The Great PowerPoint Panic of 2003

The new media technology was going to make us stupid, to reduce all human interaction to a sales pitch. It was going to corrode our minds, degrade communication, and waste our time. Its sudden rise and rapid spread through business, government, and education augured nothing less than “the end of reason,” as one famous artist put it, for better or for worse. In the end, it would even get blamed for the live-broadcast deaths of seven Americans on national television. The year was 2003, and Americans were freaking out about the world-altering risks of … Microsoft PowerPoint.

Socrates once warned that the written word would atrophy our memory; the Renaissance polymath Conrad Gessner cautioned that the printing press would drown us in a “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Generations since have worried that other new technologies—radio, TV, video games—would rot our children’s brains. In just the past 15 years alone, this magazine has sounded the alarm on Google, smartphones, and social media. Some of these critiques seem to have aged quite well; others, not so well. But tucked among them was a techno-scare of the highest order that has now been almost entirely forgotten: the belief that PowerPoint—that most enervating member of the Office software suite, that universal metonym for soporific meetings—might be evil.

Twenty years later, the Great PowerPoint Panic reads as both a farce and a tragedy. At the time, the age of social media was dawning: MySpace and LinkedIn were newly founded, and Facebook’s launch was just months away. But even as the polarization machine hummed to life, we were fixated on the existential threat of bullet points. Did we simply miss the mark? Or, ridiculous as it may seem today, were we onto something?

Sixteen minutes before touchdown on the morning of February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated into the cloudless East Texas sky. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. As the broken shuttle hurtled toward Earth in pieces, it looked to its live TV viewers like a swarm of shooting stars.

The immediate cause of the disaster, a report from a NASA Accident Investigation Board determined that August, was a piece of insulating foam that had broken loose and damaged the shuttle’s left wing soon after liftoff. But the report also singled out a less direct, more surprising culprit. Engineers had known about—and inappropriately discounted—the wing damage long before Columbia’s attempted reentry, but the flaws in their analysis were buried in a series of arcane and overstuffed computer-presentation slides that were shown to NASA officials. “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the report stated, later continuing: “The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

PowerPoint was not then a new technology, but it was newly ubiquitous. In 1987, when the program was first released, it sold 40,000 copies. Ten years later, it sold 4 million. By the early 2000s, PowerPoint had captured 95 percent of the presentation-software market, and its growing influence on how Americans would talk and think was already giving rise to a critique. A 2001 feature in The New Yorker by Ian Parker argued that the software “helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.” Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet,” took to quipping that “power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

By the start of 2003, the phrase death by PowerPoint had well and truly entered the popular lexicon. A Yale statistician named Edward Tufte was the first to take it literally: That spring, Tufte published a rip-roaring broadside titled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, including his analysis of the software’s role in the recent Columbia disaster. Its cover page, a political cartoon that Tufte designed himself, shows a photo of army battalions, standing in perfect columns, before a giant statue of Joseph Stalin in the center of Budapest. A speech bubble comes from one soldier’s mouth: “There’s no bullet list like Stalin’s bullet list!” Another calls out: “But why read aloud every slide?” Even Stalin speaks: “следующий слайд,” he says—“Next slide, please.”

The pamphlet’s core argument, channeling Marshall McLuhan, was that the media of communication influence the substance of communication, and PowerPoint as a medium had an obfuscatory, dumbing-down effect. It did not necessarily create vague, lazy presentations, but it certainly accommodated and sometimes even disguised them—with potentially fatal consequences. This is exactly what Tufte saw in the Columbia engineers’ slides. “The cognitive style of PP compromised the analysis,” he declared months before the NASA investigation report reached a very similar conclusion.

Radical as Tufte’s position was, people took him seriously. He was already famous at the time as a public intellectual: His traveling one-day class on information design was more rock tour than lecture circuit. Hundreds of people packed into hotel ballrooms for each session. “They come to hear Edward R. Tufte,” one writer remarked at the time, “in the way the ancient Greeks must have gone to hear Socrates or would-be transcendentalists cut a path to 19th century Concord.” So when “the da Vinci of data” decided to weigh in on what would soon be called “the PowerPoint debate,” people listened.

Wired ran an excerpt from his pamphlet in September 2003, beneath the headline “PowerPoint Is Evil.” A few months later, The New York Times Magazine included Tufte’s assessment—summarized as “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb”—in its recap of the year’s most intriguing and important ideas. “Perhaps PowerPoint is uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation,” the entry read, noting that Colin Powell had just used the software to present evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations.

A few pages on was another notable entry in the magazine’s list of exciting new ideas: the social network. Even as PowerPoint was being linked with reality distortion and the rise of what Americans would soon be calling “truthiness,” the jury was still out on Friendster, LinkedIn, and other such networks. Maybe by supercharging social connection, they could alleviate our “profound national loneliness,” the write-up said. Maybe they would only “further fracture life into disparate spheres—the online and the offline.” Or maybe they wouldn’t be all that transformative—at least not compared with a technology as pervasive and influential as PowerPoint.

Tufte is now 81 years old and has long since retired. The “E.T. Tour,” which garnered, by his final count, 328,001 attendees, is over. These days, he mainly sculpts. But he is still himself: He still loathes PowerPoint. He still derives a kindergartner’s delight from calling it “PP.” And if you visit edwardtufte.com, you can still purchase his Stalin cartoon in poster form for $14.

In May, I emailed Tufte to ask how he thought his critique of PowerPoint had aged. True to form, he answered with a 16-page PDF, compiled specially for me, consisting of excerpts from his books and some blurbs about them too. He eventually agreed to speak by phone, but my first call to him went to voicemail. “In a land where time disappeared, E.T. is not available,” he incants in his outgoing message, with movie-trailer dramatics. “Your key to communication is voicemail. Or text message. Do it!” Beep.

When I finally reached E.T., I asked him whether, after 20 years of steady use, PowerPoint had really made us stupid. “I have no idea,” he said. “I’ve been on another planet. I’m an artist now.” In some sense, he went on, he’s the worst person to ask, because no one has dared show him a PowerPoint presentation since 2003. He also claimed that he hasn’t been “keeping score,” but he was aware—and appreciative—of the semi-recent revelation that his work helped inspire Jeff Bezos to ban the use of PowerPoint by senior Amazon executives.

Bezos was not the only one to see things Tufte’s way. Steve Jobs also banned PowerPoint from certain company meetings. At a 2010 military conference in North Carolina, former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, then an Army general, described PowerPoint as an internal threat; he had prohibited its use during the assault on the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005. “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” General James Mattis said at the same conference. And in 2011, a former software engineer in Switzerland formed the Anti PowerPoint Party, a (sort of) real political party devoted to fighting slide-deck tyranny.

Tufte’s essay has faced its share of criticism too. Some accused him of having engineered a controversy in order to juice his course attendance. Others said he’d erred by mixing up the software with the habits of its users. “Any general opposition to PowerPoint is just dumb,” the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. “It’s like denouncing lectures—before there were awful PowerPoint presentations, there were awful scripted lectures, unscripted lectures, slide shows, chalk talks, and so on.” Gene Zelazny, the longtime director of business visual presentations at McKinsey, summed up Tufte’s argument as “blaming cars for the accidents that drivers cause.”

The problem with this comparison is that our transportation system does bear some responsibility for the 30,000 to 40,000 car-crash deaths that occur in the U.S. every year, because it puts drivers in the position to cause accidents. PowerPoint, Tufte told me, has an analogous effect by actively facilitating bad presentations. “It’s convenient for the presenter,” he said, “and it’s inconvenient and harmful to the audience and to the content.”

But if all of those bad presentations really led to broad societal ills, the proof is hard to find. Some scientists have tried to take a formal measure of the alleged PowerPoint Effect, asking whether the software really influences our ability to process information. Sebastian Kernbach, a professor of creativity and design at the University of St. Gallen, in Switzerland, has co-authored multiple reviews synthesizing this literature. On the whole, he told me, the research suggests that Tufte was partly right, partly wrong. PowerPoint doesn’t seem to make us stupid—there is no evidence of lower information retention or generalized cognitive decline, for example, among those who use it—but it does impose a set of assumptions about how information ought to be conveyed: loosely, in bullet points, and delivered by presenters to an audience of passive listeners. These assumptions have even reshaped the physical environment for the slide-deck age, Kernbach said: Seminar tables, once configured in a circle, have been bent, post-PowerPoint, into a U-shape to accommodate presenters.

powerpoint style slide
The Atlantic

When I spoke with Kernbach, he was preparing for a talk on different methods of visual thinking to a group of employees at a large governmental organization. He said he planned to use a flip chart, draw on blank slides like a whiteboard, and perhaps even have audience members do some drawing of their own. But he was also gearing up to use regular old PowerPoint slides. Doing so, he told me, would “signal preparation and professionalism” for his audience. The organization was NASA.

The fact that the American space agency still uses PowerPoint should not be surprising. Despite the backlash it inspired in the press, and the bile that it raised in billionaires, and the red alert it caused within the military, the corporate-presentation juggernaut rolls on. The program has more monthly users than ever before, according to Shawn Villaron, Microsoft’s vice president of product for PowerPoint—well into the hundreds of millions. If anything, its use cases have proliferated. During lockdown, people threw PowerPoint parties on Zoom. Kids now make PowerPoint presentations for their parents when they want to get a puppy or quit soccer or attend a Niall Horan meet and greet. If PowerPoint is evil, then evil rules the world.

On its face at least, the idea that PowerPoint makes us stupid looks like a textbook case of misguided technological doomsaying. When I asked Tufte to revisit his critique, he demurred, but later in our conversation I pressed him on the matter more directly: Was it possible that his own critique of a new technology had missed the target, just as so many others had in the past? Were the worries over PowerPoint any different from those about the printing press or word processors or—

He cut in before I could finish the thought. The question, he said with evident exasperation, was impossible to answer. “I don’t do big think, big bullshit,” he told me. “I’m down there in the trenches, right in the act of communication.” By which he meant, I think, that he doesn’t engage in any kind of remotely abstract historical thinking.

I tried narrowing the question. Today’s concerns about social media bear a certain resemblance to the PowerPoint critique, I said. Both boil down to a worry that new media technologies value form over substance, that they are designed to hold our attention rather than to convey truth, and that they make us stupid. Could it be—was there any chance at all—that Tufte had made the right critique, but of the wrong technology? He wasn’t having it. The comparison between PowerPoint and social media, he said, is “hand-waving and bullshit and opportunism.”

This dismissal notwithstanding, it’s tempting to entertain counterfactuals and wonder how things might have played out if Tufte and the rest of us had worried about social media back in 2003 instead of presentation software. Perhaps a timely pamphlet on The Cognitive Style of Friendster or a Wired headline asserting that “LinkedIn Is Evil” would have changed the course of history. If the social-media backlash of the past few years had been present from the start, maybe Facebook would never have grown into the behemoth it is now, and the country would never have become so hopelessly divided.

Or it could be that nothing whatsoever would have changed. No matter what their timing, and regardless of their aptness, concerns about new media rarely seem to make a difference. Objections get steamrolled. The new technology takes over. And years later, when we look back and think, How strange that we were so perturbed, the effects of that technology may well be invisible.

Did the written word decimate our memory? Did radio shrink our attention span? Did PowerPoint turn us into corporate bureaucrats? If these innovations really did change the way we think, then we’re measuring their effects with an altered mind. Either the critiques were wrong, or they were so right that we can no longer tell the difference.