My university department has an uncompromising attitude towards Powerpoint. If you are invited to speak, to give a paper, and demand PPT, you may well be on the receiving end of a faint, resigned shrug. And perhaps a slight raising of the eyebrows. Oh yes, we'll set it up, and uncomplainingly. We'll watch the presentation. But deep down we'll know you're a lesser person for needing it.
Of course, it's a different story if your talk actually needs images: photographs of scientific apparatus, images from bestiaries, pages of secretaryhand from seventeenth-century manuscripts, and so on. In such cases, Powerpoint is clearly useful. We understand.
But if you're a philosopher—particularly a philosopher—or a historian whose paper doesn't need high-definition pictures? Well now. Why do you need it? If you can't keep the audience's attention with words, what are you doing standing up there? That is what us Luddites think. If you need a diagram, and most of us do, what's wrong with an overhead projector, a pen, and a sheet of acetate?
We are living in the dark ages. La la la.
So it's nice to know there's backup out there, underpinning our departmental culture. In the form of Edward Tufte. Tufte thinks the cognitive style of powerpoint is problematic, shading to evil! There's a Wired article from 2003 here.
Tufte has criticized the way Microsoft PowerPoint is typically used. In his essay The cognitive style of PowerPoint, Tufte criticizes many emergent properties of the software:Which you can read here: Powerpoint and the Columbia disaster.
- Its use to guide and reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience;
- Unhelpfully simplistic tables and charts, resulting from the low resolution of computer displays;
- The outliner causing ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on each slide;
- Enforcement of the audience's linear progression through that hierarchy (whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at their leisure);
- Poor typography and chart layout, from presenters who are poor designers and who use poorly designed templates and default settings;
- Simplistic thinking, from ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate, loosely disguised points. This may present a kind of image of objectivity and neutrality that people associate with science, technology, and "bullet points".
Tufte's criticism of PowerPoint has extended to its use by NASA engineers in the events leading to the Columbia disaster.
I'm not saying all this to impress upon the world how endearingly sniffy about Powerpoint my department is.
But because I came across this document this morning.
And I could weep.