Joseph Epstein, PowerPointless
Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
A year or so ago, I took part in a conference in Mexico for which I, along with several other intellectuals, academics, and writers, was paid an excellent fee to talk for 10 minutes. The proceedings took place over three days. They were held in a movie-sized theater and were well attended. I was distinguished at this conference, near as I could tell, in being the only one who did not avail himself of audiovisual aids. The reason I didn’t is that I don’t have any; nor have I any wish to possess any. I am a word man, a writer, a mere scribbler, and in me what you read or hear—not see—is what you get.
The conference generally was high-tech, if that word is still in vogue. Each speaker was introduced with a light show of sorts, with musical accompaniment, and stood behind a series of boxes that were raised at the end of a dramatic-sounding introduction delivered in Spanish. I remember feeling foolish when all these pyrotechnics were over, and there I stood. I felt like the Jewish woman who used to shop at the same Greek greengrocer’s I did who, when her turn came, used to say, “You got me now.”
Of those talks—I suppose they are more precisely regarded as presentations—I did attend, I recall how unimpressive the visual portions seemed. A speaker mentions Einstein, and up on a big screen is a picture of the old boy, hair disheveled, in a sweatshirt, the standard shot. (“Yo, Al, what’s shakin’?”) Another speaker mentions the universe and—click—there is a wash of stars and planets on the screen.
Another man, with the aid of his PowerPoint, enumerated six kinds of betrayal in relationships, all of which left my mind as soon as he clicked new information onto his screen.
But the talk that did stay in my mind was that of an evolutionary psychologist who compared the human brain to a smartphone. When we consider man, he began (click, on the screen appeared a human skull in profile), and his brain (click—lo, a brain appeared inside the skull), we come to see that the human mind is like a smartphone (click—picture of a smartphone). The brain itself, he continued, is in many ways like a smartphone (click—apps show up where the brain was). We have, for example, an app for morality (click—app that says “morality”), and another app for self-preservation (click—self-preservation app), and so on, app added after app, click, click, click.
One might say that is brilliant, except that it is stupid. The human brain isn’t in the least like a smartphone. A smartphone doesn’t have courage, isn’t capable of evil, knows nothing of altruism, cannot innovate or create, and of that great human capacity for wondering called consciousness, it is completely void. It can send a text and play chess with you but knows nothing about loyalty, love, and principle.
All that is interesting about the human brain, in other words, you aren’t going to find on any smartphone, not now or in the future. But up there on that big screen, with the speaker clicking and app-ing away, for a moment or two it seemed an interesting connection. The human brain, the smartphone—yeah, baby, it all seemed to make sense—except that it doesn’t.
During this presentation it occurred to me that audiovisual aids, far from being an advance in pedagogy, may well be nothing more than another form of dumbing down. One of the reigning clichés in pedagogy for some while now has been that current generations are visual-minded; they cerebrate not through words but pictures. So, the argument runs, it makes sense to appeal to them visually. Some learning can doubtless be accomplished visually. But that it can doesn’t necessarily mean that the visual is the best way to accomplish it. The visual has its limits, and they may be more extreme than devotees of the audiovisual know.
Many years ago I was at another conference, where Irving Kristol was one of the speakers. He spoke sitting down. Behind him happened to be a large screen. The man who introduced him joked that Irving was here today with his usual full panoply of audiovisual aids. Everyone in the room laughed.
The joke was that Irving Kristol was the last man in the world to require audiovisual aids. He didn’t even require a note. He set out his argument with lucidity, wit, and undramatic but genuine force. What made a talk by Irving Kristol impressive was that when he spoke you saw a man thinking. The sight of a man or woman of high intelligence in the act of thinking—there can be no more compelling audiovisual aid.
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