Next Slide, Please

Military’s PowerPoint addiction could be a bad habit for archivists

We are, apparently, a nation whose Army marches on PowerPoint. As detailed in Elisabeth Bumiller’s Tuesday front page New York Times story, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior military leaders routinely fly around the world, only to be met on the ground by a series of PowerPoint slide briefings.

“The amount of time expended on PowerPoint,” Bumiller warns, “has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

But if it’s a joke, it’s a biting one. An unhealthy dependence on the program has long drawn criticism from some of the sharpest minds in the information business, for limiting and distorting the dissemination of information and the decision-making process. These complaints have been echoed inside the military.

But to those critiques, add one more: any remotely produced record, created in a proprietary digital format, presents obvious challenges to preservationists and the nation’s archival system. With the presentations acting as a major window for military leaders into the conditions on the ground, some undoubtedly deserve to be archived for future researchers.

“The more central PowerPoint becomes to official deliberations, the more important that it be preserved. In many cases, it may be our only written record of a crucial discussion,” says Steven Aftergood, a secrecy and records expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “The fact that it’s a degraded form of discourse doesn’t mean that it’s altogether trivial and not worthy of preservation.”

Of course, any given PowerPoint could well be trivial. In general, experts estimate that only 2 percent of records produced by the government are worthy of archiving.

How many PowerPoint presentations would fall into that category? Patrice McDermott, the director of and a close watcher of electronic records, reckons that only a “minuscule proportion” of the slide shows would warrant formal archiving, “depending on the meeting—what’s the topic, what’s the result, who was at it.”

“For the vast majority of these, it’s the information used in preparing these presentations that has archival value,” says McDermott.

But someone other than the producer of the slide show needs to weigh whether the presentation has historical, legal or evidentiary value.

“Someone who is impartial needs to make an informed judgment,” says Aftergood.

Before that can happen, the file must make its way off of the author’s computer. There’s little to suggest, to put it lightly, that that’s happening consistently.

“Overseas, I doubt they’re very robust about it,” says McDermott. “They’re not saving email, so I doubt that anyone has figured out how to save these.”

The National Archives requires agencies across government to submit plans, known as schedules, that describe classes of records and the agencies’ procedures and timelines for sorting them for archival consideration or disposal. But these schedules are often incomplete or lacking.

In 2009, the Archives asked records officers across the government to assess their own agencies’ performance on, among other topics, regulations governing the scheduling of electronic records. Responses from Central Command—the branch of the armed forces directly responsible for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—concerning electronic records were judged favorably by the Archives, earning sixteen out of a possible eighteen points. But 60 percent of the thirty-three Defense Department divisions responding earned less than half the points available; nine earned none.

PowerPoint presentations, like other electronic records, present challenges to preservation—they are often created on and pile up in personal computers across the world. And while carefully preserved paper can last for generations, data formats change so rapidly that most computer users have files and documents created just years ago that newer hardware or software can no longer read.

“That’s a major headache for the Archives and others concerned with records preservation,” says Aftergood.

“In a world of finite, resources, personnel, and time, you cannot back up every record in every possible format and guarantee it will be permanently available,” says Aftergood. “Choices have to be made and a long-term architecture for electronic records needs to be put in place.”

Even, sometimes, for PowerPoints.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.