lossy compression of ideas 5.25.2005

At work I was asked to outline the functionality of some tools I am responsible for.

In Microsoft PowerPoint.

After three hours of pulling my hair out, I had an epiphany as to why management at many companies are completely screwed up. I certainly know why things around here are screwed up. It's because the use of tools such as PowerPoint essentially reduce the entire complexity of human thought into eight-word bullet points.

It's the reduction of the complexity of human experience and thought and knowledge into a series of bumper stickers.

Now I don't have a problem with PowerPoint as a tool. With a good presentation, good work of a whiteboard or a chalkboard, and good slides, PowerPoint has the added advantage of providing a third or fourth channel of communications between a presenter and his audience. The primary channel of communications, of course, is the speaker's speech. The secondary channel are any slides or drawings presented on a white board.

PowerPoint should come third.

The problem with PowerPoint is when it is used as a substitute for a white paper or a speech or presentation. Rather than get all of the nuances and thoughts of the presenter, the subtle ideas and limitations on those ideas that a white paper may present, PowerPoint demands everything be reduced to a series of bullets, obliterating any subtlety in favor of brief. Pointed. Sentences. With. Impact.

No Thought. (slide two) Just quick bumper stickers. (slide three) Illustrating the idea. (slide four) With IMPACT! (slide five) Thank you.

As a ternary form of communications that augment a speech, allowing a user to know where he is during a long presentation, it can help people from getting lost. But when it is used as a substitute for other forms of communications, PowerPoint becomes a form of lossy compression: only the "key features" are kept, the subtlety lost.

And when a second manager is asked to present the ideas behind a PowerPoint presentation, the ideas are "uncompressed" without context, details filled in that were long forgotten--and the overall picture "skewed" with pixellated blobs and blurry spots which are then guessed at.

And often guessed wrong.

Then the ideas are "recompressed" back into a new set of presentations, the subtle ideas gained in the second meeting lost to a handful of slides--roughly scribbled notes on the back of napkin reformatted into colorful slides with visual appeal but no actual substance--then uncompressed again.

Each trip through the compression cycle results in more lost information, until management, convinced by the power of a PowerPoint presentation, convinces himself that his sheer PowerPoint induced ignorance is actually knowledge.

And the developers snicker behind the manager's back, convinced the manager is the dumbest creature that ever roamed the halls of a corporation.

posted by William Woody at 2:19 PM

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A moderate conservative living in the left coast, surrounded by the sureal, wonders if there is a sane life living amongst those who have lost touch with reality.

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