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iPads, Powerpoint, and Agency

There two curious articles published yesterday. One was about Powerpoint (or as I call it The Powerpointer) in the New York Times (and picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog). The prevalence of Powerpoint in military briefings has apparently reached epidemic levels and many folks within the military are saying that the reliance on Powerpoint to communicate information not only makes the seemingly endless stream of briefings debilitatingly boring, but also might impair the ability to make good decisions. In fact, one military official argued that Powerpoint is responsible for creating “the illusion of understanding and illusion of control” in the U.S. Military. Let’s hope that this is hyperbole. What is clear, however, is that creating, presenting, and enduring Powerpoint shows takes a tremendous amount of time, and a significant part of that time is spent dealing (in both good and bad ways) with Powerpoint rather than dealing with content of the Powerpoint presentation. This would seem to be a perfect example of technology having agency; Powerpoint creates a culture that depends upon the use of Powerpoint for its daily work, basic communication patterns, and ultimately its decisions making.

The other article appeared at the blog academHacK and questioned the value of the iPad in higher education. David Parry argued that Apple’s practice of censoring apps that do not coincide with rather ambiguous and strictly enforced views on propriety offers a serious threat to the utility of the iPad in the context of Higher Education. In large part, Parry’s argument was focused on the possibility that Apple would censor textbooks that appear as apps on the device. This might happen, of course, but it seems to me another version of a standard complaint: Apple’s device is too limited and limiting to be useful in a university classroom. Whether it is content creation, app censorship, the devices inability to run Flash, or even the inflexible and relatively hack-proof operating system, digital humanists have begun to rally against the iPad as another example of the things wrong with how the computer industry approaches academia. The fear is that the potential of the iPad will ultimately lull us into accepting its limitations and, as a result, limiting the potential for genuinely creative intersection of technology and learning. In other words, the iPad promotes a coarsely transactional approach to teaching and learning and facilitates the highly commodified packets of knowledge move from a relatively inflexible content provider to consumer.

Both of these arguments postulate that the object (Powerpoint and the iPad) exert control over the user in particularly unsubtle ways. Powerpoint somehow makes military briefings boring or suspends critical inquiry. iPads create apparently insurmountable barriers between content consumers (students) and content producers. A little Bruno Latour could go a long way in this context. Both the iPad and Powerpoint exist in a particular network of relations that both influence how this technology is used and will be used. To assume that the iPad will be used on University campuses without some kind of compromise regarding its flexibility and issues of censorship marginalizes the power of university faculty to find or create work arounds, to reject poorly designed devices (just like many faculty members reject poorly designed textbooks or poorly conceived website), or to create pedagogical environments where the strengths of the iPad shine and its limitations are accommodated without sacrificing the teaching or learning objectives.

The same can be said for the Powerpointer. Compared to the tedious practice of preparing, creating, and maintaining collections of photographic slides, The Powerpointer is revolutionary. Moreover, in a critical environment like the university or the military, it can be controlled. Boring Powerpoint presentations likely reflect boring lectures, unnecessary briefings, and a culture of tedium rather than actually producing them. In fact, it may be that The Powerpointer manifests agency by allowing us to recognize the inefficiency of a particular culture or practice of which it is a part.

It is always disappointing to see a piece of technology blamed for its limitations as if technology existed outside the human networks in which it is used. Recognizing the role of technology in establish expectations is a valid form of critique, but a symmetrical approach to understanding technology demands that we give equal consideration to the character of the networks in which the technology will function.

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