understanding media 3: powerpoint


1    marshall mcluhan's 'hot and cold media' as mapping
2    comparisons with aristotle's four types of cause

3    hot hot hot: powerpoint presentations and the easy reversability of material cause
4    the fool and the enthymeme: it's for the audience to say . . .

hot hot hot: powerpoint presentations and the easy reversability of material cause

The growth in popularity, and the concurrent improvement in technology, of the projection of the computer screen has led to a gradual supplanting of the traditional "slide" projection presentation with a display of images, texts, and animations organized, usually, on a lap-top computer. Projectors, which were initially beyond the reach of most private presenters, are now withinw the reach of some; and lower costs have at least enabled the general availability of ever-lighter, brighter DLP projectors.

What has not happened, however, is the disappearance of the stigma attached to computer-based presentations in the early years when the majority of presenters were traveling business reps whose limited imaginations and hard-sell style made "Power Point" synonymous with a fishy attempt to dress up lies with colored text. Indeed, today self-respecting academics still have to use euphemisms or codicils when they hand over their CDs to the local projectionist or hook their own lap-top to the department projector.

"I don't use any text" is the first and usually most important disclaimer for many PowerPoint users in the arts, although it would be nice to see some credits beneath the graphics that academics pilfer from various sources, especially since Google has made the world, literally, an open picture book. Not using text means that the presenter has made every effort to make the new presentation look like the old-style slide-projector presentation. It is even possible to turn slides the wrong way, but this isn't necessary as long as the slides are paired and accompanied by a droning explanation.

It's important to consider the inheritance factor. In the arts, the dominate medium WAS the message. Two slide projectors, with an art historian 'in between,' at first baffled the audience with two images for comparison that only the expert could complete. The two implied a 'third thing,' a context that was the implicit 'cool' variable. As hot as the slides are (this is still a motivating factor holding many art historians back from adopting video projectors), the two-slide arrangement was highly nuanced. Like ancient cultures, the 'message' was not so much in the literal signs presented in correct syntax, but the subtle details, such as the cost of the clothes being worn by the speaker. No one understood the message anyway, according to the code apparently followed by all art historians that anything understandable would either not be worth tenure or is likely to have already been discovered.

This demonstrates an important fact about the final-efficient cause, 'subjective' end of things.It seems that the medium is indeed the message at the cool end of the spectrum. So, what happens when PowerPoint comes along?

PowerPoint is the hottest of hot media. Film may show another world in such detail that we forget we're in a dark auditorium, but a PowerPoint presentation never lets you forget you're living in someone else's world, because they're right there in front of you. This would seem to be a combination of the 'cool' presenter and a 'hot' visual aid, but the use of PowerPoint to repeat what the speaker has just said intensifies the feeling that there is much too much detail and no ambiguity to speak of, apart from the decision to listen or try to die by holding your breath. One way to turn this bi-polar symptom into an advantage is to bring in coolness 'the old way' - by using more diagrams, more animation, and fewer texts (particularly ones that are read by the speaker). It also helps if the speaker is able to shift from the hot side of things to align with the audience's cool detachment from literal meaning.

This can be done if the speaker becomes more of a performance artist than a lecturer. Hyperlinks give the audience a chance to participate in the direction of the show, and in some cases, the sense of participation can turn the high-resolution illustration into something like playing cards.

For selections from McLuhan's Understanding Media go to:


© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved