The case for PowerPoint in the White House

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

There's been a great deal of chatter about the technological sophistication of the Obama campaign and the transition efforts: the YouTube video addresses, the Citizen's Briefing Book that I posted about last week, even Obama's own Blackberry addiction. But as exciting as it is to see these new tools adopted by our President-elect, I'm actually rooting for Obama to integrate a twenty-year-old software application into his communication efforts.

I think Obama needs to use PowerPoint.

Okay, okay, hold your fire for just one second, please. I hate conventional PowerPoint just as much as the next guy. I might even hate it as much as Edward Tufte. I do not want to see Obama's soaring rhetoric tomorrow undermined by "next slide please" requests and stale bullet point sentence fragments. There's already a hilarious parody of what the "Yes we can" speech would have looked like as a PowerPoint deck:

And of course there's the timeless rendition of the Gettysburg Address, including the sublime slide 4:

Review of Key Objectives and Critical Success Factors

• What makes nation unique
– Conceived in Liberty
– Men are equal

• Shared vision
– New birth of freedom
– Gov't of/for/by the people

No one wants to see that happen. But I think there's a serious case to be made for Obama using Powerpoint (or even better, Keynote) as a supplement to his less formal addresses to the nation. Not for the bullet points, but for the Tufte-esque information design. Wasn't this the one of the lessons of An Inconvenient Truth–that great visual design could make a speech about a complex issue more powerful and more intelligible at the same time?

So many of the epic problems that Obama is going to be wrestling with over the next four years involve systems of great complexity and scale: the bailouts and stimulus programs, our national energy use, the immense expenditures involved in fighting two wars, the global scope of climate change. Tufte would be the first person to argue that complex systems like these are not easily explained using sentences and statistics, particularly when we're talking about such vast numbers. I can imagine a White House address on the stimulus package, or his long-term plan for energy independence, where instead of sitting at a desk reading from a teleprompter, he's actually walking us through the problem and his proposed solution with a backdrop of visually arresting and memorable slides. That would actually make for more stimulating television, and at the same time do a better job of communicating the issues. We've heard a lot from Obama about how the nation needs a CTO. But maybe we need a Chief Information Designer as well.