The new media technology was going to make us stupid, to reduce all human interaction to a sales pitch. It was going to corrode our minds, degrade communication, and waste our time. Its sudden rise and rapid spread through business, government, and education augured nothing less than “the end of reason,” as one famous artist put it, for better or for worse. In the end, it would even get blamed for the live-broadcast deaths of seven Americans on national television. The year was 2003, and Americans were freaking out about the world-altering risks of … Microsoft PowerPoint.
Socrates once warned that the written word would atrophy our memory; the Renaissance polymath Conrad Gessner cautioned that the printing press would drown us in a “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Generations since have worried that other new technologies—radio, TV, video games—would rot our children’s brains. In just the past 15 years alone, this magazine has sounded the alarm on Google, smartphones, and social media. Some of these critiques seem to have aged quite well; others, not so well. But tucked among them was a techno-scare of the highest order that has now been almost entirely forgotten: the belief that PowerPoint—that most enervating member of the Office software suite, that universal metonym for soporific meetings—might be evil.