Against the tyranny of PowerPoint...
(Kaplan 2006 Orlikowski and Yates 1994 Yates and Orlikowski 1992) and legitimizing new forms of knowing. In business and government, lengthy reports are supplanted by printouts of transparencies while, in higher educa- tion, PowerPoint has become the sine qua non of the lecture, a piece of tech- nology that both supports and defines classroom practices (Orlikowski et al. 1995 Orlikowski 1992). Thus, the nature of ���presentation���, ���lecture��� and pos- sibly of ���learning��� itself are being irreversibly altered some indeed may say ���reinvented���. This paper lies at the intersection of discourses on organizational technolo- gies-in-use and critical pedagogy. It examines PowerPoint as a piece of tech- nology-in-use that both constrains and enables its users. My own focus is on its educational and academic applications, although its ramifications for busi- ness applications are also coming to be recognized (Doumont 2005 Kaplan 2006 Karreman and Strannegard 2004 Yates and Orlikowski forthcoming). Like many new technologies and new genres, much of the debate on PowerPoint has elicited strong criticisms and enthusiastic endorsements. The paper examines some of these with references to my own experiences. More significantly, however, it seeks to elucidate how this particular technology is adapted, modified and subverted in the course of its organizational implemen- tations. Further, it seeks to offer an analysis of the effects of such technology on the construction and dissemination of organizational knowledge. More widely, the paper argues that PowerPoint is a technology well suited to the practices of a society of spectacle, where much knowledge and information assume the form of visual representations, such as photographs, images, graphs and diagrams. In this sense, the paper shares the reservations of some commentators regarding the damage it can inflict on the skills of reasoning, and identifies some of its shortcomings when it is used in a routine, passive and predictable manner. The paper, however, also identifies some uses of PowerPoint that go beyond narrow performativity (Lyotard 1984/1991) and uncritical learning. I argue that it can then become a platform for passionate, discovery learning (Gherardi 1999, 2004), a medium that, far from closing discursive avenues, enables indi- viduals and groups to discover a voice and develop their learning and commu- nication potential. Like other forms of technology, the uses and meanings of PowerPoint are not tyrannically dictated by its designers but emerge in its enact- ment by different social actors in different contexts (Orlikowski 2000). I con- clude that, when used creatively, PowerPoint, instead of destroying old skills of arguing, theorizing and communicating, can generate new learning opportuni- ties entailing discovery, criticism and plurivocality. I argue that creative users of PowerPoint display many of the qualities of bricolage and improvisation that have long been associated with narrative knowledge (Gabriel 2002 L��vi- Strauss 1966 Linstead and Grafton-Small 1992 Weick 1993). Used in this way, PowerPoint does not simplify, codify and objectify knowledge but becomes part of a multi-level engagement with organizational complexity (Tsoukas and Hatch 2001). 256 Organization Studies 29(02) �� 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. at SWETS WISE ONLINE CONTENT on August 13, 2008 http://oss.sagepub.com Downloaded from
A Brief Overview of the Development of PowerPoint PowerPoint developed from an earlier piece of software, initially created for the Apple Macintosh II, called Presenter. It was purchased on the year of its release by Microsoft for a relatively small sum, rebranded and developed as a simple-to-use instrument mainly for business presentations. In the latter part of the 1990s it became part of the suite of programmes that made up Microsoft Office and in a short period of time established itself as the indis- pensable medium for business presentations. The concurrent development of email and the internet ensured that PowerPoint slides could be easily communicated to wide audiences, packing a lot of information into what seemed like an aesthetically pleasing and synoptic style. Instead of having to plough through lengthy reports, busy businesspeople could quickly skim through a few transparencies and absorb the essential features of a case or an argument. Very rapidly, with the addition of animations, sound effects and graphics, PowerPoint presentations also become corporate style state- ments ��� expressing corporate values, such as ���modernity���, innovativeness and so forth. The incursion of PowerPoint in education was almost as rapid as it was in business, even if the reasons behind it were not identical. Its uses can be viewed as symptomatic of some long-term changes in teaching and learning technologies. These coincide with a changing range of demands on acade- mics and increasingly consumerist attitudes of many learners. Many teach- ers, under great time pressures to deliver on research and administration, under constant email bombardment, and faced with pressing deadlines and obligations, sought a way of rationalizing and simplifying their teaching by embracing PowerPoint as a way of streamlining lecture preparation and delivery. Many publishers quickly realized the possibility of profits from this market and considerately offered ready-made slides, initially on stencils and later online and on CD-ROMs, for lecturers to incorporate into their teach- ing programmes. Many lecturers, to their delight, discovered that teaching scores and student satisfaction improved with the use of PowerPoint. Gradually audiences, both in lectures and in academic conferences, have come to expect and even demand PowerPoint as an indispensable feature of presentations. In my experience, students in business, management and the social sciences, once they had tasted the delights of PowerPoint, were unwilling to give them up. In spite of wide cultural differences, diverse learning styles and other pref- erences, these students, in a very short period of time, came to view PowerPoint as a totally indispensable accoutrement to the lecture. Increasingly they demanded the lecturer hand out the slides before the lecture, and a new form of note-taking prevailed in the lecture theatre, that of adding comments on copies of the slides. On many courses today, including some taught by the author, lec- turers are expected to hand out the PowerPoint of an entire course at the start of a semester. Gabriel: Against the Tyranny of PowerPoint 257 �� 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. at SWETS WISE ONLINE CONTENT on August 13, 2008 http://oss.sagepub.com Downloaded from
Some Criticisms We may caricature the new form of lecture as one of students engaged in one of the favourite pastimes of our age, watching pictures and absorbing largely sub- liminal messages. As consumers of educational packages, they extended their experience of being consumers of shows and spectacles, on and off TV. This can all be seen as part of the widely debated commercialization of higher education, which turns students into customers and universities into ���McUniversities��� (De Vita and Case 2003 Gabriel 2005b Gould 2003 Ohmann 2003 Parker and Jary 1995 Ritzer 1999 Sturdy and Gabriel 2000 Washburn 2004). Education then could be seen as coming close to entertainment (some call it ���infotain- ment���), with bite-size morsels of information that do not strain or test their pow- ers of reasoning or comprehension beyond supplying enough material for some largely ritual testing to take place. In line with Karreman���s and Strannegard���s (2004) powerful critique of its business uses, we could then observe that PowerPoint in the classroom can reduce the students��� critical awareness, naturalize knowledge into seemingly indisputable bullet points and bolster the authority of the lecturer whom it sur- reptitiously transforms into a salesperson (see also Sturdy and Gabriel 2000). At the same time, PowerPoint can substantially limit a lecturer���s ability to deviate from a preconceived lecture plan, improvise or develop a new line of thinking in the course of a lecture. Like a set of rails fixed on the ground, PowerPoint slides lock the thinking process along a single linear path, blocking impromptu variations and digressions in short, improvisation and exploration. But criticisms of PowerPoint run even deeper. In the last few years, a lively debate has grown around its uses, mostly conducted on websites, prompted by a stinging critique by Edward Tufte, a Yale professor of information design (Tufte 2003a,c). Tufte charged PowerPoint with degrading the quality of communica- tion, stupefying and boring audiences and debasing everything it touches. Critics have held PowerPoint responsible not only for spiritual and cognitive debase- ment but for material disasters too (Felder and Brent 2005). Tufte (2003b), for instance, argued that the Columbia space shuttle disaster might have been averted had the crucial information regarding the foam, which critically damaged the shuttle���s tiles, not been contained in a confusing PowerPoint slide with 10 bullet points at six levels. Tufte���s argument is that the vital piece of information that would have alerted NASA to the damage sustained by the shuttle was drowned by information overload, noise and absence of context, which were the result of a PowerPoint mindset (See also Rosen 2005). And Some Defences Tufte���s lampooning of PowerPoint (���Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely���) has earned him some notoriety and fame. Yet, similar charges can, after all, be raised against virtually any form of information technology. Typewriters destroyed the skills of calligraphy, word processors destroyed the skill of producing well-turned phrases, and the internet has allowed every type 258 Organization Studies 29(02) �� 2008 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. at SWETS WISE ONLINE CONTENT on August 13, 2008 http://oss.sagepub.com Downloaded from