Is PowerPoint making us stupid?

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Is PowerPoint dumbing us down?

We’ve pondered criticisms to this effect, particularly from the military, where various objectors have claimed that PowerPoint is too simplistic.

David Vickery investigates….

Nicholas Carr is the latest in this tradition of doomsayers. His recently published book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” suggests that not just PowerPoint but the whole digital age is at fault. The argument is that these media are poor substitutes for the traditional methods of researching, presenting and communicating. They also, it is alleged, damage our ability to concentrate.

This argument has some appeal, at least superficially. Anyone who is a member of Facebook, for instance, must surely be tired of reading the frequently inane comments along the lines of “I am now making myself a coffee”.

Nevertheless, I believe that overall, not only are PowerPoint and its digital cousins not dumbing us down, they are actually making things better by giving us easier access to more information.

As a break from my day job as an online writer, I sometimes write short stories. Some of these, particularly when set in an earlier era, require quite a lot of research. In the pre-Internet days, this involved reading books, consulting encyclopaedias and the like. Not only was this time-consuming, it was also haphazard; there was no guarantee I would find the information I needed.

Now I can find out almost anything I want to know about the lifestyle of medieval peasants or Roman military practices, almost as quickly as I can type my request into a search engine. And rather than just one author’s opinion, I can have instant access to an array of views and data. Far from making me dumber, I’d say that this fuels my creativity; it also makes me a lot more productive.

In the same way, PowerPoint can not only present complex information more clearly than in the old days, it can also do so in a far more impactful and compelling way, bringing in charts, diagrams, different colours, different fonts, plus a whole range of audiovisual support.

Just imagine someone delivering an old-style lecture on a complex subject, with only his voice, a writing implement and something to write on. I would have lost concentration a lot earlier in such an environment than I would do in a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation.

At its heart, the argument contains an unspoken assumption: that prolonged focus and deep reading of one text is the only route to wisdom. Such a view may simply be the result of books having pre-dated the Internet and other vehicles.

The truth is that diverse information, ideas, data and resources can today be shared faster, more easily, and on a scale that was simply not impossible in the past. Instead of people working alone or in small teams, it’s now increasingly the norm to work in teams that might span the country or even the globe. And all of that is possible only because of our digital world.

Perhaps it’s the books of the doomsayers that should carry that health warning.

By David Vickery


Published On: 11th Oct 2010

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