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Doubtful Diagrams and Far Out Figures of Web 2.0

I'm against the vast overuse of meaningless diagrams that presenters use to confuse, impress, and befuddle the Web 2.0 audience

In a recent presentation I attended, the speaker warmed up with a couple of bulleted lists that outlined the agenda of the session before moving onto his third slide that was clearly many days, work of stitching together powerpoint glyphs and figures in a sort of three dimensional loop that attempted to show the progression of software APIs around the evolution of networked computing. It was utterly baffling and the more I stared at it, the more I felt I was looking at some kind of latter day Escher drawing. I gazed around the room and saw most of the other attendees on their laptops distracted by their chat or e-mail clients, however amongst those of us who weren't using the session as down time in their schedule, I saw no-one question the meaning of the figures, or the information it was attempting to convey. The speaker was extremely proud of it however, and lingered on the slide for about twenty minutes as he waved his arms and spoke of REST, ATOM, Ruby, and a plethora of other acronyms that apparently were all part of the Web 2.0 solar system.

This editorial isn't a diatribe against Web 2.0, far from it, it's against the vast overuse of meaningless diagrams that presenters use to confuse, impress, and befuddle their audience. Part of this I believe stems from an insecurity of the speaker to actually understand their subject matter, and seemingly complex figures are used as a sort of crutch to fall back onto and mask the lack of content. A lot of this probably dates back to high school Math or Science classes, where the apprentice PowerPoint maestro had long since lost the plot of what the teacher was discussing, but noticed that as some of the problems got harder diagrams were introduced to help illustrate the ideas being taught. To the confused yet cunning child the association was clear; if the teacher could impress the audience with impressive looking figures, then in later life when the student was given the task of being the presenter, if they just skipped the content part and showed figures with boxes and lines between them, then they too would assume the role of authority their teacher commanded. It's sort of based on the bigger fool theory, which states that in life you don't need to be smart, you just need to be smarter than the next guy you're trying to fool. Rather like the apocryphal tale of two hunters running from an angry bear where one of them stops to put on his sneakers and the other remarks how he'll never outrun the bear, he replies that his intention is to merely outrun his partner. In presentations if the figure is meaningless and has no content, then if the goal is to impress the audience who are too nervous to challenge the emperor's naked ignorance, the speaker has outrun his pupils and achieved the respect originally given to the teacher.

Wikipedia defines a diagram as a "simplified and structured visual representation of concepts and ideas to visualize and clafiry the topic". This definition should apply to software as well as any other discipline, and as a profession we need to do more to challenge ludicrous and meaningless figures that add no value, and strive more towards simplicity so that topics and ideas are made more consumable and understood, and the peddlers of complexity are run out of town with both their sneakers firmly tied.

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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Most Recent Comments
Frank Smieja 08/24/07 03:04:51 AM EDT

In general i agree with what the author is saying, particularly with regard to non-probing, non-inquisitory audiences. What indeed is the point of attending a lecture or talk if you don't actually want to question what is being said and reconcile with your own view of things, or find relevance to what you are trying to achieve? we are surely not all sponges, and if someone is throwing up a picture of something complex then it better enable me to gain more insight into the subject, or i am wasting my time.

Would have been good for the author to have attached a diagram or two to illustrate his point though. (i hope that is not being contradictory now!)

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