Tuesday, April 28, 2009

May 1 On the Existential Danger of PowerPoint

I began to worry when I heard of parents helping their small children prepare PowerPoint presentations for school. Not because of the dangers of school, children or parents. We live in a world of challenges and we need large amounts of information to figure out how to make it right. That is what Edward Tufte thinks and I concur. He also hates PowerPoint.

Edward Tufte is professor emeritus in political science, statistics, computer science and information design at Yale. He is one of those best teachers you have ever had. His thesis is that we are all very smart; we need and want a lot of information; we are able to use that information, clearly presented to make important decisions.

Tufte presents his ideas in several of the most beautiful books you will ever see: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Envisioning Information; Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative; and Beautiful Evidence.

In his books, Tufte presents historical and contemporary examples of data rich graphics with practical suggestions on how to apply the same ideas to your own projects. He argues that PowerPoint structures explanation too simply, leading to poor decisions. He gives examples from NASA in which PowerPoint presentations confused decisions to the point of death. To that end, he has also authored The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.

In a witty rejoinder, artist and musician David Byrne penned Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, supporting the use of PowerPoint in art - it's really a conceptual rejoinder, reinforcing Tufte's thesis through irony.

Tufte visits Portland about every 2 years to present a day-long seminar on presenting data and information. I have attended and I recommend it. You will not be bored. Tufte has a side interest in the early history of books. He collects them and has his assasants circulate them, white gloved, through the parcipitants. It is fascinating to see the first edition of Descartes, 1500'ish! Included with registration are copies of Tufte's books, making it a bargain. All the details are at www.edwardtufte.com. It sells out, so register in advance if you are planning to go. At some point he will retire fully, so now is the time to see his presentation if you are so inclined.

At the Portland Marriot Downtown. All day. $380, discounts for full time students or groups registering together.