The River

Friday, September 01, 2006

Tufte’s war

Edward Tufte

Recently, I found myself sitting in the audience at a swanky downtown hotel listening to a former Yale professor expound on communications.

I was there for the Edward Tufte one-day course, Presenting Data and Information.

What did I know about Tufte? I knew of his self-published and highly regarded books, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations. They were around the office a few years ago because the VP of Marketing Communications where I work had sent his entire department to see Tufte, and the books were part of the package. I didn’t have the books myself, because I’d missed the course due to a schedule conflict. But I admired them – without actually reading them -- and I had heard good things about his course. The same VP offered me this second opportunity, and I jumped on it.

I viewed Tufte as a Vint Cerf kind of modern communications guru. He must be roughly the same age as Cerf, and has what I take to be a roughly similar attitude – enthusiasm for the democratizing effects of information distribution.

And with Tufte, I was to learn, such enthusiasm is tempered with abhorrence for the corrupting influence of poor information design, dishonest and manipulative information design, and perhaps worst of all, vague, lazy thinking. This last is where it all starts for Tufte: poor thinking leading to weak content leading to even weaker presentation, leading, finally and inexorably, to the Bush Administration.

The unavoidable Bush Administration that squats on our national psyche like a big, fat traffic cop with mirrored sunglasses. “Don’t you know everything comes through me, boe-wa? You havin some speculative thoughts? They end right here, son. Right here. Let me show ya.” Said cop then does something horrific I’d rather not describe.

Such horrors were on my mind when a co-worker asked me what I thought during a break. I replied, “it’s important stuff.” Whether she knew why I’d say that about a one-day course for business types, I don’t know, because she went immediately into smart-alec-response-mode: “Only to you, Bruce.”

Well, it often feels that way.

But it is important. Because over and over, Tufte comes back to it: lies. We lie and we lie some more. Hierarchies, he says, encourage the lies, promote the liars. Hierarchies encourage people to say what others want to hear. Hierarchies are undemocratic.

And along comes PowerPoint, the perfect tool for substance-starved toadyism.

Does Tufte hate PowerPoint? Let me count the ways. (and yes, ironically, I could make this a bullet list)

Tufte says PowerPoint replicates the hierarchy of the company that created it. Information is regimented into nest within nest within nest, never to break out and truly relate upward or across hierarchies.

Tufte, of course, cannot abide the simplistic way one must write on a PPT slide. We’ve seen this style before, he says. It’s the style of first-grade reading primers.

PowerPoint puts your audience to sleep. The information per slide is incredibly thin, a few seconds of reading.

PowerPoint stacks data in time. How can one analyze data when it’s presented bit by excruciating bit, rather than arranged in space where relations can be discerned?

Data-starved slides and bullet lists let authors get away with showing effects without causes. Detail increases clarity.

We’re cheating the rich data processing ability of our eye/brain. Tufte gave some astronomical figure for how much information we take in when looking at the natural world.

PPT slides get dressed up with branding and other decorations to hide the fact of thin data. It doesn’t help.

A PowerPoint presentation is commonly called a “pitch,” says Tufte, which puts it in the realm of marketing, not serious inquiry.

In short, PowerPoint shapes content so that the presentation replicates a good many of the sins of our communications products – it spoon-feeds the audience, assuming they are bored with substance and care most about soothing lies and flashy presentation.

And so, Tufte, who has taken his course across the country for many a year now, seems to be on a one-man crusade. But rather then harangue the audience or denigrate the liars, he merely presents his views, the excellence of his work.

It was left for the audience to determine the importance, and yes, the politics, notwithstanding a jab or two at Washington.

Making a presentation is not only an intellectual act, but a moral act as well, says Tufte. Nor does he let the consumers of information off the hook. One can fail as both a presenter and a consumer of information. Be aware, his course implores. Use the amazing faculties you were given. Don’t let yourself be cheated.

Tufte if fighting the good fight, a war against all the lying and marketing. Physicist Richard Feynman, Galileo, 19th century French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, these are his touchstones.

Tufte said Feynman pointed out something few want to hear: Nature cannot be fooled. Feynman was referencing the NASA’s inability to recognize the trouble the O-rings would eventually cause for the Challenger space shuttle.

Like Feynman, Galileo had a lively, playful mind. Unlike Feynman, he got a lot of shit for it, particularly from the Catholic Church, who found his truth-seeking threatening.

Minard designed the famous Napoleon’s March poster, meant to be an anti-war poster.

Tufte designs his own books, creates sculpture, and lectures. Some of the most compelling parts of his lecture involved both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. Tufte traces the thread of disinfo back to the point where it results in poor decision-making.

Tufte is demanding, both of himself and his audience. He produced his books independently, because he couldn’t find a publisher to meet his standards. Information wants to be free, from PowerPoint and other tools that sell us short, says Tufte, but it’s up to us to make it happen.

Thank goodness you did not stop blogging, but only took a hiatus back when, back then ...

Hierarchies, as a genearlization. I'm guessing you know what I think about hierarchy as our society's default setting and our subsequent unthinking acquiescence. It's gotten us into a heap o' trouble, no ?

Hey, have you by any chance read Vonnegut's newest, A Man Without A Country ?


I've thought of quitting many o time. Six weeks was as much as I could do, which was three years ago when I switched blogs. It gets in the blood. I actually wrote this piece about a year ago, and forgot about it. It needed a conclusion. So I noticed it the other day, and thought, "why'd I abandon this one?" It only took a few minutes to finish it up.

I read some of the Vonnegut in a book store a while back. Loved it. Very refreshing.

Hierarchies -- yes they have. We're taught from birth to bow to the hierarchy.

plenty beaver,
More and more I read from bloggers that they want to stop and that all their attempts are in vain. Funny, it is.
Your attempts are NOT in vain, and don't you dare quit.

Tufte sounds like a modern-day Harold Roark - whereas his integrity is his ideas, and his refusal to back down from them.
I remember your hiati .. of varying lengths.

Please know that even if you have a small readership, you are 1) stimulating and 2) influential .. in my opinion.

I am working these days with another information visualization specialist, on this initiative.

His "concept visualization maps are here:

Click on any one of the blue links ...

I am the translator, from French to English .. currently in the process of translating the text on the schemas.

Blogging is really hard to give up .. especially when you think, while walking down the street or sitting in a bus or something, of things you've seen or heard or want to say, and want to share with those whom you know (for whatever reason) may have an interest in what you think or say.
Thanks for the encouragement Shem and Jon.

Shem, are you referring to the Harold Roark in The Fountainhead? I have yet to read that.

Jon, that looks like quite the interesting and worthy endeavor. Good luck and please let me know when the English version is available.
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