Powerpoint Syndrome

I don’t usually read over someone’s shoulder, but on a cross country flight a few months ago, I couldn’t help myself. The fellow next to me was reading the Wall Street Journal, there was an article about how Powerpoint and its bullet point system was affecting corporate communications. Business analysts agreed that Powerpoint was only good for presenting simple ideas in a linear fashion, people tended to dumb down their ideas to fit the Powerpoint format. The article asserted that Scott McNealy hated this effect so much that he banished Powerpoint from all Sun corporate offices. Having written a few complex multimedia presentations with fancy branching, I had to completely agree with the article. Powerpoint is a straightjacket for the mind, the structures determine how and what you can say. I never really understood this until I worked at a huge corporation that lived and breathed in Powerpoint. People spent their whole days emailing each other about what to put in their Powerpoint presentations. I asked one of their managers to make a simple decision about what color to make their website logo, she went in her office and came back in about an hour with about 5 pages of Powerpoint color printouts of color combinations, they held a quick meeting and everyone voted on them. Powerpoint presentations are an embodiment of a formal managerial hierarchy.
Even the structure of the typical outline is a eurocentric idea, it is basically unheard of in some Asian cultures. I work with exchange students from Japan, the hardest thing they have to learn is how to write papers in English. It’s hard for them because they have no idea of how to make an outline. HTML does a pretty good job at outlines, I’ll do a representative example of an outline for a story.

  1. Introduction
    1. State the Main Thesis
  2. Main Body
    1. Supporting Points
    2. Each point supports the following point
    3. Each point is a link in the chain of argument
    4. The chain of logic will lead inevitably to the Conclusion
  3. Conclusion
    1. Restate Main Thesis as a conclusion

This structure makes absolutely no sense to the students from Japan that I’ve encountered. They were trained in a system called "kishotenketsu" that is an entirely different structure for stories. In this system, the supporting points loop around the main point without creating a linear argument. The points are intended to only obliquely reference the main point, it is up to the reader to infer how this relates to the main thesis. There is no firm conclusion, only an ambiguous ending that may point to several possible outcomes. Again, it is up to the reader to form their own conclusion. Perhaps the best example of kishotenketsu is the movie "Rashomon." The movie explains a crime from the point of view of 4 different people, each of them claim to have committed the crime. We see the crime repeated 4 times with subtle variations, in the end there is no clear indication of who really is the criminal, the viewer must decide.
The kishotenketsu structure is so predominant in the minds of Japanese students that it is really hard for them to come out and make a straightforward argument in a term paper. Japanese textual styles are quite indirect, they must lead but not push the reader towards the point. It takes a lot of effort for these students to learn new structures, but I always admonish them, that’s the whole point of learning foreign languages, so you can learn to think in new ways.
I sometimes show these students an old standard journalistic technique, "pyramid style." It’s much more practically oriented so they catch on to it immediately. The first paragraph of the story, the "lead," must have all the important facts, who what when where why how. The facts are presented in the order of importance, with no conclusion at all. This style is primarily intended for the convenience of editors, who can lop off a few paragraphs at the end and not lose anything important.
There are many other valid structures for stories and libraries of stories. The reason I’m describing these in detail is because I’m fed up with Radio ‘s outline-centric structure. It is amazing how much Dave can blather about how his awesome algorithms are changing the world, but it is clear that he’s oblivious to what he’s really doing. There are professional writers, editors, linguists, and librarians who have studied these ideas for decades, but Dave has no use for them, he’s too busy trying to change the web to reflect his own scattered thinking processes. There is an old hacker saying, "the Street finds its own uses for things." The "semantic web" will not be created by coders like Dave, it might happen with his tools, but certainly not in the way that he designed it to work. The world has moved on since Dave wrote his first outliner, but he has not.

One thought on “Powerpoint Syndrome”

  1. Your assessment of the Japanese style of logic and writing is dead on. I was an Assistant English Teacher in Japan for three years. My friends and I all complained how our students lacked even the most basic writing and logic skills. Two years later, after getting accustomed to our students and their learning styles, it became apparent to my friends and I that not only were our students great at thinking logically, but they were doing it in a way completely foreign to us. I studied English and Journalism in college, and the kishoutenketsu (起承転結)was definitely not a part of the composition writing curriculum. I wish it would have. With the emerging world economy, it would be very empowering to not only learn other composition structures, but it would perhaps be economically wise to do so. Thanks for view on this. It’s really interesting.

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