Age, Committees and the Power-point Revolution

During fifty years of paid employment I became blasé about Committee Meetings but in retirement I forgot many things I had  learned in cheerless rooms: guessing which curly-edged sandwiches have least-worst fillings;  the ritual self-positioning of Committee-members in their, obscurely, favored seats; their preliminary interventions advertising who they are, what they know and how extraordinarily well they know it; differences between individuals’ theoretical and practical grasp of affability skills; the honed geniality of chairpersons; manic fixed beaming of some participants and poker-faces of others.
Unexpectedly I have again attended some meetings. Things have changed. Now that I am visibly old  people are disconcertingly helpful. If they find me lurking in corridors searching for the Committee-Room they do not ask where I want to go but simply tell me where the toilets are. They explain lift-buttons to me. They do not jostle me at the sandwich table but give me too many paper-plates. They smile kindly as I fumble in my rucksack for my tatty notebook, the one ballpoint of four that still works and my two pairs of spectacles – one for writing and the other for screen watching. Then, gradually, boredom seeps from the buttocks up the spine and  neck to the brain bringing subtle and particular flavours of ennuis distilled from a lifetime of forgotten meetings. But a dazzling new thing has happened while I have been away: The Power – Point Revolution !
Back in the day power-point slides, at least those used by respectable cognitive-aging persons, were simple black-on-white lists of bullet points to remind us what to say next rather than to distract  audiences from our verbatim rehearsal of exactly the same words. Power-Point virtuosi, often women, might introduce sprigs of flowers or flowing pastel smears around their text. Brasher mavens caused arrows to prance between numbers or bits of text to drop suddenly into the screen, often with loud twangs. Graphs were very simple and often wonky, encouraging audience participation with demands for return to slide 93 (where error bars had been forgotten or axes reversed so that the data precisely contradicted the speaker’s argument). Tables were grey chicken-wire-fences of tiny illegible numbers. But  Now! A New Age has dawned, all is changed utterly, and a terrible beauty is born. To de-construct these astonishing changes we use techniques borrowed from Art Historians.
Hindsight reveals a transitional period from bullet-points and bad graphs to “Mature Early Power Point”. This  reached its apogee of complexity with Structural Equation Model Diagrams. Blobs of various shapes, some designating particular classes of variables and some intriguingly arbitrary were each labelled in tiny print and joined by arrows whose directions were critical to  arguments that could alternatively be expressed in equations, numbers or even words. Arrows were often  labelled with very faint numbers indicating relative weights. Slides increased in complexity until their  full flowering in a phase that my colleague Cameron Camp termed  “Thanksgiving Turkey School”.  At this point Power-Point theory moved beyond any pretence that  slides are simplified and condensed representations of arguments. In what we may call the “Transitional Pre-Contemporary Period” divorce of blob-shape from variable class became  complete; all arrows were logically reversible in direction though, with coy playfulness, they were still given single barbed heads; complete omission of numbers signalled disdain for quantification. To emphasise the new freedom diagrams sometimes, with charming caprice, were split into two or more independent, unconnected sections.

As with all  Art Movements new ambitions required a new vocabulary. Increasing use of words such as “Eudaimonic” has became a signature of the period. The unwary  will decode “Eu” as a prefix meaning good, or pleasant, and “daimons” as subordinate characters in a Harry Potter Saga. Not so! The cunning authors have set a witty trap! A recent source explains “ Some researchers claim that eudaimonic well-being is best achieved through personal development and growth , others through finding meaning in their lives. One way or another, they agree that there must be something else out there in addition to pure pleasure and happiness.” [1]
In other words Contemporary power-point slides now try to express the numinous or indefinable. The core of the Power-Point Revolution is that slides no longer aim to illustrate or reference any argument. We transcend weary convention to gallantly eff the ineffable.
The next, Post-Transitional, phase, we  provisionally call “Early Mandala” [2]. This  taps deep roots in the  the human psyche. For example, very long ago I used to decorate my school notebooks with” Pat Rabbitt, 272 The Tideway, Rochester, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Europe, The World, The Solar System, Nearest Galaxy to Andromeda, The Universe” ( The Multiverse was not then imagined). Post-transitional slides cheekily retain the refreshingly naivety of childish scribblings. An early example of  this genre is a  “Pre-concentric” or “Cascade Mandala” slide  from NICE [3] on inequalities of population health. This  is clearly “British School”: whimsically top-down from  general to enfold  and even to cuddle particular points:

 

Health Inequalities and Population Health

A currently dominant trend shifts from British Cascade to  “Tibetan  School” with concentric circles with embedded legends. A fine recent “Model” (Mandalas are always called “Models”, except when they are diffidently called “Frameworks”) is a diagram by Bath and North East Somerset Council in a document discussing Provision of Public Toilets [4].

 

Bath Toilet Mandala

This is a breathtakingly complete depiction of a Total Universe of Public Toilet Provision! The global ecosystem with its hints of possible climate change and their effects on global biodiversity envelops concentric circles of increasing particularity until we reach the still centre of “People”, with their defining qualities of Age, Sex and genetic diversity. I am completely convinced of the importance of Age and Sex in toilet provision but less so of Heredity. Nevertheless, we must open our minds to all possibilities of future discoveries. Who knows what Genetics may yet reveal?

It is crucial to grasp that  contemporary Power-Point Mandalas are not  representations of any “things” or “arguments”. A Mandala is, rather, a noumenon, a ding an sich that needs no link to, or constraint by artificial ideas of “reality”. It simultaneously hints at  all, and no, possible interpretations. The text in which the fine Bath and Somerset Toilet Provision Mandala is embedded never refers to it as a scaffold for an argument. The  aim is to convey insights beyond verbal definition: in this case the implication of God-like overview by a benevolent Local Authority.
As always  in Art History we can track emergent themes through temporal and geographical variants. In an  instructive adaptation by the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre [5] the still core of the gyre shows cryptic Words of Power: “Holistic SEWB”. Clockwise arrows in the outer circles do not signify directions of causality or flow of relationships. They are there only to convey dynamism and urgency. Charming homage to Aboriginal dot-paintings and a colour scheme borrowed from yellow and ochre pinjun desert sand are  Australian signatures and by no means accidental attributes of this remarkable “Dreamtime model”:

 

TristanSchultzArtwork Seven Domains of social and emotional well-being

An example in a brochure by Yukon Wellness California [6] shows how, the outermost circle  wittily recalls and mocks a fusty convention that “directional arrows” signify causal links. Here arrows are replaced  by  brown, khaki and blue diamond shapes, squiggles and semi-circles. So we gently but robustly expose as obsolete the fiction of connected arguments and causality.

 

holisticmodelwellness-Yukon Wellness California

During years of retirement I have wasted my time by dully continuing to analyse numbers and to write old-fashioned papers about the patterns I find in them. I hope that I am not yet too old to appreciate, and even to adapt to this huge,  enthusiasts might even say “Tectonic” shift in the nature of  representation in my field. I have begun work, as hard as my age allows, on a Universal Reaction Time Mandala with compartments for Simple and Choice RT paradigms, serpentine tracks of repetition and fore-period-duration borrowed from Kalahari Bushman Stone Etchings and, as due homage to Wilhelm Wundt, symbols in Deutsch Schrift symbolising trial – to – trial variability, signal discriminability, and choice of responding limbs. I am at last ready to come out of the closet of humdrum explications of “processes” and “mechanisms” and to dare to depict, in glorious entirety and in many cheerful colours a universe in which Reaction Times simply…… exist ! I shall offer this “Model” gratis for use in Brocuures and grant proposals by Local Governmental Authorities, Boards of School Governors, Big Pharma and miscellaneous Sociologists as a revelation and celebration of how the Science I once practised has been transformed in the few years while I have been distracted from its astonishing progress.

1. http://www.positivepsychology.org.uk/…/34-the-concept-of-eudaimonic-well-being.
2. Mandala (Sanskrit: मण्डल Maṇḍala, ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the general shape of a T. Mandalas often exhibit radial balance.
3. https://www.nice.org.uk/advice/lgb4
4. Toilets | Bathnes – Bath & North East Somerset Council
5. https://www.sprc.unsw.edu.au/
6. http://www.yukonwellness.ca/holistic.php#.VWcqmM9Viko

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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