Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Abstract art, nonlinear JCS PowerPoint, or perfect tool to hypnotize chickens?

All of the above, it seems. This graphic certainly has some of the the swirly energy of an abstract expressionist painting (or a bowl of spaghetti). It was produced by the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We'll get to the chickens later.

The graphic is a PowerPoint slide (click here to enlarge) summarizing the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. NBC's Richard Engel unearthed it last year, and wrote about it.
Detractors say the slide represents an assault on logic, an attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. They say the concept of occupying a foreign nation to protect security at home is expensive, time consuming, ineffective and ultimately leads to the "spaghetti logic" of the slide. They say this slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question.
It's easy to kick around PowerPoint, because almost everyone has had to endure mind-numbingly boring and uninformative PowerPoint presentations. It's easy to blame the tool. But that's all it is, a tool for managing and projecting slides -- and a pretty good one at that. It's what people do with it that's the problem.

I think that what has made PowerPoint such a psychically deadening -- and highly effective -- audience management tool is that there are so many occasions in business, government, academia and the military in which a speaker is determined to give a presentation with absolutely no real content, while also controlling the audience and preventing meaningful questions. To say something real would mean taking a stand or making a decision and defending it in rational terms, which can be dangerous to one's career. PowerPoint solves the problem.

Presenters looking for cover can use PowerPoint as a content-free means of disguising their lack of content and as a way to stifle discussion, audience interaction and skepticism. The more imaginative slides tease the eye with loopy visual like this spaghetti graphic. More often, they consist of lists containing those vague thought fragments known as bullet points. Whether containing tangled loops of spaghetti or hierarchical ladders of bullet points, the contents of the slides hold rational inquiry at bay. They are designed to be so vague and confusing that there's no way to formulate a rational question in response to them. The speaker is safe, and the real content remains unstated.

Yesterday's NYT ran a story about the use of PowerPoint in today's military. There are a lot of people who use it, as well as a lot of skeptics.
Despite such tales, “death by PowerPoint,” the phrase used to described the numbing sensation that accompanies a 30-slide briefing, seems here to stay. The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.
Does PowerPoint add much to military planning and thinking? Does it accomplish anything that's worth the time it wastes? Probably not.

But everyone agrees that there is one military application for which PowerPoint is absolutely superb. It involves those chickens.
Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”
Looking back at media coverage of the last decade's wars, it's hard not to conlude that the hypnosis worked.

1 comment:

Leslie F. Miller said...

Sorry—I'd leave a comment, but the enlargement link gave me a long seizure.