Some friends dropped in yesterday and put me in mind of Edward Tufte, the great information designer.
For me, he’s a great example of a challenger. I love his image of Stalin presenting to the troops using PowerPoint, strikingly satirizing the totalitarian impact of the software.
And his suggestion that PowerPoint was implicated in the fatal decisions about the Columbia space shuttle can’t have been easy. As he points out “the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that the distinctive cognitive style of PowerPoint reinforced the hierarchical filtering and biases of the NASA bureacracy”.
Of couse, the CAIB itself agreed: “as information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”
But I still think it was a brave thing to do – it’s not easy to go against the tide. And yes PowerPoint is still widely used, even worshipped in government and banks (sorry I meant business circles) alike. Are our choices of communication tools another thing that contributes to our seeming ability to fool ourselves about very serious matters?
By the way, Tufte’s wonderful books seem now to be available at very much more affordable prices. Go get ’em.