Waging War with PowerPoint

Originally published January 3, 2005.

It’s pretty rare that you find an intersection between information design, interaction design, politics, and war but as James Fallows writes in the December 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, such an intersection most surely exists in the form of Microsoft PowerPoint. In his article, “Will Iran Be Next?”, Fallows describes a war game organized by the Atlantic Monthly. The war game was basically an exercise in role-playing, with the participants discussing the various options available to the U.S. President if and when there is incontrovertible evidence that Iran is on the verge of creating a nuclear weapon.

There’s nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.
– Ansel Adams

Although the results of the game were disturbing enough (simply put, Iran is most definitely developing a nuclear weapon and there is no military option for stopping them), perhaps even more disturbing for those of us aware of the inherent limitations and weaknesses of PPT-think, was Fallows’ observation about the role of PowerPoint in military planning.

Case in point are these two paragraphs, separated in the original article by a few pages:

His commitment to realism extended to presenting all his information in a series of PowerPoint slides, on which U.S. military planners are so dependent that it is hard to imagine how Dwight Eisenhower pulled off D-Day without them. PowerPoint’s imperfections as a deliberative tool are well known. Its formulaic outline structure can over-emphasize some ideas or options and conceal others, and the amateurish graphic presentation of data often impedes understanding. But any simulation of a modern military exercise would be unconvincing without it.

When the exercise was over, I told David Kay that an observer who had not often seen such charts remarked on how “cool” they looked. “Yes, and the longer you’ve been around, the more you learn to be skeptical of the ‘cool’ factor in PowerPoint,” Kay said. “I don’t think the President had seen many charts like that before,” he added, referring to President Bush as he reviewed war plans for Iraq.

It is – to put it mildly – quite disturbing to learn that the most powerful military in world history is heavily reliant on PowerPoint, a tool which so easily affords the dangerous combination of engaging graphics and sloppy thought.

A Human Connection

This past May found me at a hospital in Fort Worth for most of a week, watching my 80 year old mother die. During the hours that she slept and the morphine had its effect, I sought distraction by playing chess on my phone.

Sometimes I played against the app Play Magnus but mostly I played against people through an app called Social Chess. Independent of the result, what stands out is the difference in the emotional experience of playing with an actual person versus playing against a piece of software.

I’ve been reminded that there is something unique and precious about a human connection – even when it’s mediated through an unfathomable layer of technology.

When you play against a human opponent you have to wait for them to move, sometimes for days, almost always for hours. Playing at that pace gives you plenty of time to wonder what they’re thinking and to question how the game must look from their side of the board. You speculate on whether they meant to make a particularly questionable move or if they’re seeing something you aren’t. You find out where they live and often as not, learn that they’re on the other side of the world in Russia or Pakistan or maybe Norway. And when it’s over, if you both speak English, you thank them for the game and they thank you back.

By contrast, you don’t feel any of that playing against an app. Playing against a computer you never wonder about your opponent — who they are, where they live, what type of player they are. Win or lose the experience is sterile and seemingly predetermined, as though the game is some sort of slow moving math problem revealing itself over time.

Obviously chess is a game of calculated logic but it’s also more than that. Across the course of forty-plus moves there are dozens of times when two or more options are equally good choices and in those moments intuition, style, and personality come into play – the result being an expression of both subjective aesthetics and objective rationality.

I didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment but from the perspective of a few months later, it’s clear that those games and strangers are inextricably linked with the memory of my mother’s death. And it’s led me to realize that while it’s easy and perhaps comforting to isolate ourselves from one another through the distraction our technology offers – the moments we most cherish, the memories that carry the most meaning, the times we feel most connected – those moments require interactions with one another.

I’ve been reminded that there is something unique and precious about a human connection – even when it’s mediated through an unfathomable layer of technology.

And to whoever it was that played those games with me, thank you for spending the time.

Commitments Drive Us

It started with an email. The teenage son of a close buddy of mine asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at a TEDx event he was organizing for his high school. The request sounded simple enough. A twenty-minute talk to maybe a hundred people. How hard could it be? Plus it was six months away and truth be told, I was a bit flattered by the invitation.

A couple of weeks rolled by and I was feeling pretty good given that I already had a general outline and so wasn’t totally starting from scratch. Five months to go. Plenty of time.

If you ever want to make a promise you really want to keep, make it to someone you don’t want to disappoint.

But then…well…as things tend to do…stuff happened. And almost overnight there were only three months to go. It was around that time that panic set in and I started to seriously think about bailing on the whole thing. In the end I obviously powered through it in no small part because I couldn’t stomach the thought of disappointing Nat. After all I known him from the time he was in Kindergarten and some part of me still saw him as a little kid looking to us adults for some sort of guidance about how to be a responsible grownup.

And so it was that on May 9th, 2015 I found myself on a stage at Los Gatos High School taking my turn on the Big Red Dot that is the centerpiece of the TED stage. It wasn’t the best TED talk ever but it was pretty good and I certainly enjoyed and grew from the experience.

The talk is titled, “Conditions, Constraints, and Conviction,” and it covers three slightly obscure stories. The first is about how Sputnik led to the invention of the modern GPS system. The second describes how Dr. Seuss came to write “Cat in the Hat”. And the third outlines the rather circuitous route by which an idea first considered by a Ukrainian visionary in 1916 became the method that led to 12 Americans eventually finding themselves walking around on the surface of the Moon.

It takes a bit of wandering but they do tie together. I hope you’ll have a chance to watch it.

Looking back on it now, the somewhat unexpected lesson was this: If you ever want to make a promise you really want to keep, make it to someone you don’t want to disappoint — particularly someone who is counting on you. Willpower comes and goes. Commitments however, those are the things that drive us forward.

Thanks again to the student organizers of the event — in particular my good friend and future billionaire Nat Redfern, without whom this talk wouldn’t exist.