The reports that the National Security Agency is tapping directly into the servers of nine tech companies, published Thursday by The Washington Post and the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, are deeply unsettling on many levels. In response to the news, many people surely found themselves asking a number of questions: What will President Obama say to explain all this? Is this legal? What's the job of the NSA anyway?
I don't mean to trivialize the news, but this question is actually worth asking. PowerPoint is more than just the bane of corporate drones trying to stay awake in sales meetings worldwide. Yes, its overuse and misuse may have inspired some pretty devastating and hilarious parodies (such as the slide deck-ization of the Gettysburg address and popular Youtube videos on how not to commit "Death by PowerPoint"), but when used poorly, its flaws go beyond its mere boredom factor.
Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who has written extensively about data visualization, has explored the role PowerPoint slides had in the Columbia shuttle disaster. Reports generated by Boeing engineers to help assess the damage to the shuttle "provided mixed readings of the threat to the Columbia; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic." The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in its report analyzing the disaster, also noted PowerPoint's role, writing that "the choice of headings, arrangement of information, and size of bullets on the key chart served to highlight what management already believed."
NASA isn't the only place that has overused the ubiquitous presentation software. In an excellent look at PowerPoint-run-amok in the military, "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint," the New York Times quoted several leaders in the armed forces who saw its dangers. "PowerPoint makes us stupid,” the writer quotes Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps as saying. Gen. H. R. McMaster, meanwhile, reportedly banned PowerPoint presentations while in Iraq, even calling it an internal threat. "It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” he told the Times. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Of course, the NSA's slides were not being used to dissect the problems of an in-flight spacecraft or summarize military strategy. As reported, they may have simply been poorly designed documents that don't inspire much confidence in the design sensibilities of the NSA ("PRISM’s logo looks like a teen-ager’s drawing of the 'Dark Side of the Moon' album cover," the New Yorker wrote. "The tackiness is a depressing touch.") But in looking at them, it's hard not to feel all the cluttered logos and arrows and bubbles may have distanced the people reading them from the magnitude of what the slides reveal.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.