Friday, March 14, 2014

Limitations of the Medium: The Gettysburg Address Powerpoint

As I prepare for a few speaking engagements at academic conferences next weekend, I am keeping in mind lessons learned about what powerpoint presentations giveth, and what they taketh away from effective communication by sharing this classic by Peter Norvig--The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

Exploring various media in terms of their affordances and limitations is a classic approach to semiotics, and I wish all presenters considered how this powerpoint totally decimates the power of Lincoln's speech while still abiding by many principles for presenting clear information. It's a great piece to discuss with students before they design presentations, particularly in public speaking classes. What does the speech communicate that visuals do not? What makes the speech effective? Why are the visuals less effective? It also presents an opportunity for social studies students in middle school and high school to create a more effective powerpoint presentation for the speech. I'd introduce an audio recording or professional performance in a still shot on video, then show the powerpoint, and then show the clip from Ken Burns' Civil War--and ask students to shoot for something somewhere between Norvig's satire and Burns' film. Students could also go the other direction, and add all sorts of flashy visuals, video clips and preposterous image collages to create their own Gettysburg Address Powerpoint presentations that humorously show the limitations and common abuses of powerpoint features in public speech communication. Norvig has also posted a great story about the making of his powerpoint and the response he's gotten from it.

Back in 2003, Wired magazine hosted a "debate" of sorts pitting the view that "Powerpoint is Evil" from Yale Professor Edward Tufte, author of the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint monograph, against "Learning to Love Powerpoint" from new wave rock God and avant-garde artist David Byrne (front man of the Talking Heads). Tufte bemoans the use of Powerpoint in schools, arguing that the constraints of the software encourage poor visual communication. Byrne discusses how he moved from feeling limited by the software to exposing its limitations through mockery to transcending its constraints in art. Especially for college courses discussing multimodal composition, Tufte's tirade and Byrne's celebratory transcendence make for a fascinating contrast to approaching communication tools and how they shape our discourses. For any class, Byrne's art illustrates how playing with the affordances and limitations of media offers avenues for both critical commentary and self expression. DJ Alchemi posted a nice review of Byrne's powerpoint art in 2004 after arguing that the Tufte/Byrne "debate" was bogus. He also links to an NPR discussion with Byrne and some more presentation software art from DJ Spooky (using Keynote). I really like the idea of designing multimodal composition lessons starting with Tufte's critique and following Byrne's learning curve from mocking the medium in the medium as a means for learning its affordances and limitations, to transcending the rules and habits of communication imposed by the medium for artistic commentary, critique and self expression. So, there's an idea. Any takers?

And here's a bonus image for your Friday pleasure...
 I want a poster of this in my classroom.

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