Last autumn there was a flurry of comment spurred by Wired pitching Information Design guru Edward Tufte against artist and musician David Byrne on the pros and cons of Microsoft's PowerPoint software. Tufte argued that PowerPoint is Evil for "elevating format over content", while, in Learning to Love PowerPoint, Byrne said "I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful... and use [PowerPoint] as an artistic agent."
The gist of Tufte's argument is easy to grasp for anyone who's sat through interminable slides of bullet points. But David Byrne's brief essay is more oblique, and the examples of his slides available on the web — links below — don't make much of a case themselves. As a consequence much of the commentary declared Tufte the 'winner' — here's a typical example. Intrigued by the difficulty of pinning down Byrne's use of PowerPoint, I shelled out the £50 for his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (EEEI) book/DVD package to take a closer look. It's clear from looking at this that there never was a real 'debate' of any kind between the Byrne and Tufte positions, as Byrne's purpose is in many ways orthogonal to Tufte's.
There are interviews with Byrne, plus samples of a few of his PowerPoint slides, from NPR (including 5 minute streaming audio feature) and Wired. Here are some editorial reviews of EEEI from the publisher and from Amazon.
None of these give you much of a feel for what to expect from the book, and more especially the DVD, however. One thing is certain: Byrne's slides are nothing like any PowerPoint presentation you have seen, or are likely to see, in a business or learning context. They are radically more abstract than even a presentation from the likes of fellow musician and artist DJ Spooky: Spooky's intent is to convey perspective and information rather than Byrne's abstract collage of text, image and iconography (and, anyway, Spooky uses the upmarket Keynote instead of PowerPoint).
Watching the DVD is more like seeing a Norman McLaren abstract animation — click the thumbnails for details of a couple of his films — using cheesy clip art instead of hand-drawn figures. His approach to PowerPoints icons, text styles and slide transitions mirrors his one-time collaborator Bruce Conner's approach to 'found footage' in film making. At one point as the full-screen text reads 'OVERWHELMED' Byrne's music evokes Philip Glass's score for the doom-laden documentary montage of Koyaanisqatsi.
By now I hope it's clear that Byrne's work is hard to position as a counter-argument to Tufte's criticisms of PowerPoint mentality. So what is Byrne doing? I think EEEI makes most sense in the context not of Information Design but of — surprise, surprise — his previous work, including his photography and his books, Strange Ritual, The New Sins and Your Action World. In this light, you can see EEEI as a continuation of the pop-culture post-modernist pre-occupations that Byrne helped to define. These include a concern with surfaces and depth, cliché and profundity. Thus as Byrne says in the NPR interview EEEI "uses clichéd phrases... as free-floating poetic elements that I can rearrange as if they're blocks, and make them mean something completely different or reveal them to be as absurd as they actually are." Your Action World in particular includes many glib exhortations (in a kind of Anthony Robbins parody) combined in 'slide' form with collaged visuals. Mass-production images recur in Byrne's work and PowerPoint clip art is another extension of this. PowerPoint also allows Byrne to indulge an ambivalent and playful approach to lists and classifications (fellow travellers in this regard being artists like Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway).
EEEI continues David Byrne's dialogue with his faux-naif alter-ego. He played this part himself as Narrator of his film True Stories, described by one reviewer as "a thin, quiet, withdrawn figure with a voice so flat that you have to listen to the pauses to figure out when the sentences end." Later Byrne rehabilitated Bob Dylan's Mr Jones ("something is happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?") in a song that proposes that maybe the straight business types who don't know what's happening are the ones who can most easily find happiness ("Mr Jones, put a wiggle in your stride...I believe you'll be all right").
David Byrne seems obsessed by anonymous business-people; or more particularly by the anxiety that they might be happier than him, the highly-wrought [mops brow] artist. At the start of the EEEI book, Byrne writes, "using PowerPoint is fun and relatively easy. The pleasurable rewards come quickly and often. Your amateur presentation looks at least as good as any professional's. Unfortunately, you have become a pod person, and smug pseudo-bohemians like myself look down their noses at you. This does not matter, because being a pod person has its own rewards. Happiness, for starters." So Byrne feigns a desire to transform himself into a happy office worker: "rather than give in to my smarmy boho tendencies, I decided that I must surrender and learn to use this software myself, for, like everyone, I long to belong. I have a long way to go. I'm resistant. My presentations are sometimes unclear and confusing." Let's all sob boo-hoo for the boho who's slumming it with dumb software from the evil empire, safe in the knowledge he can return to arty towers any time it suits.
The title of Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information directly references Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information, but, apart from registering an aesthete's homage to another beautiful book and evoking, archly, the intent of this latter book to encourage clarity and transparency in communication, EEEI has little to do with Tufte's arguments about PowerPoint. If anything, Byrne would support Tufte: as he says of his PowerPoint slides, again in the NPR interview, "The form immediately makes you think that it's conveying information and that it makes rational sense..." but "none of the content is telling you anything whatsoever; if anything it's just confusing you further."
Following in the steps of several reviewers, it's hard to resist the observation that Byrne has taken the PowerPoint presentation to the point where it 'stops making sense.' The Byrne vs Tufte debate may have been a useful hook on which to hang some press coverage to promote sales of both (possibly even more artificial than the old Oasis vs Blur rivalry), but where so many reviewers have been willing to take this at face value — just because they don't get the thrust of Byrne's intervention — I wonder if this tactic has backfired?
On a side note, until 10 April you can hear David Byrne talking and playing records with Charlie Gillett online for an hour or so as part of Charlie's BBC London programme. Here's Charlie's account of the programme and playlist.Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 6 April 02004 | TrackBack