PowerPoint as Weltanschauung
In an editorial masterstroke, this is the arresting above-the-fold image gracing the front page of this morning’s Times:
Here it is, then. Here’s what? Why, the Afghanistan war, silly, as brought to you by PowerPoint! As the Times reports General McChrystal’s reaction: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” (Combined with the absurdist, spaghetti-bowl PowerPoint slide, I’d venture it was that quote that ensured the article its prominent front page real estate. Of course, the article also points out McChrystal himself receives two PPT briefings a day in Kabul.) The article is a must-read, if inevitably superficial, consideration of the effects of the military’s increasing infatuation with PPT presentations. (Did you know there is a whole class of junior officers referred to as “PowerPoint Rangers”?) It certainly suggests more than you perhaps wanted to know about how the US military, and hence much more than just the military, is tilting at PowerPoint windmills in its various conflicts. As another general cited in the article notes of the technology: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” Well said, no? Perhaps this general should consider grad school.
What’s alarming here is that these illusions thrive, and are institutionally reproduced and reinforced, precisely because they’re divorced from reality. The reality here is messy, amorphous, and dispiriting. PPT slides and bullet-points are efficient and, in their stark minimalism, comprehensive and objective, deceptively so. Increasingly there is a tendency to disregard anything that can’t be encapsulated neatly in a slide, or expressed in numbers. In this context, then, PowerPoint functions as a “distancing technology,” to borrow Theodore Porter’s characterization of social statistics and quantification. (His excellent Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life  perhaps ought be updated to consider the epistemological effects of PPT briefings.)
Of course, we’ve seen this play before, albeit sans the PPT slides, played out disastrously against the backdrop of Vietnam. David Halberstam, in his magisterial The Best and the Brightest, devotes a lot of space to McNamara’s Panglossian reliance on military statistics purporting to show the relentless upward progress of the war, statistics that went from being goosed to outright fabricated. As LBJ’s then national security adviser (and father of Modernization Theory) Walt Rostow enthused in 1967 to Daniel Ellsberg, weary and pessimistic after two years in Vietnam, “No, you don’t understand. Victory is very near. I’ll show you the charts. The charts are very good.”