A pig through the python

I just remembered a famous decision by Scott McNealy, the former head of Sun Microsystems, to ban PowerPoint from the Sun campus. I looked for an article to verify, and found one.

Apparently he trumpeted the productivity-enhancing effects of his Powerpoint ban. Sadly, whatever effect it had on their productivity or their creativity didn’t last, because as we all know they went down the tubes and had to be saved by Oracle of all things.

Kathleen Belleville, who worked at Powerpoint, argued: “now we’ve got highly paid people spending hours formatting slides because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say.” I find that convincing. The glitz and glamour of a presentation still has a disproportionate impact on the audience, and people know that, so they end up spending a lot of time messing with the formatting.

But I think the effect Powerpoint has had on its target audience is much worse: members of senior management are now so accustomed to bite-sized chunks of pre-digested “insight” that they have become addicted, and unable to digest facts on their own. I think that is dangerous.

A related and quite famous argument was made by Edward Tufte, who discovered that a NASA briefing which used PowerPoint as its presentation medium had led to a bad decision which doomed a space shuttle and its crew. However he criticizes the people creating the presentations and blames the bullet-point style of communication for leading to something like cognitive “rounding errors”.

Amazingly, I’ve heard colleagues interpret this same case as an example of the adverse effect of “overcomplicated” presentations with “busy” slides. Personally, I interpret it as a failure of management to fully parse the presented facts. I think a verbose report would have forced the readers to put some effort into comprehending the available data and understanding the situation.

A feeling for data volume

Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin
Conference room at Stasi headquarters in Berlin

Today’s “Süddeutsche Zeitungpublished an interactive infographic produced by OpenDataCity. It was created in response to a statement by the German president, Joachim Gauck, who rejected comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, asserting that the NSA is certainly not compiling thick binders in which it files away our conversations, like the Stasi did.

Comparing the digitized Stasi archives with the estimated capacity of the NSA (e.g. in its new yottabyte-capacity, 65-MW-burning data center in Bluffdale, Utah), OpenDataCity came up with the following comparison: if you stored the NSA’s data in the same density as the Stasi had available (in paper files), it would not fit into Berlin. Or Europe, for that matter.

Image #1: area of the Stasi archives. It’s the square on the left, superimposed over a map of central Berlin (though they didn’t put it over the actual “Stasi Zentrale”)

The size of the Stasi archives, based on paper files
Left square: the size of the Stasi archives, based on storage of paper files

Image #2: the Stasi archives, expanded to house the NSA’s estimated data volume in paper form – superimposed over Europe and parts of Northern Africa

Area required to store the NSA's data volume, if stored in paper files like the Stasi
Right square: the area required to store the NSA’s data, if stored as paper files like the Stasi

The vast amount of data that can be processed and stored nowadays is not clear to most people, especially those who haven’t grown up with computers. MB, GB, TB are abstract concepts, so I think it helps to visualize the data volume in this way.