Biology in the News Explained

More PowerPoint means less brain power

It’s always been easy to ridicule the use of PowerPoint in academia, but the current implications of its ubiquitous use, although delightful to Microsoft, could potentially be more serious than even they could have predicted.

First used widely among scientists in the ’90s, PowerPoint promised blessed relief from the tedium and frustration associated with slide making. When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, I literally had to make slides with a camera – meaning I printed out my text and figures from a computer (fortunately I was already blessed with that labor-saving device) and took a picture of them with a camera. (The last time I did this was actually 2001, when better technology was available but I didn’t have access to it at the fairly remote research station where I worked.)

Generally you would bracket the pictures and take other steps to make sure they came out all right, but you wouldn’t know for sure that they didn’t have to be redone until they were developed. In those days, there was no monkeying around with slides five minutes before your talk. And while there is no danger anymore of accidentally dropping the slide carousel and having slides scatter in a dozen directions, this convenience for quite awhile was traded off with the inevitable computer problems that regularly occurred at conferences I attended until the mid-2000′s. I credit the lessening of issues to better computer capacity, since Microsoft programs make files about ten times bigger than they actually need to be.

Then there was the problem of people suddenly going nuts with dozens of colors and patterns all over their slides. I mean those of you out there who thought it would be a good idea to have dark green type on a navy blue background with your university’s seal embossed over it. You know who you are. You were tired of just being able to do your slides in black and white (or blue and white, as was a common film) and you ignored the fact that the easiest slides to see, even in the computer age, still have black type on a white background.

Of course there are ways in which PowerPoint genuinely has enhanced talks. I was as delighted as anyone else the first time I saw a presentation with (working) embedded video. But at least in the realm of academics, there is a net loss. Professors now have canned PowerPoint lectures for which they hand out print-outs of all the slides, so that students now rely on passive absorption rather than active participation (at least to the degree of having to take lecture notes) to learn the material, which has been a partial contributor to the continuing slide in acceptable standards for college-level work. Students making presentations these days seem to have spent much more time choosing their fonts, colors, and animation tools than actually thinking about their material and how to teach it to the class clearly and concisely.

Perhaps nothing has changed except the ways in which we waste time. There have always been bad presentations. But a recent article in the New York Times on PowerPoint’s impacts on current military operations shows that the insidiousness of PowerPoint – which really boils down to helping effect the usurpation of substance by style – suggests that there may be serious consequences to letting a dominant piece of software affect how we see the world.

Military PowerPoint slide on Afghanistan complexities, copied from the New York Times

Military PowerPoint slide on Afghanistan complexities, copied from the New York Times

PowerPoint slides paradoxically have become mainly either essentially useless for conveying information (as above) or oversimplifications of a complex problem to a set of bullet points. When a soldier at an overseas conflict spends his entire work day, every day, in the world of PowerPoint, that means he is not able to spend much time thinking about solving problems in the real world. His whole job has become turning a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one that doesn’t exist.

This seems to be a microcosm of our sound-byte world. A real problem we face these days is that human brains love to reduce complexity into a neat little package that is easily digested, and especially that conforms to our current world view. Humans have been doing this for a very long time, but computers, the internet, and PowerPoint are making it a hell of a lot easier to slide back into comfortable tendencies, rather than taking on the greater challenge of trying to actually learn about something we don’t know much about. (Most of us seem to be past the point of even admitting we don’t know stuff – it seems obvious to everyone now that everyone but them is clueless.)

This blog has documented several examples of how modern technology has short-circuited natural human tendencies, increasing the toxicity of our social and political environment by providing the illusions that we can all be instant experts about all things, that non-face-to-face communication is a preferred method, and that viral fear-mongering is a helpful means to valid political ends. Add PowerPoint to the list of ways in which we are ceding control of our world to our limbic system from our cerebral cortex. Give us a little more time on this trajectory, and we’ll be back to living in caves before you know it.


One Response to “More PowerPoint means less brain power”

  1. Jason says:

    I disagree that taking lecture notes is “participation”. I, as a student, would much rather have the lecture notes to study later and have the time I would’ve spent rewriting what the teacher has written to focus on processing the information and, I don’t know, interacting with the teacher. I view the time I spend copying down the teacher’s words as time not spent thinking about them. Of course, I’m a mathematics student, and perhaps in biology classes “interaction” is another word for “memorization”, but I hope not.

    This is besides the fact that most people scribble notes all over their slide printouts anyways.

    In the worst case scenario the kind of teacher who does canned, boring powerpoint presentations that encourage passive absorbtion is the kind of teacher who was going to basically rewrite the textbook on the board anyways. If he hadn’t handed out a bunch of slides I just would’ve brought the textbook to class and read whatever parts he/she skipped over during those interminable pauses that many teachers make to give students a chance to, yes, take notes.

    Again, talking mathematics, I would say powerpoint is a net plus. The slides I see contain equations, theorems, proof sketches, etc. that serve as a basis for the presentation and allow you to, say, refer to what the person is talking about if they’ve been into the proof of a complex and subtle statement for five or ten minutes already.

    Sure, a bad presenter is going to misuse powerpoint and give a bad presentation. But they would’ve anyways. It’s a tool like anything else and idiots everywhere have been misusing and overemphasizing tools for a very, very long time.

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