Every time someone makes a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten


As we mentioned earlier, Strategic Social attended a data visualization course taught by Edward Tufte a few weeks ago.  Tufte did not sugarcoat his disdain for Microsoft PowerPoint.  In his course, Tufte succinctly explained that the fundamental goal of an information display is to assist thinking about information.  He argued that PowerPoint is a very effective marketing tool but is a fundamentally flawed means for delivering knowledge.  Tufte was especially critical of the packaged charts and templates in PowerPoint, stressing that they cripple presentations.  Microsoft will soon release Office 2010, but Edward Tufte remains unconvinced that Microsoft has fully taken his criticisms to heart.

Anyone who has ever used the software is familiar with the ubiquitous bullets, headers, and 3-row tables.  The blogosphere has long debated whether PowerPoint or its users should held responsible for the epidemic of low-quality presentations.  Websites like Note and Point show that truly gifted designers are not limited by PowerPoint.

ppt as the enemy

The U.S. Marines Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of Joint Forces Command, sounded off against Microsoft’s software product in today’s New York Times, bluntly stating, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster is equally opposed to Microsoft’s presentation: “It’s [PowerPoint’s] dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control … Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Ultimately, both the tool and the user are to blame.  Having sat through countless endless, uninformative PowerPoint presentations themselves, users should know better than to copy techniques that they already know do not work.  Nonetheless, the role of a software tool is to help people; to make them smarter.  Unfortunately, the default settings and pre-programmed templates in PowerPoint do just the opposite.  Microsoft will be doing the world a favor if it pays a little more attention to Edward Tufte’s design fundamentals in building the latest iteration of PowerPoint.


Dance, Dance… Revolution?!?

Who says revolutionary struggle can’t be fun? Not Colombia’s FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army).  Latin America’s longest running militant Communist revolutionary organization hadn’t been having the best of luck, what with the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and the death of the group’s leader, Manuel Marulanda. The long years of wandering in the jungles, despite the FARC’s impressive record of kidnapping and sowing chaos, hadn’t brought Marulanda’s cadres any closer to taking Bogota and power. The FARC needed recruits and new wind in its sails.

How did the group plan to do this? More bombings? More kidnappings? Asking for help from Chavez’s sympathetic socialist Venezuela? No. Instead, the FARC chose to reach out to its would-be new recruits in a much more cunning and indirect way: by making a smash hit dance record.  Before dying, Marulanda set his senior commanders a bizarre task better suited for Simon Cowell than for a brutal guerilla commando like his second in command Mono Jojoy. He ordered Jojoy was to create a dance record so successful and popular it would induce a new generation of young Columbians to join the revolutionary struggle. Jojoy and Felipe Rincon, another senior commander, were so enthusiastic about the idea the Rincon chirped in an email “We have to get the guy who makes merengues and we have to offer him a big budget!”

Thus, Guerilla Dance was born, a slickly-packaged and highly-produced dance record complete with lyrics and publicity shots. It wasn’t a cheap birth, though. The FARC reportedly spent $150,000 U.S. on production as well as importing professional musicians from the Dominican Republic.  The finished product was posted on YouTube. The lyrics mix pure revolutionary rhetoric with beats to make you bump and grind. “Taca taca taca, the government will fall,” “carry the grenades and the rifles,” “enemy to the left, enemy to the right,” similar to the traditional merengue instructions to always “move those hips!” Sadly for Marulanda, not only did he die before seeing his dancefloor dreams become a reality, the song did not smash the charts, and only attracted attention as a strange changeup from the FARC’s usual maudlin ballads with little production value.

This odd tale of a Marxist/Merengue mashup reinforces how clearly new media and Pop Culture are wedded to things once considered to be only political. Revolutionaries and insurgents alike are keenly aware of the political and military uses of music, film, video, dance, and gaming.  Many terrorist organizations have theme songs to rally their adherents, but it will be interesting to see whether Hizbullah, given Beirut’s vibrant club scene, will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the FARC and come out with a song as catchy and well produced.