Invented in 1987, the Microsoft presentation software PowerPoint is reportedly installed on more than 1 billion computers around the world. It is estimated that more than 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day. But as PowerPoint conquered the world, critics have piled on. And justifiably so. Its slides are oversimplified, and bullet points omit the complexities of nearly any issue. The slides are designed to skip the learning process, which — when it works — involves dialogue, eye-to-eye contact and discussions. Of course PowerPoint has merits — it can help businesses with their sales pitches or let teachers introduce technology into the classroom. But instead of being used as a means for a dynamic engagement, it has become a poor substitute for longer, well-thought-out briefings and technical reports. It has become a crutch.
We should ban it.
The indiscriminate and ingrained use of PowerPoint presentations threatens the military’s institutional integrity. Former defense secretary Robert Gates said he was terrified by the thought of promising young officers sitting in cubicles and reformatting slides in their prime working years. At the CIA, he was able to ban slides from briefings, but at the Pentagon, he couldn’t even cut down the number used. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter banned PowerPoint presentations during a summit in Kuwait to encourage analysis and discussions, instead of the usual fixed briefings.
For one example of how PowerPoint can be dangerous, look at the Space Shuttle Columbia’s destruction. During Columbia’s launch in January 2003, a piece of foam insulation broke off, making a hole in the wing. Columbia orbited the Earth for two weeks. While Columbia orbited, engineers prepared a series of PowerPoint slides like this one to assess the threat posed by damage from the insulation.
Complex technical information — mass, velocity, etc. — disappeared behind bullet points. Lower-level bullets mentioned doubts about safety, but top-level points (and the summary) were optimistic, and NASA executives decided that it was safe for Columbia to re-enter the atmosphere. It burned up during re-entry, killing all seven crew members.