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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Is Power Point Making us Dumber? - 

Clive Thompson poses this question in a recent NY Times article and its a good one (I mean I'm as much of a fan of asserting Microsoft has a huge negative sociocultural influence as anyone). The thesis of the, admittedly brief, article seems to be that Power Point requires that its users ruthlessly cut their material and that, in so doing, requires users to present a massively over simplified view of reality. This may have particular consequences if the presentation at issue is about something important (e.g. whether we should invade Iraq).

Reading the piece though it seems clear that most of the criticisms Thompson levels towards Power Point aren't really about that software per se (for one thing any other presentation software would certainly suffer from the same limitations) but rather about how bad oral presentations are at conveying information in general and nuanced/subtle information in particular. It is a fact, as noted by the Microsoft rep that Thompson quotes but doesn't seem to really believe, that Power Point allows you to create slides of arbitrary complexity. People tend not to for the simple reason that it is difficult to absorb information through hearing a spoken presentation (this is why educational theorists tend to rally against the use of the lecture in higher education). So if you want your listeners to get anything out of your presentation, you have to keep it simple.

As much as it pains me to say it, the sort of cognitive problems that Thompson is alluding to don't seem to have much to do with Power Point. But they do seem to have a lot to do with people choosing to give lectures rather than, e.g., write books.
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