Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The seven-point solution

The PowerPoint solution, of course. How would we live with out it?! one could wonder after enough Town Council meetings. After last night's public hearing, with its usual array of tidy computer slides, I decided to check out PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address, created by Peter Norvig, which has been around for several years. See for yourself.

"[I]nvented in 1984, that iconic year of Orwellian mind control," wrote Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune last year, PowerPoint "seems poised for world domination."

The easiest thing to say about PowerPoint is that it sucks the life out of real rhetoric. But it does more than that. When a complex topic is reduced to seven bullet points, or even a series of seven points, the surface result is that it looks complete, it looks solved. For certain, it is no longer complex. Quoted in Keller's story, Sherry Turkle says,

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.

In a New Yorker article a few years ago, a Stanford professor pointed out that while PowerPoint "lifts the floor"--enabling more speakers to make their points more effectively--it also "lowers the ceiling": "What you miss is the process. The classes I remember most, the professors I remember most, were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don't remember what they said, the details. It was 'What an elegant way to wrap around a problem!' PowerPoint takes that away. PowerPoint gives you the outcome, but it removes the process."

Peter Norvig says this is the very problem he wanted to highlight by translating Lincoln into PowerPoint. "Homogeneity is great for milk, but not for ideas," he writes. "Use visual aids to convey visual information: photographs, charts, or diagrams. But do not use them to give the impression that the matter is solved, wrapped up in a few bullet points."

UPDATE: Get your entries in by Nov. 2 for the PowerPoint to the People contest (via kottke).

UPDATE 2: Ed Cone on Pat Robertson and the Higher PowerPoint.

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