The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Seneca Cliff of Rhetoric: Just say no to Powerpoint

"The orator" (l'arringatore), an Etruscan statue probably made during the 1st century BC, presently at the Archaeological Museum in Florence, Italy. Surely, he had no idea that his descendants would have used PowerPoint slides!

At the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, not only PowerPoint didn't exist, but not even such things as books or paper. For Seneca, a "book" was something written on parchment scrolls and when he took notes he probably used waxed wood tablets. Presenting one's ideas in public was part of the art of rhetoric, nearly completely based on words and gestures. 

Rhetoric is a term that has acquired a negative ring in our times, but that was originally understood as a skill that a learned person should study and practice. Unfortunately, today rhetoric has been gradually replaced by the barbaric method of droning on while reading written words appearing on a lighted screen. If Seneca is looking at us from the Elysian fields, he can only gravely shake his head at seeing how rhetoric went down what I call a "Seneca Cliff."

That had been clear to me for a long time, but it appeared painfully evident with the diffusion of on-line seminars. The latest on-line lecture I gave, a few days ago, was attended mainly by ghosts. Theoretically, 21 students were listening to me, but only three or four of them were gracious enough to show their faces on the screen. The others simply refused to appear, even when I explicitly invited them to do so. I don't think this behavior is understood to be bad manners. Apparently, it is believed that it is perfectly legitimate for a student to lurk in the shadows while a teacher speaks. That wouldn't be so nice in a real classroom: imagine that your students were to appear wearing hoods hiding their faces! 

But I can understand the defensive reaction of students. They are used to the well-known phenomenon of the "death by PowerPoint" -- your consciousness slowly drifting away while someone speaks reading from a nearly infinite series of slides.


But too much is too much. Enough with death by PowerPoint, now it is the time of the death of PowerPoint. With the advent of virtual lectures and virtual classes, there is no reason to continue to use a tool that's by now obsolete. I think it is time to say NO to PowerPoint. 

And that's what I did for that lecture: I had a PowerPoint presentation ready, but I didn't show it. I just spoke, and when I needed an image or a movie clip, I opened up the browser, I searched for it on the spot, and I showed it on screen. Easy, flexible, and interactive.

Did it work? I think so. Not that it revived all the ghost-students (maybe they weren't even there!), but at least a few more showed up and engaged in a discussion with me. I am planning to move away completely from PowerPoint, even though I still have to use it because a lot of my data and images are in there. I don't think I will ever become an orator as good as Seneca must have been in his times, but I am exploring this new way of presenting. And maybe old Seneca himself would approve!

 A brief history of how rhetoric fell down the Seneca Cliff.  

When I was in college, it was traditional that teachers would use the blackboard as their only classroom tool. Occasionally, some of them would organize demonstrations of chemical reactions in front of the class but, mostly, they were supposed to go on for 1-2 hours writing mathematical and chemical formulas on the board. In the figure, you see Richard Feynman teaching in the 1960s.

When I started teaching, in the 1980s, that was still the standard way you were expected to do your job. You would keep writing formulas on the blackboard without ever resorting to written notes. It took quite some work of memorization and a certain ability of juggling numbers and symbols, but it was the way it was supposed to be done. It was not different from the way professional actors would learn to play their roles on the scene.

An alternative was the slide projector, loaded with 35 mm photographic slides in carousels or straight trays. I remember that I used it for my first presentations. It had the advantage that it could project images, but it was inflexible. Once you had loaded the tray, you could only show the slides in a pre-ordered frequency, just as you would fire the bullets from the clip in your automatic pistol. If you wanted to insert one slide in the middle, you had to unload all of them, and then reload the whole tray. Just like automatic guns, these things would sometimes jam. A couple of times, I saw the tray being spit out of the machine, spewing out the slides all over the room. But you had plenty more problems: slides appearing upside down, slides not belonging to the presentation, missing slides, and more.

Somewhat later, there came the overhead projector. It became standard equipment in the 1980s and was still in use in the 1990s. The projector used transparent sheets to project pre-printed text and images, usually only in black and white because color photocopiers were rare and expensive. It was also possible to project the silhouette of whatever you placed on the projector table and that could be used creatively to perform small on-screen demonstrations. You could even write with a marker on the sheet while presenting. You could draw arrows, symbols, and text.

Unlike slide projectors, the overhead projector was flexible. You would carry with you a folder with a number of transparent sheets and arrange them according to what you needed. Even while presenting, you always knew what the next image was and could decide to skip it or present another one. 

It was practical, yes, but also the harbinger of things to come. Once you had your transparent sheets ready, you didn't have to engage anymore in the mental gymnastic needed to memorize the formulas to write. For a while, I tried to resist and I kept making a point not to use projectors in the classroom. But, eventually, I gave up, just like all my colleagues. So many things to do, and how to resist the temptation of making life a little easier?

And then, there came PowerPoint. You see in the figure (from Google Ngrams) how Powerpoint came to dominate the narrative.


Apparently, the slide projector existed already in the 1940s, then it was slowly overcome by the overhead projector. Then, both were supplanted by the onrush of Powerpoint. In turn, Powerpoint seems to be declining, nowadays, but it is still the most mentioned method.

In many respects, Powerpoint is like the slide projector, but without the risk of jamming or seeing your slides flying in the room. But it was inflexible, too. Once you had your presentation loaded, you couldn't change it anymore on the spot. I remember an occasion when I was the chairman of a session at a conference and I invited one of the speakers to shorten his presentation. He looked at me with a sheepish expression and he said, "how can I do that? I use PowerPoint." Speakers were becoming slaves of their software.I don't know how it became the standard that the speaker (or the teacher) was supposed to do little more than reading whatever she had previously written. It was the triumph of bullet lists. University lectures never were supposed to be fun, but the whole thing became an exercise in futility. The students would just look at you with vitreous eyes and then ask you the PowerPoint file so that they could study it at home. With the advent of online teaching, the students don't even have to look at you with vitreous eyes anymore. They can sleep or just pretend that they are there.


And here we are. It is the curse of living in a decadent period, just like when the last Roman poets, from Ausonius to Claudian, lost the skills of their predecessors and couldn't do anything better than aping them. That's what we are doing with these curious rituals we call "webinars" or "on-line classes" that consist of reading from bright images on a screen. Maybe it is because, really, we don't have anything relevant to tell people anymore. We see it everywhere, especially on social media where the attention span is of the order of a few seconds, the insult is the communication standard, and nothing relevant is ever discussed. 

But never despair, if rhetoric went down a Seneca Cliff, there is always a Seneca Rebound after you hit the bottom. And we can improve. Down with PowerPoint!!


  1. Hubert's Optics - It is not Powerpoint where the problem is but rather in how humans remain primitive species

    The sum Energy that ran and running the world has been astronomically greater than the few barrels of oil extracted on 27 August 1859 in Pennsylvania.

    The amount of Energy extracted on that day has been nothing, literally.

    The moment extracted, the few barrels were hardly enough to cut few more trees, getting few buckets of coal up, repairing the technology involved or bring food - if at all.

    Now, sum all the energy before 27 August 1859 with the few barrels extracted on that day, the result is even greater Energy than that extracted on 28 August 1859, again.

    The Energy put into drilling and producing oil in Pennsylvania is mainly coming from earlier massively-deforested wood, coal and sunshine.

    This is universal applies to Pennsylvania, Texas, Ghawar or today's shale oil and gas.

    Jevon and Hubert charts were Optics as they did Powerpoint coal, oil and gas not putting them side by side with the total Energy that came before them.

    That Powerpoint has dragged humans by a light year backward - causing humanity destroying all fossil fuels reserves as if infinite.

    Practically, all fossil fuels reserves were indirectly burned to extract more fossil fuels - before doing anything else.

    In the 1860s and 1950s, saying 'Peak Coal and Oil' might have been a 'revolutionary act'.

    Today, the plot thickens and we are saying something even much worse - Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  2. Not sure I agree, entirely; it's how you use it. I've watched a lot of 'talking heads' webinars recently where they just prattle on and not say much - in such cases I long for a ppt that makes some concrete points.

    1. Well, right. I am seeing things from the viewpoint of technical presentations. In other fields, people tend to speak without visual supports and there are many ways to sink into boredom.

  3. Another one is the movies projector. There was one in my High School class in the 1970s. The teacher stopped it at a certain scene to lecture us. As he spoke, the scene began to slowly change color. Then, as he droned on, a white spot of light appeared and started growing. Finally the teacher (Mr. Marinelli, a science teacher) turned around, yiped and turned the machine on again. The film just went "flipflipflipflip...".

  4. I was a university student in physical science in the 2000s, and my lecturers were split between all of these methods (excluding slide projector).
    The largest number I think used overhead projector transparencies, although some used Powerpoint.
    As a graduate student, I was given advice about presentations to never use a font size of less than 18pt on a slide, and never to aim for more than 1 slide per minute. This helps guard against the danger of filling slides with text and just reading them out, or running out of time before you get to actually make your point.

  5. The basic assumption is there in plain sight, embedded in the word lecturing: I know how to read and you don't (which was the case for most of the population since writing was invented and until very recently), hence I will read to you and you will be grateful for this :)
    But PPT may be another kind of an effect as well. It's a great way to reduce the uncertainty driven by an actual conversation. Why bother with actually talking with the people you're supposed to be teaching, when you might as well keep it easy by just talking to them.