to develop this
expertise," Caywood said. "Every business requires it now."
But what's fine for a business professional might not be so fine for
a child just learning how to think, how to connect ideas, said Sherry
Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self.
"These technologies are changing the way we think," said Turkle.
"They change how our kids grow up and how they process information.
They're not passive."
Software such as PowerPoint tends to prize "binary assumptions,"
Turkle noted, by jamming complex thoughts into brief snippets. "We have
a technology that is encouraging us to see things in black and white -
but is this a time when we need to see things in black and white? Good
and bad? This kind of `three bullets up and down' isn't helping us come
up with the right kinds of arguments. It's not particularly what third
Turkle's reservations are not about PowerPoint per se - she uses it
all the time, she admits - but about the increasing cultural mandate to
have grade-school children become proficient in its use.
"It's one of the most popular softwares in elementary and secondary
schools," she said. "But PowerPoint doesn't teach children to make an
argument. It teaches them to make a point, which is quite a different
thing. It encourages presentation, not conversation. Students grow
accustomed to not being challenged. A strong presentation is designed to
close down debate, rather than open it up."
Turkle, author of seminal books on the cultural consequences of
technology such as "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit"
(1984) and "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet"
(1995), added, "I don't want to make PowerPoint the motor for an
apocalyptic future. But it's part of a general trend. It's one element
among others that keep us from complexity. We face a very complex world.
History is quite complex. Current events and literature are complex.
Students are thinking and doing presentations on complicated things, and
we need them to be able to think about them in complicated ways.
"PowerPoint is not a step in the right direction. It's an exemplar of
a technology we should be quite skeptical about as a pedagogical tool."
How pervasive is PowerPoint among grade-school children? Exact
numbers of PowerPoint users among the LePage's-and-Crayola set are hard
to come by because, explains Eric Herzog, a product manager at
Microsoft, individual school districts and sometimes even individual
schools within those districts make their own decisions about technology
use in the classroom.
"Overseas, we see more top-level decision-making. But in the United
States, all states and all districts do it differently," said Herzog,
who works in the company's Education Solutions division.
Microsoft supplies PowerPoint and other applications to schools at a
substantial discount, Herzog said. Although the software originally was
intended for the business market, by 1998 "teachers had discovered it,"
he said. They used it to present lessons and, more recently, to help
students hone their proficiency with computers.
"Teachers like it because it's a content-empty tool," Herzog
continued. "It's an open-ended tool. All the ideas, all the creativity,
comes from the kids. PowerPoint is a tool they can use to express their
But what about the charges that PowerPoint slices and dices
complexity and ambiguity? That it changes kids' thinking from a
flowering tree of associative learning and rapturous discovery to the
grim lockstep of an outline with one-size-fits-all clip art? That its
fancy graphics can mask a lack of actual content?
"It's important to make sure it's used in the proper way," Herzog
stated. "It's certainly not a replacement for other tools in the
Elizabeth Cochran, of the Chicago Public Schools, makes a similar
point - a verbal point, that is, not a PowerPoint point: Technology is
not inherently good or bad. Only its usage can be labeled that way.
"A PowerPoint presentation is not going to replace a long-term
research paper," insisted Cochran, an instructional technology
coordinator. Technology is now part of the curriculum as early as
prekindergarten classes, she said. "It supports engaged learning. The
research does show that when teaching is used in ways that make students
participants in their own learning experience, it enhances the
educational experience. It's a way of capitalizing on student interest."
No one doubts that kids love gadgets and gizmos, but, critics ask,
since when do we let students decide what's good for them? Isn't that
like replacing spinach on the school lunch menu with Oreos?
At any rate, Cochran noted, "We live in the digital age. It's
important to incorporate it. Regardless of what career a student goes
into, be it a restaurateur or the president of IBM, there will be a
level of technology they'll need.
"As I said, PowerPoint will not replace a research paper," she added,
"but if a student writes a paper, PowerPoint might be a way to deliver
that paper in front of a group of people. It can always be used in a way
that's not effective. But a chalkboard can be used in a way that's not
The world of cultural observers, then, is large enough to contain
both those enthralled by PowerPoint and those appalled by it, those who
readily welcome new technologies and those who believe that all
technologies need to be interrogated as relentlessly as murder suspects.
"I'm surprised at how resistant I've become to PowerPoint and such
classroom technologies," mused Todd Parker, an English professor at
DePaul University. "When they were first introduced, I thought I'd be
happy to use such aids, but after trying several of them, especially
PowerPoint, I've come to loathe them all with a passion - in particular
because they easily become a crutch for the poor student and a stumbling
block to students already too disengaged from the act of learning.
"My biggest complaint," Parker said, "is that they come between the
teacher and his or her students. The danger is that class tends to
devolve into a slide show from which students too often retreat to that
room behind their eyeballs. My seven years at DePaul have taught me that
the most valuable relationship between teacher and student is
charismatic and immediate, one in which the teacher actively engages the
students personally. This is hard to do when you turn the effort of
instruction over to a machine.
"I even think that it's less important what I teach my students than
how I challenge them morally and intellectually." Hard to imagine a
PowerPoint presentation doing that.
Yet Roger Graves, Parker's colleague in the DePaul English
department, is a PowerPoint enthusiast. "The educational evidence in
support of the use of this technology is too strong," said Graves, who
routinely posts his PowerPoint-fueled lectures on the Internet for
students to peruse at their leisure. "Used properly, this technology
changes what goes on in classrooms ... The core teaching skill is not
lecturing or even orchestrating class discussion, but instead creating a
learning environment and motivating students. The focus becomes more on
learning and less on teaching."
Howard Gardner, the well-known developmental psychologist who has
written extensively about children's creativity and pioneered the
concept of multiple intelligences, might seem like a perfect candidate
to lead the anti-PowerPoint charge, especially in public schools, where
rote use of the software might channel kids' minds into preordained
pathways. But he's a PowerPoint man to the bone.
"I certainly don't see it as bad for students and learners," declared
Gardner, who uses PowerPoint regularly in his public lectures. "I
certainly don't think that it stifles creativity, and might even
stimulate it if the technology is used imaginatively and synergistically
with other paraphernalia.
"Like any other technology, it can be overused and distorted,"
cautioned Gardner, the John H. and Elizabeth A. Hobbs Professor of
Cognition and Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of
Education. "(But) PowerPoint is itself quite flexible and so there is no
need for it to simplify or oversimplify students' presentations. If a
student falls into a bad habit or uses it in a rigid fashion, teachers
should give helpful feedback, just as if a student always wrote a paper
in exactly the same way."
Others, however, bristle at the fact that PowerPoint presentations
can be stamped out like machine parts. An essay by Thomas A. Stewart in
an issue of Fortune last year was titled, "Ban It Now! Friends Don't Let
Friends Use PowerPoint." Stewart argued that the software was turning
business presentations into boring assembly-line products. "Why in the
world would you want a uniform look?" Stewart asked, adding
theatrically: "Never put more than three bullet points in a PowerPoint
show, experts say. It confuses people. Keep it simple." Then with rich
sarcasm: "You know that life is."
The Wall Street Journal reported in December on PowerPoint's
relentless march into grade-school classrooms, raising a few mild
concerns among educators that the software's bells and whistles, its
dazzling doodads, could transform mediocre student work into triumphs -
at least on a superficial level.
And it's the superficiality, not the fact that PowerPoint may dumb
down complex ideas, that bothers Larry Nighswander.
"People get overwhelmed with what they can do and forget that
moderation is an important part," said Nighswander, director of the
School of Visual Communications at Ohio University and a former National
PowerPoint is now the preferred software of photographers making
presentations of their work to professors or prospective employers,
Nighswander said. "But it can become visual noise. Nobody sees the
content anymore. They're thinking, `I wonder if this screen is going to
blast out of the corner or break into little pieces?' When you're first
shown what sophisticated software can do, you think, `Oh, wow, I'll be
able to do this or that.' It takes time to figure out if that can make a
better presentation or if it's all just decoration.
"There's the old axiom in design that said, `Less is more.' They
should have that printed on the outside of the PowerPoint box. It needs
a warning label."
So should all technologies, even the most benign-seeming ones, Neil
Postman would say. Postman is the New York University professor who has
turned out book after book asking us to stop and reflect before rushing
headlong into technology's chilly embrace.
"Technology is ideology," he writes in his most famous polemic,
"Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show
Business" (1985). "To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a
program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to
make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at
this late hour, stupidly plain and simple."
What sort of world is reflected in PowerPoint? A world stripped down
to briefly summarized essences, a world snipped clean of the annoying
underbrush of ambiguity and complication. But is that the world in which
we want to live? And are the values prized by businesses - succinctness,
directness, manipulation of symbols - also the values we want running
our schools and nurturing our children?
On the other hand, don't computers help everyone to work smarter and
faster, and aren't students immeasurably enriched by an easy familiarity
with technologies such as PowerPoint?
What do you think? - assuming that you still can, that is, after
prolonged exposure to PowerPoint.
- _ -
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