Can a software package edit our thoughts?
By Ian Parker
[Reprinted by permission from The Conde Nast Publications, Inc. This article first
The New Yorker
(May 28, 2001): 78ff.]
Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like
presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights. A woman we
can call Sarah Wyndham, a defense-industry consultant living in Alexandria, Virginia,
recently began to feel that her two daughters weren't listening when she asked them to
clean their bedrooms and do their chores. So, one morning, she sat down at her computer,
opened Microsoft's PowerPoint program, and typed:
An approach for positive change
to the Wyndham family team.
On a new page, she wrote:
Lack of organization leads to confusion and frustration among family members.
Disorganization is detrimental to grades and to your social life.
Disorganization leads to inefficiencies that impact the entire family.
Instead of pleading for domestic harmony, Sarah Wyndham was pitching for it. Soon
she had eighteen pages of large type, supplemented by a color photograph of a generic
happy family riding bicycles, and, on the final page, a drawing of a key-the key to
success. The briefing was given only once, last fall.
The experience was so upsetting to
her children that the threat of a second showing was enough to make one of the
Wyndham girls burst into tears.
PowerPoint, which can be found on two hundred and fifty million computers around
the world, is software you impose on other people. It allows you to arrange text and
graphics in a series of pages, which you can project, slide by slide, from a laptop
computer onto a screen, or print as a booklet (as Sarah Wyndham did). The usual
metaphor for everyday software is the tool, but that doesn't seem to be right here.
PowerPoint is more like a suit of clothes, or a car, or plastic surgery. You take it out with
you. You are judged by it-you insist on being judged by it. It is by definition a social
instrument, turning middle managers into bullet-point dandies.
But PowerPoint also has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost
surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion-an oddly
pedantic, prescriptive opinion-about the way we should think. It helps you make a case,
but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information