Death by PowerPoint

Oh, the irony.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — but in the course of doing research on the history of PowerPoint for my day job, I discovered today that one school of thought holds PowerPoint responsible for the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

This theory, first elucidated by the big-brained Edward Tufte (author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information), is outlined in some detail here. The gist is that a deck shown to engineers at NASA before the fateful shuttle flight actually warned them of the looming disaster, but because the information was presented in a poorly thought-out PowerPoint — clipped, jargony, and with too many levels of hierarchy — no one noticed.

I can’t help but think of the famous pre-9/11 briefing that warned “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” — one line amidst an ocean of data that turned out to be of world-shaking consequence. If it’s hard for even the rocket scientists among us to filter out the signal from the noise, what chance did a dim bulb like George W. Bush have? I never blamed George for failing to prevent 9/11 (though cynically exploiting it was another matter). Likewise, I find it hard to blame anyone in particular for the failure to communicate in the shuttle disaster — even Microsoft, though certainly the idea has its appeal.

While we’re on the subject, here’s something else I ran across in my research. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before too: The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

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