Back in the 1960s, Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan told the world that “the medium is the message,” by which he meant that content was far less meaningful than the form in which that content was delivered. If you’re reading, McLuhan felt, your brain is operating in a specific way, regardless of whether you’re reading Ulysses or the latest Penthouse Forum. If you're watching moving images on your television, your brain is operating in a fundamentally different way. There are profound implications for what you’ll retain and how your mind will work in the future.
Lots of McLuhan's claims were speculative, and the joke about him goes like this: He argued that print was a dying medium. And if you have to suffer through reading his awful prose, you begin to believe it. But I couldn't help but think of McLuhan when I saw Matt Yglesias note that according to a new report from the Center for New American Security, at least part of the intelligence community’s difficulties in Afghanistan come from their reliance on Powerpoint:
The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.
Although like any piece of software it can be used for good or evil, Powerpoint lends itself particularly well to lousy presentations. And from all accounts, in recent years, Powerpoint presentations have become as common in the military as close-cropped haircuts. What many don't understand is that taking complex information and data and synthesizing it so it will be understood, whether in a bunch of bullet points or in a graph, is both art and science. When you do it poorly, you end up with something like this (which appeared in Tom Ricks' book Fiasco), which was supposed to explain the military's strategy in Iraq:
Imagine you were a captain in the Army, and your commanding officer handed you that to explain what we were trying to accomplish in Iraq, and how we were going to go about it. Looks good, sir, I'll have my men get right on that!
Of course, it's not just the military. Here's a shot of the man who created Powerpoint, standing in front of one of the most ghastly slides ever created: