Depending on what you’re reading, technological progress is either the best of the worst thing to happen to humans. Especially when thinking about computers, screens and the internet.
There are stacks of books from Silicon Valley dudes proclaiming the unbelievable benefits that advances in digital tech offers us.
There are also those who call for a slightly more pessimistic view of technological advancement; those who would either call bullshit on the former groups claims (Evgeny Morozov, for example) or those who would hint at the slightly more pernicious effects that inventions such as the internet have upon us (like Nicholas Carr would, perhaps)
There are also those who operate in the middle ground. The oft quoted Marshall Mcluhan for example. His statement that ‘man shapes the tool and afterward, the tool shapes the man’ is fairly neutral in it’s presentation, but it points to a simple and undeniable truth about the relationship we have with the objects and tools we use in our every day life. Human’s adapt and change as a response to their environment, often quickly too. To think that we could spend so much time with social media, computers and phones or even more abstractly, screens, and remain unchanged is unthinkable.
Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman highlights such an issue.
He talks about the way that architects have adopted tools such as CAD in their work and what the issues for the end product are. On the one hand, he says, the level of complexity that people can now develop is vastly increased, the computers can model bigger, more advanced buildings with greater control and accuracy than the human hand could ever hope to alone.. The speed and power of the systems allow designers to iterate their designs quickly and at a more manageable cost. It allows for more complexity, more efficiently.
But, the addition of the computer and software into the process, as an intermediary between the technician’s head, hand and the final product causes unexpected issues. Architect’s can overlook and under appreciate certain dynamics; the position or intensity of the sun, for example. The software makes it easy to work around issues and means that they are not thought about with enough intensity. The fact that new drawings can be edited and developed with such ease means people invest less time in their development.
He doesn’t suggest that one way is better than the other, just that the dynamic is altered. And that if the relationship between craftsman and material is altered, we need to know what is happening and why.
It occurred to me that powerpoint creates a similar issue for me. An additional layer between my head and my hand, something which is ostensibly there to act as an aid, but could ultimately be a hindrance. When asked to prepare a presentation I often jump straight to the tool in which the finished article will be created. A skeleton deck. That most common of phrases in agency land. If you’ve got a skeleton, you’ve got some work… you’re making progress. That’s the lie we let powerpoint tell us.
Instead, should we be sketching first? Even if it is in powerpoint’s sibling, Word. Using it as a way of developing narratives that form more coherent structures. Longhand thinking and writing is certainly more useful I’ve found in the instances where I’ve forced myself to do this in recent months – it forces you to think about every bit of the story. It is a skill and sadly something which most graduates forget, just three or four years out of university. Death by powerpoint is as much a concern for the writer as it is for the reader.