PowerPoint As Political Culture

PowerPoint is ubiquitous in modern business, government, and military culture.  It is the last of these hegemonies that is potentially devastating in the short term, as “PowerPoint poisoning” increasingly saps the energy and creativity of U.S. forces deployed to fight al-Qaeda and reduces complex strategic problems to vague bullet points.  Moreover, the military increasingly uses PowerPoint as a way to intentionally hide information behind mind-numbing bullet points:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.
The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

If the influence of PowerPoint were just to enable the media’s longstanding tradition of ignorance and intellectual laziness, it would be a sideshow in a much larger problem.  But “PowerPoint culture” — the reduction of everything to standardized bullet points — is increasingly the strategic culture of American politics more generally.

One need only look at the pathetic state of political discourse to see the hallmarks of a PowerPoint presentation.  Propose health care reform?  Here comes the “socialism” bullet point.  No definition, specification, or discussion needed, mind you.  The bullet point invokes the mental script and the non-debate pretty much proceeds on autopilot from there, replete with predictable graphical transitions to the next slide…

…which is the accusations of “racism” flying back in the other direction.  Yes, even though nearly all the attention these days (well, pretty much every day) is on the flaws of the supposedly horrific and vile “Tea Party” conservatives, it turns out that some progressives are eager to match them bullet point for bullet point, with exactly the same yawning mendacity, selective ignorance, and willful blindness to contrary information.  “Epistemic closure” — the newest bullet point coined by those who think using two-dollar words makes them sound smarter than everyone else — is the beam in the eyes of those very same people who spend their time finding motes in everyone elses’.

The PowerPoint bullet point has come to dominate policymaking as well.  For example, “health care reform” was defined by bullet points by its advocates as well as its “socialism” critics.  We heard vague calls to “stop the insurance companies” and enforce an “individual mandate” in the pursuit of “universal coverage”, but it turned out in the end that literally no one had actually bothered to (or in many cases been allowed to) read the actual text of the bill before it was already law.  Now we’re on the same road to financial reform, with PowerPoint-ish bullet points about “standing up to Wall Street” eclipsing every attempt to actually figure out the substance of what is being proposed.  Opposition is similarly bullet-pointed — with standard invocations of “big government” relieving critics of having to, you know, figure out what they are actually talking about.  Politics has often eclipsed policymaking, but the current situation might be better described as politics exterminating policymaking entirely.

It is difficult to disentangle cause and effect, however.  Is our political culture becoming increasingly content-free because of the crippling influence of things like PowerPoint? Or is PowerPoint so pervasive because it is a natural fit for the increasingly ignorant and lazy American mind?  Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind over 20 years ago, lamenting the decline of actual thinking on American college campuses and, if anything, the poor saps described in his opus look like geniuses compared to those that now dominate our political and cultural discourse.  Much has been made of the dreary anti-intellectualism of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin.  If those critics weren’t so locked in to their partisan bullet points, they might notice exactly the same anti-intellectualism and “epistemic closure” among Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.  Ain’t no white hats around here, cowboy.

Are there any real critical and independent thinkers left out there?  Or is the entire political and strategic world reduced to a nattering mob of triviality and scripted inanity?

Hello, is this thing on?

The author welcomes serious comments and discussion by email.  Messages containing mere repetitions of partisan bullet points will, however, be summarily shot into the trash.

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Author: JASON ARVAK