Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Words in the Clouds

As in the case of his testimony before the House in September of 2007, the Senate testimony of General David Petraeus featured a number of PowerPoint slides that provided visual displays of quantitative information to his legislative audience. Petraeus used many of the rhetorical conventions of this common corporate genre, including the use of cloud graphics as icons around seemingly less tangible factors in the conflict like "Politics." It is worth noting that the controversial "Detainee Ops" on this chart was relegated to the end and a mere rapid-fire mention.

Despite his team's obvious use of software in the process of composition, in performance, Petraeus chose to de-emphasize the aspects of computer-mediated communication that would be more apparent if he had chosen screen projection technology. Watching the testimony live this morning, where the PowerPoints appeared in old-school hard-copy as paper charts that were flipped by an unseen person who also pointed out key details with a pointer, I noticed how quickly Petraeus moved through what were quite complicated data sets. For example, in the image above, the picture for civilian deaths isn't one of marked progress, given the total set of values and the in-points and out-points of the chronology. Furthermore, it tacitly acknowledges that "coalition data" may have been underreporting the numbers.

Unfortunately, since this is an election season, with three Presidential candidates on the two relevant committees, those speaking at the session often didn't engage with either the content or the digital rhetoric of Petraeus's presentation in any significant way.

The only committee member that I heard engage with Petraeus's information representation was Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. For example, Pryor pointed out that the fact that more weapons caches had been found may also indicate that more arms were flowing into the country across borders by sympathizers with the insurgents. He also noted concerns based on a figure labeled "Iraqi Combat Battalion Generation" with how the critical green and yellow parts of the bar indicating combat readiness had failed to grow.

In Petraeus's responses during the Q&A period with senators, I was also interested in how he discussed how soldiers perceive his televised appearances during the Congressional oversight process and the fact that Petraeus reported receiving numerous "e-mails" from "all ranks" of the armed forces in the "feedback" process.

Although U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker did not use information graphics, he did employ its lexicon by saying that the tendency toward progress could be seen, although the "slope of that line was not steep."

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