Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Powerpoint and the War

Matt Yglesias links to this paper that argues Word, not PowerPoint, should be the tool for intelligence officers.

This is true, but I think it has the causality reversed. The intelligence bureaucracy, and I'd even argue most bureaucracies are flooded with information due to the ever increasing power of information and communication technologies. The interpretation and analysis of this information creates even more information. For example, the creation of a presentation or a written report is, in point of fact, more information. So, filtering through all this information, which is coming very fast, only allows time and resources for the most meager of analysis -- which gives you a PowerPoint presentation. A word document intelligence report takes longer to write, and my very well be out of date once completed.

My point here is that it's not using Word or PowerPoint that really matters. It's the level of analysis. A strategic assessment should be written in word because it is a length and hopefully thoughtful review. A daily briefing of the status for the day ought to be a PowerPoint presentation because it has to change so quickly and focuses on a few key metrics.

To the extent that the DoD relies on PowerPoint it belies its lack of thoughtful analysis. I'm the first to acknowledge that technology does influence the message. And so using pervasiveness of PowerPoint reinforces this lack of thoughtful analysis, but it is not the root cause. Bureaucracies faced with overwhelming information and the need to react quickly are forced to boil the information down quickly and cheaply. Thus, the move toward PowerPoint. It's a consequence of a deeper problem. If the solution presented is merely switching to Word, then might just make the problem worse. It's not a technological problem. It's a human one.

What I find most interesting is that we have the mistaken belief that more information and better technology can solve our problems. Take the underwear bomber. The government had the info, but they couldn't connect the dots. Many think this is because we don't have the proper technology in place. And perhaps in this specific instance there is a way in which we could have linked databases so that this person would've been caught. But there will always be something else that won't be caught. Our biggest mistake in the War on Terror is the belief that technology will defeat what is a human problem.

Facial recognition software. Trace portal machines. The Total Information Awareness database. And now, body scanners. All these new technologies have enjoyed their day in the sun, immediately following terrorist attacks, as a potential magic bullet to keep us safe while traveling.

But repeatedly, gadget defenses have shown themselves to be costly, flawed and difficult to implement. Meanwhile, they take precious resources away from tried and true counterterrorism measures, like hiring more highly trained airline screeners or additional State Department officials.

I agree with this assessment. However, I fear that additional training to often is about reinforcing bureaucratic procedures and less on empowering individuals to call for further investigation of people acting "hinky." Reinforcement and reliance upon technical, bureaucratic procedures and technology to catch terrorists undermines exactly what we need to catch terrorists -- prudent use of human reasoning and intuition.

1 comment:

Withywindle said...

That NYT article on how the Afghan decision was made mentioned how persuasive the DoD maps were to the NSC council, Obama presiding, and how Hillary came out of one meeting demanding maps for the next. So the bureaucracies know their audience, and know (ahem) that visual rhetoric is more effective. Even for the Smart Guy at the top.

While I'm leery of PowerPoint, I have great faith in the power of our bureaucrats to be stupid in the full range of technologies.

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