Monday, May 3, 2010

"PowerPoint makes us stupid"

By Donald Sensing


PowerPoint has become public enemy number one for many US officers who find themselves battling slide presentations rather than insurgents.

Some have gone as far as to declare all-out war on the software after the military command was over-run with mind-numbing 30-slide presentations

General James N. Mattis, the Joint Forces Commander, isn't taking any prisoners in his approach.
'PowerPoint makes us stupid,' he growled at a military conference in North Carolina.

Brigadier General H.R. McMaster went one step further and banned the presentation package when he led an offensive in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2005.

'It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,' he told the New York Times. 'Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.'
There is growing concern about the insiduous spread of PowerPoint which has come to dominate the lives of many junior officers.

Dubbed the PowerPoint Rangers, they spend hours slaving away on slides to illustrate every Afghan scenario.

Lieutenant Sam Nuxoll, a platoon leader posted in Iraq, told military website Company Command how he spent most of his time making PowerPoint presentations.

'I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,' he added.

'Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.'
General McChrystal views two PowerPoint presentations a day in Kabul with three more during the course of each week.
This is not overstated. Military operations are complex and not reduced very well to slides with bullet points. When I was a staffer at the Pentagon we did not even have PCs yet (we did have Wang workstation word processors, but they were very stupid and not actually computers at all).

But the lack of MS-DOS-based PCs by no means meant that I didn't have to make PowerPoint shows once in awhile. My office also had to Apple Macintosh machines, left. They were loaded with the Apple version of PowerPoint. I don't think it was Microsoft since IIRC Microsoft had not yet started publishing for Apple. But it made simple slides that required a lot of customization if you wanted to show a graphic or create one from scratch.

It was not too hard to learn how to use, but I had to teach myself. For some reason, although I am fairly untalented in things mechanical, I am a natural geek when it comes to computers so I wound up making a lot of presentations on the Mac.

But the complexity of even Pentagon staff ops pretty much pales in comparison with that of campaign planning in Iraq or Afghanistan. PowerPoint does not do nuance well - heck, it doesn't do nuance at all. When commanders and staff officers begin to "think PowerPoint" as a matter of course, it's bad.

In fact, back in late 2003, investigators were asking, "Did PowerPoint help kill Columbia?"
Before the fatal end of the shuttle Columbia's mission last January, with the craft still orbiting the earth, NASA engineers used a PowerPoint presentation to describe their investigation into whether a piece of foam that struck the shuttle's wing during launching had caused serious damage. Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who is an influential expert on the presentation of visual information, published a critique of that presentation on the World Wide Web last March. A key slide, he said, was "a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism."

Among other problems, Mr. Tufte said, a crucial piece of information — that the chunk of foam was hundreds of times larger than anything that had ever been tested — was relegated to the last point on the slide, squeezed into insignificance on a frame that suggested damage to the wing was minor.

The independent board that investigated the Columbia disaster devoted an entire page of its final report last month to Mr. Tufte's analysis. The board wrote that "it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation."
Then of course we have to ask - What if Abraham Lincoln had used PowerPoint?

PowerPoint has become sort of like kudzu – it’s everywhere, and really hard to kill.

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