Parker, I. (2001, May 28). Absolute PowerPoint: Can a software package edit our thoughts? The New Yorker. Retrieved February 14, 2009 from http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/05/28/010528fa_fact_parker?printable=true

Ian Parker protests against the pervasive use of PowerPoint presentations in our society. More correctly, he protests against the use of PowerPoint’s internal “AutoContent Wizard.” He deems its design and use as an attempt to force users’ and viewers’ thoughts into patterns that edit their thoughts. He says the software helps presenters “make their case, but PowerPoint also makes it own case.” PowerPoint’s case, according to Parker, is:
· how to organize information
· how much information to organize
· how to look at the world
The “AutoContent Wizard” supplies thematically designed templates. The following “titles” even suggest the circumstances for their use:
· “Managing Organizational Change”
· “Communicating Bad News”
· “Motivating a Team”
Parker recommends users “opt out” of using the “Wizard” if they use it at all. He realizes that the AutoWizard’s use is “so comforting” to fearful presenters that they are “soothed into its use” without any desire to “turn it off.” The comfort of the wizard also leads to further rules that imitate PowerPoint’s template simplicity. For example, one company suggested to its staff that they follow a simple “Rule of Sevens” in PowerPoint presentation design—“Seven bullets or lines per page, [and] seven words per line.”
PowerPoint has become so ubiquitous at business meetings that Parker sees one who omits the expected presentation as committing a career damaging move. He uses an example of excessive use—a businessman on his way home considering how to present an argument to his wife for omitting their customary vacation due to lack of funds. The businessman said before he thought of it, he had begun to think about which PowerPoint slides to use and how to arrange them to present a more effective argument to his wife. PowerPoint intrudes into the most intimate of relationships.
By the 1980s, attendance at business meetings began to increasingly occupy workers’ time. With so many meetings to attend, the need arose to find a better way to talk to one’s peers at these numerous, compulsory meetings. PowerPoint was “invented” to address this need of a better way to argue for one’s point of view at meetings.
Parker recounts the history of PowerPoint’s development by individuals in the 1970s and 1980s to illustrate how pervasive its use has become.
· Whitfield Diffie, Bell-Northern Research employee, was responsible for the concept of presentation software in the 1970s when he invented a “storyboard slideshow on paper” to present his ideas at meetings.
· Bob Gaskins, who worked in the R&D computer department of Bell-Northern Research in the 1970s-1980s, connected Diffie’s concept to a computer graphics program that would work on Mac and Windows to produce overhead transparencies on a copy machine.
· Cathleen Belleville, PowerPoint employee from 1989-1995, introduced clip art images called “Screen Beans”—her most famous is the “head-scratching stick figure” that has become PowerPoint’s logo to many.
· By 2001, Microsoft estimated that 32,000,000 PowerPoint presentations were designed each day.
· PowerPoint had captured 95% of the presentation software market.
· PowerPoint’s market dominance led to its migration from business to “other areas of our lives.”
Parker’s examples of the pervasion of PowerPoint in society are at times humorous:
· In 1999, Sew Meng Chung, a Singapore engineer, treated his wedding guests to a 130+ picture PowerPoint presentation after they were seated but before the wedding began.
· Terry Taylor founded e-Bible Teacher.com that supplies electronic visual aids—PowerPoint announcement templates, song lyrics, “sermons ready-to-use”—that can be projected onto screens via PowerPoint with computers and media projectors in churches.
After presenting the case for the over-pervasive use of PowerPoint presentation software in our society, in the remainder of the article, Parker elaborates on the thought-altering dangers of becoming too dependent upon PowerPoint.
1. “Instead of human contact, [the audience] is given human display.”
Display instead of contact inhibits conversational delivery in public speaking. Parker calls presentation versus direct conversational type presentation “the sin of triple delivery”—text is: (a) projected onto a screen; (b) spoken aloud; and (3) read on a handout—simultaneously.
2. Elaborate PowerPoint presentations clog the companies’ internet bandwidth.
Instead of communicating personally, people are increasingly designing presentations and sending them to each other via the internet. He uses two examples of the dangerous, internet “log-jamb.” (a) Sun Microsystems’ Chairman, Scott McNeely, recently banned PowerPoint. He said 40,000 employees using PowerPoint to communicate on the internet was “trying to put a pig through a python.” McNeely compared the sizes of Word files to PowerPoint files made from Word files—90,000 bits versus 458,048 bits. (b) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, sent a memo urging simpler military presentations since the elaborate ones were choking the military’s bandwidth.
3. Employees are wasting valuable time designing “fun” presentations instead of concentrating on the subject matter of their presentations.
4. PowerPoint is “adept at disguising the fragile foundations of a proposal or the emptiness of a business plan.”
Everything appears of equal importance and a presenter can simply skip over quickly a weak link in the chain of an argument for easier acceptance of a proposal.
Parker cites an Arizona State University study of the effect of PowerPoint on decision making. Andrew’s statistics, a fictional high school athlete being considered for a scholarship, was presented in three different ways to a committee—(a) numbers on a sheet of paper; (b) a bar graph on a piece of paper; and (3) in a PowerPoint presentation where the bar graph literally rose before the committee’s eyes. The experiment was repeated three times with three different groups. “When Andrew was ‘PowerPointed,’ viewers saw him as a greater asset to the football team.”
5. PowerPoint gives more information to an audience, but it at the same time omits the process of arriving at that information.
Clifford Nass, Stanford University professor, used to lecture in the traditional manner. One day his students asked him to use PowerPoint. He conceded. However, he did so sadly since he also conceded that students miss the process of learning now. “...the professors I remember the most were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don’t remember what they said. It was an elegant way to wrap around a problem.”
6. PowerPoint could lead the audience to believe that all the information is included in the PowerPoint presentation.
“It squeezes out the storyteller, the rhetorician, the poet, the person whose thoughts” cannot be made to fit onto AutoContent generated slides.
Parker includes a great quotation from Nass.
I’m lecturing [before PowerPoint] ...on ‘the human’ applied to computers...and all of a sudden I go, “God! The Wizard of Oz!” I just went for it—twenty-five minutes. And to this day students who were in that class remember it. That could not happen now: “Where the hell is the slide?”