KILLING ME MICROSOFTLY
ALMOST NOBODY SPEAKS IN PUBLIC ANYMORE WITHOUT USING POWERPOINT. BUT SOME
LIKEN THE PROGRAM TO A COGNITIVE VEG-O-MATIC THAT SLICES AND DICES HUMAN THOUGHT.
By Julia Keller
Julia Keller is the Tribune's cultural critic
Published January 5, 2003
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 multi-media 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 effectively.
- 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 4th-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 the cuff.
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 "The Munsters."
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 of your spoken text onto the screen, you could
get enough up there to quell your fears of public speaking. 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 says 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 antediluvian.
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," says 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 adds 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
"I spend a lot of time identifying what works in lectures," says
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 2nd-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 PhD--Phelan studied under renowned Harvard biologist
E.O. Wilson--but for businesswomen and men, resistance to PowerPoint is futile,
says 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 declares. "It's like being
able to read."
Caywood, an early fan of the software whose passion has remained strong, says
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 says. "This [PowerPoint] is really smoking."
More than 80 percent of the presentations given by business school students
rely on PowerPoint rather than the old-fashioned flowing narrative, Caywood
says. And that's fortuitous, because once in the business world, those students
will be employing PowerPoint on a regular basis, he adds. 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 ex
pertise," Caywood says. "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, says 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," says Turkle.
"They change how our kids grow up and how they process information. They're
Software such as PowerPoint tends to prize "binary assumptions,"
Turkle notes, 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 3rd-graders need."
Turkle's reservations are not about PowerPoint per se--she uses it all the
time, she admits--but with 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 says. "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),
adds, "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," says Herzog, who works
in the company's Education Solutions division.
Microsoft supplies PowerPoint and other applications to schools at a substantial
discount, Herzog says. Although the software originally was intended for the
business market, by 1998 "teachers had discovered it," he says.
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 continues.
"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 creative ideas."
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
states. "It's certainly not a replacement for other tools in the classroom."
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," insists Cochran, an instructional technology coordinator. Technology
is now part of the curriculum as early as pre-kindergarten classes, she says.
"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
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 notes, "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
"As I said, PowerPoint will not replace a research paper," she adds,
"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 effective,
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," muses 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 says, "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," says 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
"I certainly don't see it as bad for students and learners," declares
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," cautions
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
The Wall Street Journal reported last month 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," says Nighswander, director of the School of Visual
Communications at Ohio University and a former National Geographic photographer.
PowerPoint is now the preferred software of photographers making presentations
of their work to professors or prospective employers, Nighswander says. "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 says, 'Less is more.' They should
have that printed on the outside of the PowerPoint box. It needs a warning
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.