Simultaneity vs. seriality: what to do now that we have no attention span

I saw a dandy presentation in Boulder by Steve Clouthier.

It had a strange structure. Steve began with one image and stayed with that image for the entire 40 minutes of his talk.

When he wanted to make specific points, he would drop down on to one of the sections of this image, and an entire world would open up.  Finished there, he would climb back up to the entire image.

Steve’s presentation was given as if from Google Maps.  He was working from 31,000 feet. When he needed to give us a finer view of his topic, he would drop down into it.  And then return.

What I liked about this was that it broke from the seriality of a Powerpoint presentation.  You know, the one that forces us to move from slide to slide…and away from the "big picture."

The image shows me giving a talk at MIT.  I am projected my talk as a tree diagram using Mind Manager.  This approach is a little like Steve’s.  It shows the entire argument at any given time.  And this allows the viewer to go back through and check all the subarguments, test the argument in it’s entirety.  It also has the advantage of tattooing passages from the image on my very bald head.  I am happy to serve the argument any way I can.

There are small and large advantages to the simultaneous view.  In certain liberal arts circles, the idea is to "release" the argument, using powers of evocation as much as denotation.  Arguments that are designed to unfold in this way are not well served by simultaneity.  Indeed, simultaneity is a little too effortful and obvious.

But this style really works in business schools and other institutions that prize themselves on clarity. This was one of the things I noticed moving from the Museum world to the Harvard Business School and then back to the Liberal Arts at McGill. In Museum circles, it is perfectly okay to speak discursively. And no one ever asks for clarification, as if this was perhaps a confession of intellectual insufficiency or just a matter of being a little obvious.

But at Harvard there was no shame at all in asking people to restate some part of the argument. The person making the request would almost always then look away and listen to the restatement with the utmost care. No shame at all. I guess you couldn’t ask for this sort of thing indefinitely without throwing your intellectual abilities into question.  But once or twice a session was perfectly ok.

And that’s, I think, because every argument is not so much an evocation of theoretical verities, niceties, or, indeed, advances, but a little machine.  And the listener was entitled to the specs for this machine. And a demonstration of how it works.

At McGill, once more in the embrace of the liberal arts, I was returned to the world of the argument as flight of the pigeons. One turn over the audience and everyone pretty much knew what you meant.Specific details and propositions were entirely up to the listener. Nothing so obvious as restatement was ever permitted. I mean, really.

But there is another reason, I think, to encourage the use of Steve’s approach.  (The software in question, he tells me, is Prezi.) Seriality assumes an attention span, and I haven’t had one of those for some years now. And it’s not just me, I don’t think. How many of you "come to" in an auditorium thinking, "oh damn, what is this talk about again?" The great thing about simultaneity is that you don’t have to ask this question.  It’s all up there on the screen.

Simultaneity is good for the big picture and it’s good for scrutinizing the finer points of the argument. And it’s a good way to deal that problem that some of us have with that…er…what was I saying again?


See more on Prezi here.

Note: this post was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence and restored December 26, 2010.