The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Going PowerPoint deep in Afghanistan

Major-General Flynn's report on US intelligence in Afghanistan made the headlines earlier this year, most notably for his claim that the United States had only gone 'PowerPoint deep' in their understanding of the complex situation in Afghanistan.

As reported by the New York Times (and many others), it seems the US military have taken their attachment to PowerPoint just a little too far.

Upon seeing it, General McChrystal is said to have remarked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

As comical as this slide might look, there is a serious point to make here, as illustrated by Julian Borger of the Guardian.

"On a recent tour of the region, [British Foreign Minister] David Miliband was treated to an upbeat PowerPoint slideshow about the battle for hearts and minds in Helmand, neatly condensed into bullet points.

Everyone walked out energised and enthused, until an official with long experience of the region took us aside and told us, in old-fashioned paragraphs, why Helmand was a disaster."

The NY Times article gives a number of examples of how misuse of PowerPoint can have harmful effects, such as over-simplifying complex problems or encouraging group-think. This is dangerous.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control... Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In the dystopian world described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother reduced the English language to the minimal lexicon of 'newspeak'. The pretext was greater efficiency, the real intention - and the result - was reducing people's ability to think by simply reducing the number of words available to them.

Reading the various accounts of military misuse of PowerPoint, it begins to look disturbingly like newspeak.

PowerPoint is not all bad though...

"Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters."

PS: For tips on how to make a good PowerPoint presentation, try this from the BBC.

No comments:

Post a Comment