An airplane banks, dives and opens its bay door, releasing a dark figure who rockets toward a looming skyscraper at exactly 3,000 miles per hour, just fast enough to pierce the high-security compound's protective force field. In short order, the agent has parachuted through one of the tower's windows, hacked into its servers and rescued a fellow, black-clad rebel from a prison cell.
As the two ninja-like characters escape to a waiting helicopter on the tower's roof, one pauses and looks toward the viewer. "Cool PowerPoint so far, huh?" he says.
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Jeremiah Lee's animated short film "Infiltration" is not your typical PowerPoint slide deck. Though the movie was created with and plays in
"We've all experienced 'death by PowerPoint,' sitting through boring presentations that have been copied off the Internet," says Lee, a 20-year-old who lives in the Philippines, works in sales and also goes by the online handle Prince of Powerpoint. "I want to show that you can do things with PowerPoint that no one would have ever thought possible," he says.
Since it was invented 23 years ago, PowerPoint has penetrated practically every business, government and educational organization on earth, and has become the world's scapegoat for anger over the inefficiency of meetings. Audiences are stultified by presenters reading off jumbled electronic outlines. The data visualization guru Edward Tufte excoriated the program in a 2003 essay, saying that it had even contributed to the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle explosions by obscuring key information. Earlier this month The New York Times revived a recurring story of the military's dysfunctional PowerPoint culture, quoting General James Mattis of the Marine Corps as saying that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”
But as Microsoft prepares to launch a revamped version of the much-maligned program this month in Office 2010, a subculture of PowerPoint enthusiasts is teaching the old application new tricks, and may even be turning a dry presentation format into a full-fledged artistic medium.
Lee's Powerpoint oeuvre, for instance, which also includes detailed illustrations and comic books, is one of many collections on PowerPoint Heaven, a Web gallery of PowerPoint art collected by Shawn Toh, a 23-year-old presentation consultant in Singapore. Other PowerPoint works featured on his site: a videogame that simulates surgical operations on war wounds and an anime-style film about deadly Korean schoolgirl robots.
Toh says the artists on PowerPoint Heaven use the program instead of
But PowerPoint's defenders aren't all found in far-flung Asian countries. A small cadre of Americans has also turned up new, creative uses for the program that are closer to its original slide show intentions.
Outspoken copyright lawyer Lawrence Lessig famously used the program to accompany well-timed speeches, often using just a word or two per slide. The musician and artist David Byrne created PowerPoint art exhibitions in New York City and Tokyo, as well as one in Rochester known as Trees, Tombstones and Bullet Points. On his website, Byrne wrote that his work with the program "started off as a joke (this software is a symbol of corporate salesmanship, or lack thereof) but then the work took on a life of its own, as I realized I could create pieces that were moving, despite the limitations of the 'medium.' "
More recently, an event organization known as Ignite has launched chapters around the country, challenging presenters to make PowerPoint presentations in just five minutes on a topic of their choosing. The slides auto-advance every 15 seconds, preventing the sort of droning outline-recitations that plague lesser PowerPoint presentations, and the shows' participants have used the stage to explicate everything from the construction of samurai swords to the history of the iPhone application, iFart.
Tikva Morowati, who organizes the New York event IgniteNYC, says that it's shortsighted to criticize PowerPoint when the content, rather than the medium, should be judged. "Are there films that are crap? Of, course. But no one would argue that a film camera is a bad thing," she says. "It's not about the technology. PowerPoint is just another format to tell a story."
That argument is echoed by one of the program's most noteworthy defenders: Robert Gaskins, who also happens to be one of PowerPoint's inventors. Gaskins was working for the Canadian telephone company Northern Telecom in the 1980s--a job that required frequent traveling and presentations--when he came up with the idea for slide-creating software. He was hired by a company called Forethought to create the software in 1984, and three years later the company was acquired by Microsoft for $14 million.
Gaskin, now 66, admits that most of the presentations that use his controversial creation include "wholly inappropriate" content like multi-tiered outlines and bullet points that obscure information. But he says he can't take the blame for those monstrosities. "PowerPoint didn't invent any of these formats, it just made them much easier to create," he says.
In fact, PowerPoint began as essentially a word-processor for overhead and slide projectors, not a new format of presentation. The files were originally printed onto transparencies or slides before they could be used. Today, Gaskins points out, PowerPoint has evolved into a tool that's used not just in professional settings, but in thousands of churches around the country for delivering sermons and even as the supertitles for most opera translations.
The artwork and artful performances that it occasionally inspires, Gaskins says, are proof of what he has always believed about his brainchild: PowerPoint, like any tool, can be used for both good work and mediocrity. "Sometimes I look at the links of what people are creating, and I think, my goodness this is interesting," he says. "It's turned into something far beyond traditional presentations, something that when we were creating it, we never could have imagined."
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