Commentary

Einstein's Corner: Square Pegs in Round Holes

In "Absolute Powerpoint," Ian Parker's wonderful essay on the power of Microsoft's Powerpoint software to edit our thoughts, he cites a New Jersey man in an online discussion: "Last week," said the man, "I caught myself planning out (in my head) the slides I would need to explain to my wife why we couldn't afford a vacation this year."

I can readily trace the evolution of my own prose as a writer from the days when I used to compose on a heavy old 1939 Royal Office Standard typewriter in the 1970s to an IBM Selectric in the late 70s, to a Wang System 25 dedicated word processor in the early 80s, and finally to MS Word by the mid-80s Back in the 70s, I wrote long-format stuff--fiction, mostly. I first encountered IBM Selectrics as an office temp in Manhattan during the late 70s. I often stayed late in the office to work on my own manuscripts, and found myself absorbed with my new-found power to correct my own mistakes without the need to retype an entire manuscript page. Little did I know...

By the early 1980s, I had learned how to work on a Wang System 25 dedicated word processor. Not long after, I started writing exclusively on the word processor. I wound up in a therapist's office with a severe dose of writer's block; I just couldn't get past the first four pages of a new novel, and couldn't figure out why. The answer, of course, had little to do with my writing. But now, twenty years and $200,000 of intensive psychotherapy later, I suspect something else was also afoot: My fledgling addiction to technology had discovered a new and alluring voice in the editing power of the word processor. I simply couldn't resist the urge to start editing my thoughts before they were all the way out of my head.

My prose changed commensurately: I went from long-format fiction to short-format sales and marketing copy almost overnight. I all but lost my ability to write anything longer than 1000 words. I had the sudden power to edit my thoughts the very moment they hit the screen. So I did. Such is the imperative of technology in general: New technologies bestow upon us new powers, each of which is exercised immediately, regardless of any other considerations. Such was the case with the atom bomb; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were--for all intents and purposes--done deals the moment the atom bomb was conceived, years before the actual weapons were deployed.

The wave of arbitraged mergers and acquisitions that punctuated the mid-to-late 1980s had less to do with the imperatives of business per se, and everything to do with the imperatives of a recently matured business technology: the electronic spreadsheet. Investment bankers suddenly had the power to massage one set of corporate numbers twelve different ways for twelve different prospective buyers in twelve hours. So they did.

The same imperative was at work in the mid-1990s with the introduction of the Internet. Few stopped to ponder the long-term effects of the World Wide Web on our lives, or how it would change the ways we communicate. It granted us all the irresistible power to render our individual Great American Dreams online, however ill-conceived as businesses. So we did.

Now, I've spent a good part of my adulthood trying to explain to my father--an old-school baseball journalist--what the hell I've done all these years as a digital marketer. Most of my explanations fall on deaf ears and make his eyes glaze over. And rightfully so. But he understood immediately the other night on the phone when I explained to him the proposed topic of today's column. "I want to write about how technology changes what we say by changing how we say it," I told him. I could hear the light bulb go on in his head for the first time.

Powerpoint of course is journalistic in form. It accommodates little more than the headline and the expository who, what, when, where, and why. My dad, bless his heart, understands these things. He cites the box score as the great American contribution to journalism technology.

The question is not whether a Powerpoint presentation--the corporate equivalent to the baseball box score--is an efficient way to deliver salient points. The question centers on what our default reliance on it does to our ability to communicate little but critical things like nuance and personality. Or truth. Great baseball writers, like the game itself, have appropriately little regard for time and dimension, but appropriate reverence for their byproducts: nuance and personality--the only functional way to impose color on a black-and-white medium. Nuance and personality in turn provide the medium for whatever truth isn't revealed, for whatever truth emerges instead.

What do we lose in the translation from life to Powerpoint? Imagine picking up the sports page and seeing nothing but box scores, nothing but truth revealed. No nuance, no personality, no wit, no humor, no charm. This is what has happened across much of corporate America--only without the statistical accountability. We look and we see little more than box scores, displayed overhead with dissolves and wipes and occasional audio cues to wake us up. Everything is driven by the same basic journalistic construct adopted and compounded by the proliferation of MS Powerpoint.

But why would we sacrifice nuance and personality for facts when the facts themselves--unlike the box score stats--are suspect to abandonment or modification the very moment market winds shift direction? In the end, all we are left with is the box score without the stats, without the accountability. We call it ROI.

We no longer have the option or the patience to write our lives in long form. We change our mission statements the way we change socks (most of us, anyway)--because we can, because we have the power to do so, and the power to do so confers all the authority we think we need. But each new technology we bring into our lives and businesses leaves a little less room, a little less time for nuance and personality, a little less time for emerging truth.

Better get ready: St. Peter will be waiting for us with an overhead projector.

Please note: A new Einstein's Corner discussion group has been opened on Yahoo at http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/einsteinscorner/. The Einstein's Corner discussion group is dedicated to exploring the adverse effects of our addictions to technology and media on the quality of our lives, both at work and at home. Please feel free to drop by and join the discussion.

Many thanks once again, my friends. Best to you and yours....

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