Today in my summer session geography class, a disaster the size of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico struck our basement classroom-THE PROJECTOR WASN’T WORKING. Paralysis and panic seized the instructor, who had no training on how to teach a class without a PowerPoint presentation (or on how to write on a whiteboard). She called ASU’s tech support who promised to send someone to the classroom right away to help mitigate this epic emergency. While waiting for the cavalry to come and rescue the class from our PowerPoint deprivation, the instructor rambled incoherently on topics ranging from the World Cup to why she likes Al Gore so much. Finally tech support arrived and immediately pushed one button on the projector which fixed the problem. Tech support than returned to their dungeon fortress to continue playing World of Warcraft and Farmville. The day was saved and learning occurred.
This was a pretty common occurrence during my first semester at ASU. Instructors and professors have become so reliant on PowerPoint to teach a class that when it doesn’t work (which is frequent) they don’t know what to do. I had at least five classes canceled throughout the semester because a projector or computer wasn’t working. My girlfriend told me that it was common when she was at University of Arizona that students would intentionally break the projectors in the hopes that class would be canceled. The problem of over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations is not just confined to academia unfortunately. As many of you know, PowerPoint has infected the US military to the point where almost nothing is done without it. In fact a couple of months ago the New York Times ran article that implied that the overuse of PowerPoint was hindering military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and forced officers to spend hours creating intricate presentations instead of devoting time to actual operational tasks. Some choice quotes from the article:
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.
Some of you might find the assertion that PowerPoint is hindering our ability to fight the war on terror absurd, while others probably agree with it one hundred percent. To be honest, had I not experienced the “PowerPoint Uber Alles” culture both in and outside the military first hand, I would have found it ridiculous to blame problems with a war on a computer program. Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to the statement that “Powerpoint makes us stupid.”
Let me give you an example of “Death by PowerPoint” from my own personal experience (and if you have any good “Death by PowerPoint” Stories, please share them in the comments sections). When I was in Iraq my platoon was tasked to do a joint mission with the Iraqi Army. It was pretty straightfoward: we were supposed to do a two-day mounted patrol in an area of remote desert where there was an oil pipeline and unimproved roads where smugglers were known to be operating. It wasn’t a complicated mission with a lot of moving parts, but there still was a lot of planning that needed to be done. Checkpoints, rally points, and link up points needed to be chosen, the CASEVAC plan established, rehearsals scheduled, etc., etc. My platoon commander got it into his head that he had to make the greatest PowerPoint ever in order to give his patrol order. He literally spent hours making little 7-ton and gun truck icons and animating them, time that instead should been used to plan the patrol. When he gave the actual order to the key leaders, it had a lot of cool clip art and animations, but was missing a lot of important stuff including the CASEVAC plan and what we would do if we had a down vehicle in the middle of the desert. When he had to give the order to the rest of the platoon, the projector broke. He was so upset by this that he literally tried to have the mission canceled because he couldn’t give the order via PowerPoint. Whats worse is he spent six months at The Basic School, three months at Infantry Officers Course, and the entire workup giving orders the old fashion way (with a map and terrain model) without PowerPoint. Yet, he became so dependent on the program that when he couldn’t use it, he felt he couldn’t accomplish the mission.
Fortunately, Allah blessed our AO with a three-day dust storm which scrubbed the mission. But still it was extremely disturbing to me how not only my platoon commander but other officers in the battalion had become dependent on PowerPoint to conduct day-to-day operations in country. While its certainly not the biggest problem facing US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certainly becoming a distraction for many unit leaders who should be worrying about more pressing matters than what clip art they should use in a particular slide.