Is Powerpoint evil or just bad?


Edward Tufte sounds pretty conclusive: “Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely” was the lede to his 2003 article PowerPoint is Evil, that summarizes (while ramping up the rhetoric) his Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (pdf) booklet. Jean-Luc Dumont contends that Slides Are Not All Evil (pdf) in his apparent riposte, even though Tufte’s opinion on Powerpoint turns out to be more nuanced than his titles (eg. if you need a software to present some images in a projector, Powerpoint might be okay).  I believe that we at Powerpointers Anonymous agree with Edward Tufte’s assessment that Powerpoint abuse leads to undesirable or outright dangerous consequences, but still there’s something that I personally find a bit unsettling about the absolute terms in which Tufte presents it and Dumont contends it: as evil.

Framing Powerpoint as evil betrays a techno-determinist perspective that might detract from the issue at hand: the personal responsibility involved in the use of technological tools. Powerpoint is not the work of Satan (despite how Microsoft was usually described in the 1990s), casting a spell on its hapless users. Powerpoint was developed by people responding to (what they perceived) people needs, but most importantly Powerpoint is chosen and used by people. Casting software as evil, rather than as the neutral tools they are, does not advance the issues of personal choice and responsibility in its use; perhaps it’d be much more constructive to say certain software is just bad: unintuitive, limited, presenting too narrow a set of possibilities to its users. Or perhaps Powerpoint is just what people want: no Powerpoint, then there’s Keynote, no Keynote, then there’s Google Slides. In that case, it’s analogous to boxed wine or a deep-fried hotdog: something bad that people want; and History has shown it’s better to persuade people to drink responsibly and eat some vegetables rather than just casting alcoholic beverages as the Sweat of Satan.

(Of course one could always cast Powerpoint as a truly evil technology of the class including AK-47s, landmines, nuclear weapons and, to Hollywood studios, Popcorn Time. But then you’d have to heavily regulate software development and maybe even outlaw general purpose computers, leaving participation in technological development in the hand of the few. Not the best solution, IMHO.)

Therein our responsiblity: not to say Powerpoint is evil, but rather to show why it is a bad software tool for most purposes it’s often used (though it might be an excelent tool for making art). Tool use is a negotiation between the user and the technologies, so we can point beyond Powerpoint (pardon the pun), to the better options – for thinking, for making, for presenting – that may exist.

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