NSA: What’s the (power) point?

Revelations about the spying habits of the American National Security Agency and its UK equivalent have now settled into a comfortable, if also disturbing, routine. People are no longer surprised to read that the NSA has been attaching tiny microphones to children’s’ books to record the political views of parents, or drawing up a database of iTunes users who like subversive rock bands of the 1960s. But there’s actually something about the documents that have been revealed that worries me even more. It’s the format.

Most of the documents I have seen have been Powerpoint presentations. No, scrub that: most of them have been bad Powerpoint presentations, a jumble of fonts and sizes, with far too many words on the page, and difficult or impossible to read. An organisation which can produce such monstrosities, and inflict them on others, is by definition an organisation in trouble.

But in that it’s typical of many similar organisations. From the wordy construction of the slides it may be that they were not intended just as briefing aids, but may actually have been the briefings themselves. Increasingly, in the US system, Powerpoint has replaced written briefs, and this is something which, inherently, it cannot do. You can’t reduce a carefully argued paragraph to a single line, or a whole paper to a jumble of a hundred words on a badly-prepared and crowded slide. Or you can, but if you do you make reasoned debate and argument impossible. have you ever tried to argue with a bullet point?

It’s not too much to wonder whether the NSA would have got quite so far out of control if all of its activities had to be justified by the written word, and not by a hierarchical, intimidatory tool like Powerpoint.

But then as Lord Acton said (according to Wikipedia, anyway) “All power tends to corrupt, and Powerpoint corrupts absolutely”. Quite so.


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