Today I learned that there are moments when I see eye-to-eye with the military. After General Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, viewed a near-nigh incomprehensible slide of a diagram consisting of seemingly countless swirling and overlapping thin, colored, arced lines—part of a PowerPoint presentation designed to explain American strategy in the region—he said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Having seen the diagram reproduced in The New York Times today), I realize that to comprehend it requires an advanced degree in Superlogical Nuerophysiological Opticophysical Psychology, as well as at least a decade of hands-on practice in The Art of Idiotic Drawing.
When the PowerPoint program first came out in the late 80s, I laughed at its vapidity. Its charts looked like the stuff of 1950s communist meetings that would celebrate huge beet crops in some collective or other. Nowadays, PowerPoint is far more sophisticated. It’s dominated by colorful bar graphs that look like skyscrapers, yet can rise and fall like pistons. It has sentences that bubble up from the bottom of the screen to settle into their cozy bulleted positions, or quotations that mysteriously emerge out of dark and foggy purple backgrounds and then disappear into backgrounds that have mysteriously turned bright red. These bells and whistles are supposed to help audiences pay attention and grasp the complex information that the lecturer is presenting. The theory is that juxtaposing text with visually comprehensible translations or symbolic representations of data leads to deeper audience understanding and better audience retention.
It’s no mystery why PowerPoint is appealing. It’s easy to use, easy to look at, and a lively, energetic way to mix text and pictures in an age that likes doing these things. And in an age when most people squirm if they must sit still to listen to a person speak for longer than a minute, PowerPoint keeps them calm. Its soothing, assuaging underlying message is that there’s no topic too complex, no problem too difficult, no idea too subtle that ordinary human beings can’t grasp it in a 20-minute presentation. PowerPoint runs roughshod over phenomena by flattening them, so that nothing is more important than anything else.
PowerPoint presentations appeal to us because of their illusions. They are the contemporary version of the Platonic cave, where people are transfixed by shadows of the real. And by fancying up presentations with color, PowerPoint proves it is deeply pernicious. It actually appeals to emotions. Throw in red, white, and blue, and Americans swell with pride; spatter green around the presentation, and even the dourest environmentalists can be made to feel jolly. Use a baby pink bar in a bar graph, and the university’s budgetary woes don’t look so bad.
I’m just finishing up a semester where I am one of 12 professors in a team-taught honors course in which we each give a couple of lectures for the whole group, while also teaching two small discussion sections on the readings. All of us, including me, use PowerPoint when we lecture. Students seem to love it; they certainly expect it, as you can see them waiting to eagerly write down the PowerPoint bullets and highlighted text (I can’t figure out why, since almost all the lectures, in their PowerPoint presentations, are posted later on Blackboard).
Yet when I look out over the audience of well over 200 students and faculty, I often wonder if anyone is truly listening to what are often beautifully argued lectures. Who is paying rapt attention? Who is experiencing the arguments and reasons that are behind the conclusions that end up in those bulleted points and ephemeral quotations?
I am scheduled to give the final lecture in this course—on Andy Warhol. It will offer an interpretation of the meaning of the artist’s work, situate it in our culture, and present a fair amount of facts. Yes, I’ll use PowerPoint. But if you’re wondering why, I’ll use it strictly as a way to embed images of Warhol’s art in a sequence, shown against a solid black background. But there will be no bulleted points, no blown up text, no fancy fades. This will consist of my aural narrative illustrated by still images of 20 works of art. It is aimed only at those who are willing to listen.