Book Review: The Cognitive Style of Power Point

The Cognitive Style Of Power Point: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, by Edward R. Tufte

This particular book is an excerpt of Tufte’s magnum opus Beautiful Evidence [1], including the material on power point but separated from the larger context of his work, which had yet to be published when this smaller book was brought into circulation. In the context of the larger work, this material was biting and particularly amusing, full of dark jokes about how Power Point was barely better than pre-glasnost era Pravda at showing data, showing a witless power point presentation on how to conduct witless power point presentations from Harvard in order to put the rival of his beloved Yale University in a bad light, and even including a particularly biting power point conversion of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of that particular form of software. Divorced from the larger context of the full work, the biting humor retains its full ferocity, but the material takes on the attitude of a religious or political tract of considerable importance, if not a great deal of subtlety. In particular, this book(let) argues persuasively and insistently that Microsoft’s Power Point represents a style that is unsuitable for technical discussions or for intelligent discourse in general, a veritable Egyptian flatland 2-D drawing that lacks adequate representation and that flattens our understanding of data, conveying less information in a more abusive and dictatorial style that is inappropriate for good communication.

As someone whose most notable form of interpersonal communications are either lengthy and narrative conversations or similar forms of writing, I found the author’s somewhat frustrated focus on people learning how to convey information in sentences arranged logically in paragraphs, and supported where necessary by detailed graphics to be worthy of appreciation even if this is the second time I have read this material. This small book, though, provides a particularly fierce demonstration of the relevance of art criticism to power relations within corporate and governmental institutions, and that is an area of analysis that is sorely welcome even in repetition. After all, if we force our communications into styles that break up narrative flow, that flatten information, that insult the intelligence of the listener by providing thin information devoid of context and proper emphasis, where the important information is buried several layers deep in a hierarchy and masked by overly optimistic titles and headings that provide reassurance to listeners not sufficiently inquisitive or knowledgeable to peel underneath the surface layers in order to understand a truer perspective of what is going on, then we are engaging in corrupt business practices and poor communication. Even if people are unaware of the full ramifications of the artistic style of Power Point, it is pretty easy to recognize that if someone writes junk on a slide and then repeats that same junk verbatim to obviously literate audiences, then people are being talked down to, and the response of losing attention and feeling insulted tends to follow automatically.

The booklet makes this point well, and then makes a larger point that is even more pointed and that strikes at the heart of a great deal of contemporary business culture. Data is supposed to represent the true state of affairs, in a visual representation that allows us to draw parallels, to ask follow-up questions, to come to reasonable conclusions. As someone whose work and personal life is heavily devoted both to collecting data and to coming to conclusions from it, and basing communications on it, this is a matter of deep personal relevance. When our focus changes from understanding and responding to reality as best as possible to pitching out, that changed goal of manipulating the behavior of others through the pitch leads us to corrupt the data we present and that we ultimately see in order to support that pitch. This corruption then makes it more difficult for our affairs to be known because of the opaque way in which we communicate. This corruption is not ultimately merely political, it is a deep moral corruption of deception of ourselves and of others. It is ultimately this sort of corruption that Tufte is attacking, a focus on communication methods that are focused on dishonest attempts to influence the behavior of others while denying them the data by which they can make decisions soundly. This is a corruption that deserves every possible way it can be condemned, including this small and pointed book(let), with its biting captions, witty and sarcastic remarks, and devastating images. The larger question is, though, what we do with the knowledge we possess, and how do we communicate it to others so as to help improve our world and the people in it?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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