OISE Cambridge | Friday, March 03, 2017
On the tyranny of the bullet point and the slide.
“Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim
Ian Parker writing in The New Yorker (2001)
I am well-aware that I’m not the only declared enemy of PowerPoint™ and its progeny (I’m not a huge fan of the presentation, either, but we might
save that for another post). I sometimes point my students towards a Guardian article
pointing out the cognitive costs of the ubiquitous software, especially as used in academic contexts, and laying out (not in bullet points) how it
has infected our thinking.
The PowerPoint presentation evolved as a tool for use within large corporations, as a way of making internal pitches. Departments inevitably compete
for resources, and the silo-nature of very large entities dictated that any pitch should include a brief ‘presentation’ of key ideas and concepts,
since no one department properly understood the work of any other. The presentation is therefore modelled on the advertising or sales pitch, and tries
to highlight a few key flashpoints which might whet the appetite of a potential ‘customer’. It is a way of packaging and selling ideas.
Quite incapable, then, you would think, of handling the cognitive load of, say, a lecture in philosophy. Where once the key units of thought might
have been the proposition and the paragraph, the key syntactic units of the PowerPoint presentation are the bullet-point list and the slide – the former
a series of radically unconnected propositions the complexity of whose interconnections is implied, at best, and the latter an advertising hoarding
rather than a parcel of thought.
The article notes with guarded approval, however, Steve Jobs’ approach to the presentation. Jobs used only visuals – pictures, short videos – not
words, in his keynotes. I am pleased to say that encourage my students to make similar use of visuals in their Thursday presentations. For different
reasons, however: the temptation to read whatever it is you have put on the slide is overwhelming for a language student. Much better to generate
or recall language from a simple visual prompt.
I suppose it is inevitable that new technologies will alter the way our minds work and handle information, over time. When print culture emerged
in the sixteenth century there were fears that knowledge would be vulgarised, and indeed the emergence of widespread literacy was considered a
danger to memory and hence to rhetoric and to thought itself in the classical world. It does not follow, however, that a new technology is beneficial
and interesting, merely because other technologies at other times have been beneficial and interesting. In the words of Jeremy Corbyn (not a natural
friend, I would think, of the PowerPoint presentation), there was nothing wrong with the Luddites.