The Quote Of The Day Is: “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid”

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy on April 12:

Marine Gen. James Mattis, one of the most thoughtful of our military leaders, also spoke at the Chapel Hill conference. He began by making a point about the limitations of conventional firepower: Our military, he said, “must avoid being dominant and irrelevant at the same time.” I hadn’t heard that formulation before.

Mattis also spoke without any computer graphics. “The reason I didn’t use PowerPoint is, I am convinced PowerPoint makes us stupid.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but its absence of verbs does seem to me to emphasize aspirations without saying what actions we intend to take to realize them.

Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who also spoke at the conference, also took a pop at PowerPoint, saying that when combined with certain ill-advised metrics, it “is really dangerous.”

Spencer Ackerman on April 12:

Whatever the merits of PowerPoint, the baseline reason why officers use it — and use it and use it and use it — is because the military as a whole uses some version of Windows as its operating system. After all, it’s not enough that you create a PowerPoint; you have to share it and the next command has to be able to load it; and people standardize their PPT skills and so this is perpetuated. This fundamental dependence is true at the highest levels of command down to the crummiest MWR tent at the most ad-hoc combat outpost in the middle of what (hmm, let’s translate this into PPT-ese) GEN Petraeus calls The CentCom AOR. Go to those computer labs and you see downtrodden faces loading Internet Explorer on their desktop PCs, using Yahoo messenger to chat with friends, loved ones and potential sex partners. When they could — and should — be using Macs, or even running vastly more efficient cloud computing.

Think about the implications of all this wasted time. Officers forced to use Microsoft Outlook for their email clients have to labor to search in their mail! If they can do it at all! I’ve written before about the benefits of GoogleDocs for battlefield awareness: you network in colleagues to see your files and they can edit your assessments & situational reports; get a real-time picture of ground truth as you find it; add questions or additional analysis or taskings; and a higher synthesis is possible, right then and there. Whatever its virtues, a PowerPoint presentation is a dead document. A GoogleDoc is an evolving, networked one. Which makes more sense for capturing a slice of a war?

Notice I am agnostic between Apple and Google products. I don’t have an iPad, but I use Google products on my Mac desktop and laptop, and my girlfriend has a Droid phone that makes me look at my iPhone and pity myself. Right now it appears that Apple and Google are the U.S. and Soviet Union circa 1946-7 — growing disillusioned with each other and taking steps that will lead each power into an epoch-defining competition. I will remain neutral for now. But there’s absolutely no reason at all why our half-trillion-dollar-plus-per-annum military shouldn’t make the basic investment to rid itself of the software equivalent of the British Empire circa 1946.

Update, 3:18 p.m.: Battered and bloody, I concede I was out of my lane when I wrote this. I hope there was some value in raising the subject, however ignorantly. But I concede defeat and limp off to fight another day.

Elizabeth Bumiller in NYT, April 27:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

John Cole:

I find this hysterical, because in my day, it was all about what we called “cheese charts.” The great big easels (military issue, of course), with pads of paper the size of Montana sitting on them, with bullet point after bullet point. All they’ve done now is gone high-tech. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent hanging camo netting INSIDE a G.P. Medium to decorate the cheese charts because someone important was showing up for an AAR…

Preston Galla at Computerworld:

Have you fallen in love with your bulletized slides, nifty transitions, and pretty charts in PowerPoint? If so, you’re likely getting more stupid, if the experience of commanders in the U.S. armed forces hold true. In fact, one of the force’s top commanders says bluntly, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”


Even more dangerous, the article implies, is that it leads to bad decision-making, with serious consequences:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.In fact, the article even points to PowerPoint as possibly contributing to our flawed Iraqi strategy. The article describes an event in the book about the Iraq War “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks:

Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.The article also says that tremendous amounts of time are spent in the military on putting together presentations, and that this takes away from true productivity.

Does all this sound familiar in your line of business? It should. Business relies on PowerPoint as much or more than the military, with similar consequences.


So what are we to make of what Bumiller wrote? First of all it’s “he said/she said” with absolutely no focus or interest in trying to grapple with what the actual problems with PowerPoint presentations in the military might be, or what should be done to fix them. (A few apparently bewildering slides does not a case make.)* In short, it is stenography: Bumiller simply wrote down what she was told, looked up a couple things and thereby got herself a prominently placed clipping.

But if it is stenography – and it surely is – it’s stenography with a particular message. Somebody powerful – Gates? Petraeus Both? Others? – is really fed up with sitting through all the stupid fucking PowerPoint presentations and wants it reined in. Rather than exercise direct authority issuing memos (at least not yet, it’s too trivial, unless your initials are DR, and he’s history) he called in Elizabeth and – not directly, of course – told her what to write and who to contact. And so she did.

And that’s all she did. She didn’t do a single thing to verify beyond an article or two, which she didn’t do more than mention, that there really was a problem. She simply told us what the Big Guys think, and that’s all.

What’s the problem with that? Well, here’s one. Since Bumiller is not reporting, but merely doing the bidding of the powerful leaders in the military (if not the Defense Secretary) we are not provided enough facts to be fully informed as to whether there really are serious problems with PowerPoint. All we are told is that powerful people think there are. We’re not even given any access to sources that would enable us to make up our own minds.

As it happens, there are very good reasons to cut back on the incredible amount of time wasted preparing slides, and to be alarmed at the misleading, insipid presentations. But what would happen if the Powers That Be were wrong, or deliberately trying to mislead or promote misinformation? You’d never know that was going on from Bumiller’s style of reporting. She clearly doesn’t think that is her job. (I wonder: why did the name “Judith Miller” just pop into my head? Weird…)

I’m sure that, ever since the first newspapers, powerful people have been using them in order to send messages of this sort to others. But there was a time when newspapers, including the Times and the Post, would not only pass on those messages but sometimes provide context, sometimes dissent. Not always, surely, but enough so that, for instance, a criminal president – Nixon – was forced to resign.

I suppose to some extent it still happens, a little. But whenever it does, suddenly there are more Millers and Bumillers running around, taking dictation, writing articles where the Royals talk to other Royals in code, and the rest of us are left looking at entrails for signs about what is really going on.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

Troops think the computer program is terrible for all the regular reasons—it’s boring, it’s slow, it takes a lot of time to put together a presentation—but also because oftentimes, it’s obfuscating instead of elucidating. “’It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,’ [Brig.] General [H.R.] McMaster said in a telephone interview […]. ‘Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable,’” according to the Times. McMaster actually went so far as to actually ban PowerPoint during one mission in Iraq in 2005. If we can destroy it abroad, there could be hope for the war at home.

1 Comment

Filed under Military Issues, Technology

One response to “The Quote Of The Day Is: “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid”

  1. Pingback: The Quote Of The Day Is: “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid” « Around The … | Fresh Archive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s