In a recent interview (here and here) with Edward Tufte by Dan Nadel (I.D. Magazine, November 2003), I was surprised to read Tufte saying that he discovered how "horrifying" PowerPoint was while doing a Google search for people who were teaching his work. In other words, he recognized PowerPoint as evil when he saw his own work projected through its lens and worse still, that it was "contrary to my work on analytical design."
Tufte has a long and distinguished career, but his reputation was really cemented by his analysis of the Challenger crash in 1986 (well documented in Visual Explanations,1997). After the recent Columbia tragedy, with O-rings replaced by destructive foam, Tufte again wants to blame bad information design. For accuracy's sake, let me quote:
"And then the Columbia went down. I looked at the slides Boeing did during the flight, which indicated no danger from foam hitting the wing. NASA believed it, and we've seen what happened. Those were in PowerPoint. It's not that PowerPoint brought the Columbia down, but the method of presentation broke up the argument into tiny fragments..."
I am quoting here precisely because I want to suggest that PowerPoint was probably not a major contributor to the Columbia tragedy: it is pretty clear from the investigation and its final report that many people within NASA and Boeing thought the leaking foam was a (more) dangerous problem, and that the culture of NASA led to these voices being ignored.
Later in the same interview, Tufte observes: "I wanted to get it out fast and have an effect..." In other words, oppportunity harkened. The sales of his little booklet are strong, leading him to make the amazing claim that his website has "really come alive. It's the only success story in e-commerce!" In other words, the opportunity was realized.
Here's my question: Why is Tufte getting away with this well-executed publicity campaign, a stance that positions him as the discoverer of PowerPoint's evils? Almost everything said on this subject by Tufte was penned two years earlier, by Ian Parker, in an essay in The New Yorker entitled "Absolute Powerpoint: Can A Software Package Edit Our Thoughts" (May 28, 2001). [To be clear, there is NO suggestion of plagiarism in this criticism.] This was a major story in The New Yorker and an execellent piece of cultural criticism; it was widely discussed and received broad coverage in the media.
Read the piece for yourself: it has more original thinking, and is, arguably, better written than Tufte's essay. It's all over the web, but this copy was posted by the physics department at Ohio State clearly, there are places in America that started talking about PowerPoint before Edward Tufte surfaced on this topic.
Finally, a question for design editors everywhere: When are we going to start publishing critical interviews in our design press? Certainly, there could have been much more probing questions for Edward Tufte. Journalists didn't let Al Gore get away with claiming credit for having started the internet, and in a similar fashion, Tufte shouldn't be allowed to get away with ridiculous statements like "It's the only success story in e-commerce!", or, for that matter, asserting a kind of ownership of PowerPoint especially when someone else had already (and recently) written the story.
I suspect that Tufte's essay will have an inpact, and I hope it influences many to resist the spell of PowerPoint. Let's just not let him take all the credit.