Creeping from Bullet Points to Bullets

bulletpoint illusion 2.jpg

Many of my recent posts have addressed the loss of context and meaning through the use of social media. The very last one worried about the impact on kids’ texting for what seems to me an excessive amount. Today, the same subject is on the griddle, but with a different focus: how PowerPoint stultifies grownup audiences. My Mondays are usually graced by the regular appearance of James Carroll’s weekly column in the Boston Globe. Today Carroll wrote about how the practice of using Powerpoint overheads to present critical stories limits the understanding of the audience.

The setting is a bunch of military officers discussing the war in Afghanistan, but could be almost anywhere.

The ubiquitous use of PowerPoint slides in military briefings about Afghanistan and Iraq has been tagged as a problem. Breaking down battle reports into bullets and bites, as Brigadier General H.R. McMaster told The New York Times, “can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.’’

It’s worse than that. Anyone who has ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation has seen how the speaker surrenders initiative to the machine, and how the prepared breakdown of information inhibits actual thinking.

It’s just about the same with Twitter. Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote “The medium is the message,” fits exactly. It’s the technology that is heard. The actual message lacks sufficient context to be fully understood. Twitter is limited by the technology and the 140 character limit on content. PowerPoint presentations, unless extraordinarily artful, compress the whole story into a series of bullet points. The PowerPoint technique gained favor to counteract the limited attention span of important people, exactly the folks that need to pay close attention. Carroll recognizes the broader implication:

But it’s worse than that, too. The degradation of rhetoric throughout contemporary culture, epitomized by PowerPoint, means that essential capacities for thought and communication are being lost. The sound-bite reduces experience to episodes shorn of context, when understanding what matters requires a honed feel precisely for the connection between episodes.

This, like so many of his columns, is not to be missed. He ends by noting that the context-free nature of communications technology leads to amoral, perhaps, immoral, actions, exemplified by the use of killing drones guided by images on a screen far from the scene. I have used this image many times. Carroll may have read the powerful book by Hans Jonas in preparing for this column. Jonas, in his book, The Imperative of Responsibility, argues that modern forms of technology have altered our forms of behavior, compared to earlier epochs when much of our understanding of ethics was developed. The book develops an intricate and well-reasoned argument that we need a new ethics to apply to collective and some private decisions that put powerful technologies into play. Simplifying Jonas’s conclusions, he calls for a form of the precautionary principle.

While Jonas stresses the power of large-scale technologies like nuclear weapons and would certainly include geo-engineering if he wrote today, he also is concerned about everyday things like texting, Twitter, or PowerPoint. All of these, large and small, hide the the real story behind a thin veneer, and disguise the ethical or moral consequences of their use. Carroll points to the amorality of drones and war stories told through bullet point lists. I write about the dulling of responsibility to other human beings that social media and networking tools creates. Carroll puts it together tersely near the end of his article, “The PowerPoint imagination, with the speaker causing death-by-droning, is perfectly suited to the new technology of the drone as an actual weapon.”

Thanks to 37signals for the cartoon.

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3 Comments

Rob said:

That article about Powerpoint in the military really struck a chord for me. We often spent hours to craft up a powerpoint slide for the higher brass, so that my Commanding Officer could comminicate what our ship had accomplished in a visit or a mission. It didn't take long for us to realize that the Admirals who would be reading these slides would get all their info from the photos and the bullit points. At the Pentagon, which is full of Admirals and Generals, Lieutenants who serve time there are known as "Power Point Rangers" because of the time they spend every day preparing slides for their bosses. It really is a poor means of communication.

Katelyn said:

If you haven't read it already, I think you would enjoy Margaret J. Wheatley's book "Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World"

An excerpt from her chapter on Information:
"We do not exist at the whim of information; that is not the fearsome prospect which greets us in a world ravenous for information. Our own capacity for meaning-making plays a crucial role. We, alone and in groups, serve as interpreters, deciding which information to pay attention to, which to suppress. We are already highly skilled at this, but we would benefit from noticing just how much interpretation we do, and how we might develop new lenses of discernment. We can open ourselves to more information, in more places, and seek out that which is ambiguous, complex, perhaps even irrelevant" - Wheatley, M (2006)

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for the reference. I have gained much from everything of Wheatley's I have read. I will look for this one, which i haven't yet read. I completely agree with the quote you included. Making sense of the world comes before we do anything, and interpreting the meaningless signals from the outside is always involved. If meaning were inherent in the outside world, we wouldn't have so much disagreement and disagreeableness in the world.