The New Yorker takes a very interesting look behind the scenes of how PowerPoint got started and what turned it into today.
No one likes PowerPoint. Except of course, the presenter. It’s degraded meetings from discussions and great conversations to a person lecturing their peers. It’s also dumbed down creativity, great writing, and effective communication. You don’t have to think with PowerPoint:
This is the most common complaint about PowerPoint. Instead of human contact, we are given human display. “I think that we as a people have become unaccustomed to having real conversations with each other, where we actually give and take to arrive at a new answer. We present to each other, instead of discussing,”
There is some social commentary around the evolution of the PowerPoint culture:
Forty years ago, a workplace meeting was a discussion with your immediate colleagues. Engineers would meet with other engineers and talk in the language of engineering. A manager might make an appearance—acting as an interpreter, a bridge to the rest of the company—but no one from the marketing or production or sales department would be there. Somebody might have gone to the trouble of cranking out mimeographs—that would be the person with purple fingers.
But the structure of American industry changed in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Clifford Nass, who teaches in the Department of Communication at Stanford, says, “Companies weren’t discovering things in the laboratory and then trying to convince consumers to buy them. They were discovering—or creating—consumer demand, figuring out what they can convince consumers they need, then going to the laboratory and saying, ‘Build this!’ People were saying, ‘We can create demand. Even if demand doesn’t exist, we know how to market this.’ Spaghetti-Os is the great example. The guy came up with the jingle first: ‘The neat round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon.’ And he said, ‘Hey! Make spaghetti in the shape of small circles!’ ”
America began to go to more meetings. By the early nineteen-eighties, when the story of PowerPoint starts, employees had to find ways to talk to colleagues from other departments, colleagues who spoke a different language, brought together by Spaghetti-Os and by the simple fact that technology was generating more information. There was more to know and, as the notion of a job for life eroded, more reason to know it.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve either experienced or seen people freaking out about design decisions, or spending hours upon hours playing with slide templates. It’s a wonderful form of procrastination.
PowerPoint was developed to give public speakers control over design decisions. But it’s possible that those speakers should be making other, more important decisions. “In the past, I think we had an inefficient system, where executives passed all of their work to secretaries,” Cathy Belleville says. “But now we’ve got highly paid people sitting there formatting slides—spending hours formatting slides—because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say. It would be much more efficient to offload that work onto someone who could do it in a tenth of the time, and be paid less. Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, ‘Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?’ ”