The AutoContent Wizard, Part 1
A few days ago, while helping my wife prepare a presentation for a class she’s teaching as an adjunct lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, I was reminded of how much I hate PowerPoint. This isn’t a knock at my wife, who is taking her role there very seriously, or even at the slideshow format itself, which can be useful, as she intends to employ it, in presenting exhibits or examples for a classroom discussion. It’s more a feeling of creeping terror at the slideshow state of mind, the one that links both the stodgiest of corporations and the startups that like to think they have nothing in common with the old guard. Every tech pundit or entrepreneur is expected to have a deck, a set of slides—presumably stored in a handy flash drive that can be kept on one’s person at all times—with which he or she can distill his life’s work into a few images, ready to be shown at an impromptu TED talk. And it horrifies me, not just as a former office worker who has spent countless hours suffering through interminable slide presentations, but as someone who cares about the future of ideas. I’m not the first person to say this, of course, and at this point, it would probably be more interesting to mount a legitimate defense of the slideshow mentality than to make fun of it yet again. But the more I look around at our media landscape, the more it seems like a PowerPoint world, crafted and marketed to us by people who don’t want to think in terms that can’t be boiled down to a slick presentation.
The most useful critic on the subject, not surprisingly, is the legendary statistician and information designer Edward Tufte, whose book Beautiful Evidence includes a savage takedown of PowerPoint and the sloppy thinking it encourages. Tufte includes the usual samples of incomprehensible slides, but he also gets at a crucial point that explains how we got here:
Yet PowerPoint is entirely presenter-oriented, and not content-oriented, not audience-oriented. The claims of [PowerPoint] marketing are addressed to speakers: “A cure for the presentation jitters.” “Get yourself organized.” “Use the AutoContent Wizard to figure out what you want to say.” And fans of PowerPoint are presenters, rarely audience members.
This, I think, is the crux of the matter. Any form of communication that is designed more for the convenience of the creator than for its audience is inherently corrupt, and it tends to corrupt serious thought—or even simple clarity—the more frequently it gets used. We’re often told that people fear public speaking more than death, but the solution turns into a kind of living death for its listeners. And its most obvious manifestation is the dreaded bullet point, or, more accurately, the nested list, a visual cliché intended to create the impression of clear, logical, sequential thinking where none actually exists.
Bullet points aren’t anything new, as Richard Feynman learned back when he was wading through government documents as part of his investigation of the Challenger explosion: “Then we learned about ‘bullets’—little black circles in front of phrases that were supposed to summarize things. There was one after another of these little goddamn bullets in our briefing books and on slides.” But the way PowerPoint not only encourages but essentially forces users to structure their presentations as nested bullet points, no matter how incoherent the underlying argument, points to something truly insidious: the assumption that presentation counts for more than content, and that it’s fine to settle for shoddy, disorganized thinking as long as it follows the same set of stereotyped beats. As Ian Parker wrote in an excellent New Yorker piece on the subject from more than a decade ago:
But PowerPoint also has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion—an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion—about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.
Parker cites the “Motivating a Team” template, which invites the anxious presenter to fill in a series of blanks—”Generate possible solutions with green light, nonjudgmental thinking”—and cheerfully advises: “Have an inspirational close.” A tool supposedly made for presentations, in short, shades imperceptibly into a formula for thought, based on the implicit premise that ideas themselves are interchangeable.
The templates that Parker is mocking here used to appear in a feature known as the AutoContent Wizard, which sounds a little what a prolific blogger might want to be called in bed. In fact, it was a set of templates—including my favorite, “Communicating Bad News”—that amounts to a gesture of contempt toward everyone who creates or is subjected to such presentations, as Parker’s account of its creation makes clear:
AutoContent was added in the mid-nineties, when Microsoft learned that some would-be presenters were uncomfortable with a blank PowerPoint page—it was hard to get started. “We said, ‘What we need is some automatic content!'” a former Microsoft developer recalls, laughing. “‘Punch the button and you’ll have a presentation.'” The idea, he thought, was “crazy.” And the name was meant as a joke. But Microsoft took the idea and kept the name—a rare example of a product named in outright mockery of its target customers.
The AutoContent Wizard was phased out a few years ago, but even if we’re lucky enough not to work at a company at which we’re subjected to its successors, the attitudes behind it have expanded to cover much of the content that we consume on a daily basis. I’m speaking of the slideshow and the listicle, which have long since become the models for how online content can be profitably packaged and delivered. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how PowerPoint gave birth to these secret children, how the assumptions they reflect come from the very top, and what it means to live in a world in which AutoContent, not content, is king.