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    PowerPoint Doomed the Space Shuttle
    By Michael White | March 9th 2010 02:20 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    Ars Technica notes that famed anti-PowerPoint communications guru Edward Tufte is getting some sort of job consulting for the Obama Administration. In passing, they point to one of Tufte's online essays, PowerPoint Does Rocket Science.

    I shouldn't be surprised by this, but really, I'm stunned: Tufte notes that, in order to assess the threat to the Space Shuttle Columbia while it was still orbiting, NASA and Boeing engineers prepared reports in the form of PowerPoint slides. Only in the form of PowerPoint slides: there were no technical reports.

    In response to these reports, NASA managers, just as they had done in 1986, underestimated the risk and declared the Space Shuttle safe. And of course shortly thereafter the Columbia burned up on its descent back to earth.

    NASA engineers put safety reports in the form of PowerPoint slides? Seriously? What happened to written reports? It should be obvious that PowerPoint is intended to accompany oral presentations, not serve as a medium for written reports on anything more technical or serious than the minutes of the last PTO meeting.

    Are the Space Shuttle program managers too stupid to read and comprehend a regular written report? Of course not. So why are they dumbing down the communications process with PowerPoint? I'm with Tufte on this issue: PowerPoint is not only an inefficient way of conveying information; it's downright misleading. People think much more information is being communicated than is really the case.

    Tufte quotes from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board:

    As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.


    PowerPoint is making us much dumber than we need to be.

    Read the feed:

    Comments

    Aitch
    "Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."-Edward Tufte.
    For alternate Presentation software

    http://alternatives.rzero.com/present.html

    Michael, perhaps you'd care to be my first responder to my questionnaire?

    Open Source  - Questionnaire

    Aitch
    Gerhard Adam
    PowerPoint is making us much dumber than we need to be.

    In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.
    I have to strongly disagree.  Any senior manager that doesn't have the intelligence to recognize that a PowerPoint slide isn't a comprehensive presentation or assessment of "life-threatening" situations is a moron and has no business being in such a position of authority.  He clearly is incapable of making any rational decisions if he is that foolish with his use of information.

    More importantly, I would be quite willing to bet, that the reason a PowerPoint presentation was used, is because senior management insisted that that was how they wanted to receive information.  It's time we stopped letting senior managers off the hook for being idiots.  If they don't like how subordinates work, then it is up to them to change it.  However, be assured that what they get is usually precisely what they asked for.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Richard King
    PowerPoint is useful for presentations, lectures, but that is about its limit.

    If managers cannot read and understand engineering reports, they should not be in a decision making positition on engineering matters.
    jgerke
    I miss chalk talks.