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.
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 is 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, extremely 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.