Tufte argues that PowerPoint encourages impoverished thinking, vagueness, overly generalized statements, poor evidence, and very little real information. By leaving out the connections between the bullet points, PowerPoint is “faux-analytical.” Bullets appear to organize thought but what they really do is destroy thought—they make us stupid.
To someone who avoids PowerPoint whenever possible, Tufte’s arguments make a lot of sense. There is however one overarching point where he goes too far. Tufte writes:
“The metaphor behind the PowerPoint cognitive style is the software corporation itself. That is, a big bureaucracy engaged in computer programming (deeply hierarchical, nested, highly structured, relentlessly sequential, one-short-line-at-a-time) and marketing (fast-pace, misdirection, advocacy not analysis, slogan thinking, branding, exaggerated claims, marketplace ethics).”
Tufte proceeds to associate PowerPoint with all hegemonic systems from the Roman Empire to Stalin. He goes too far—and in the wrong direction in my opinion. PowerPoint and Microsoft may share a cognitive style but its derivation stems more from the essential principle inherent in both digital technology and modern corporation: an advanced, relentless, and massive division of labor.
Software is code, lines and lines of codes, that runs sequentially with many conditional branching statements (if-then statements) and a hierarchy of interacting software objects (sets of code), all of which manipulate information in a logical succession of small steps. Each step contains explicit instructions. An entire sequence of such instructions, that is, a software program, works more like a calculator than a “thinking machine.”
To build software programmers must break down processes into discrete steps, effectively systematizing and standardizing how work is done. Many software products are rigid in how they allow people to work. PowerPoint, with its discrete slides and panoply of hierarchical bullet points supports, nay encourages, a bald declarative style without any room for ambiguity or subtlety. Most workers get caught up in the formatting and the special features, such as animation, leaving content in a decidedly secondary position. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, they become tools of our tools, caught in the tyranny of the digital.