Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Untangling Afghanistan

Since I have an entire chapter in the Virtualpolitik book about PowerPoint, which specifically addresses the function of this new digital genre in military culture, I was interested to see "We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint" in the New York Times.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

Despite such tales, “death by PowerPoint,” the phrase used to described the numbing sensation that accompanies a 30-slide briefing, seems here to stay. The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.

“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y., who under the name Starbuck wrote an essay about PowerPoint on the Web site Small Wars Journal that cited Lieutenant Nuxoll’s comment.

In a daytime telephone conversation, he estimated that he spent an hour each day making PowerPoint slides. In an initial e-mail message responding to the request for an interview, he wrote, “I would be free tonight, but unfortunately, I work kind of late (sadly enough, making PPT slides).”

The lead example in the New York Times piece is a slide about military strategy in Afghanistan that was shown to General Stanely McChrystal, who opined that "when we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

The slide in question was actually developed by the PA Consulting Group. Not addressed in the NYT article is the role of global consulting firms that specialize in a mix of IT, strategic planning, and public relations in shaping new digital genres and cater to the U.S. military, which I also write about in the first and second chapters of the Virtualpolitik book. I also argue in the third chapter of the book that military culture is also attracted to virtual reality simulations, because they offer a similar sense that reality can be controlled and ordered by computational media.

The Guardian's Datablog has challenged its readers to see if they can "do any better" in representing such complex information with a more elegant solution. They reference Julian Bolger's reading of the graphic in his Global Security Blog, which delivers the following witty opinion and caveat about informational distraction.

The diagram has an undeniable beauty. Done the right way (embroidered perhaps) it would make a lovely wallhanging and an ideal gift for the foreign policy-maker in your life. But it is a bit of a red herring.

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