Clive Thompson’s headline in the New York Times Magazine is eye-catching and funny — “PowerPoint Makes you Dumb.” The article is based on the work of Edward Tufte and his book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Thompson’s article is about the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that looked into the crash of the space shuttle. That’s not so funny.
When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide — so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. “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 board sternly noted.
And how’s this an urban emergency issue?
Urban emergency plans contain lots of irrelevant information (see introduction).
Some have surprising elements. One nice surprise is Boston’s comprehensive look at climate change. A disappointment is Barrie, Ontario’s out-of-date plan that advises readers to get help from a federal government department that does not actually provide help.
Hamilton, Ontario, has a PowerPoint presentation grafted on. One additional problem with PowerPoint is that readers weren’t in the room when the dynamic presenter spoke about the bullet points. The information makes little sense without the commentary.
Take these three lines: “Response in Ontario & Canada starts at the ground level” — Response often begins high above the ground in high-rise fires and well below the ground in the mining industry or subway accidents. “No automatic call for the cavalry” — We still have 911 in Ontario, mutual aid agreements and responders.
“That is known, that is what we prepare for” — That is what? If it’s known, could we know? Perhaps we could also prepare.
Clive Thompson sums up the use of these bullet points. “Perhaps PowerPoint is uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation—where manipulating facts is as important as presenting them clearly. If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.”
But Hamilton’s emergency plan may be revealing another use. The inclusion of this PowerPoint may be the low-tech version of “I tweeted it out…” Both imply a willingness or even necessity to communicate. They imply openness, that one values one’s own opinion, and that one has information to share. The fact that no one may see or understand the message is beside the point in this information age.
In this age, building a website, sending an email, posting a picture on Instagram, adding a hyperlink, blogging, and hosting a webinar are all considered “pro-active” communication. These tasks can be listed in another PowerPoint presentation and used during performance appraisals to show the boss how much has been done. That PowerPoint can be used to obtain a larger budget.
Few senior managers with budgetary control will question the content of these social media efforts, ask how many received them, or how many responded. That’s good because there’s no good research on how much good a communications plan does to keep urban residents safe. The notion that communications plans do some good is mainly a guess.
What these activities may actually show is compliance with laws. Laws in most jurisdictions require cities to have emergency plans, make them public, update them regularly, and test them. There’s no law that says they have to be received by anybody, understood, or make sense.