Saturday, May 7, 2011

Powerpoint People

There’s an old Native American tradition that was still practiced the year I lived on a Dakota reservation. Every full moon, all those who had passed the manhood ritual would gather around the fire, and a pipe would be passed. It was not a pipe for smoking – most braves smoked Marlboros or rolled their own — but one for speaking. Tribe members patiently waited their turn, and when the pipe reached a brave’s hands, he might say what was on his mind. Or he might not. There was just as often silence.

In my exploration of Northern Europe I have discovered a Finno-Ugric tribe which keeps a similar ritual for allowing braves to speak. No pipe is passed, though. The Finno-Ugric tribe has replaced it with the cord to a Powerpoint projector.

And unlike the pipe, the cord is not passed peacefully, and a meeting can sometimes turn as aggressive as a game of lacrosse: it is custom that tribesmen attempt to grab the cord as it dangles from a ceiling-mounted projector near the center of the conference table.

“Here’s the point I’m making,” said Pekka, snatching the swinging cord from the hands of Heikki and plugging it into his laptop. Pekka stated his case, managing three or four painfully-constructed slides, until Kalevi, a brave of higher standing, yanked the cord from the socket of the Pekka’s laptop and plugged it into his own.

After a two-hour meeting, with the cord passed to half a dozen corporate warriors, no decision had been made on the issue, but all left satisfied. Each had had his chance to express himself and show at least some of the slides he had spent hours constructing. The meeting adjourned with promises to email presentations to each other.

I encountered this tribe when I was brought in to consult on a form of communication unfamiliar to them: the corporate magazine. They had come to me through their tribe’s medicine man who had traveled over the great water and had heard my name in context of the mystical practice of the printed word. Soon, my name and likeness were carried to his tribe and spread among their ranks via Powerpoint, and eventually I was invited to visit the tribe at its pleasant camp in a grassy meadow by the sea.

Though the vast majority of Northern tribes lead isolated existences, this one had seen the need to stretch beyond its borders in the name of commerce. More prescient members of the tribal council recognized a Powerpoint presentation in their native tongue was no more decipherable to the West than the smoke signals their forefathers had used. Just as their predecessors had come to eventually accept Colonel Colt and his invention as part of their future, the tribe believed that I and my words on papyrus in a widely-spoken language might be the key to their future.

Northern tribes are known to have accepted few outsiders, and those who have been received have generally returned to document the tribes’ consumption of copious quantities of alcohol and co-ed bathing rituals involving nudity, sweat, and birch branches. So I was not completely unprepared for their colorful oddities.

But I was indeed struck by the tribe’s devotion to Powerpoint as a communications tool. For it, they shunned all talk, and their corridors were as silent as a funeral home. This was clearly strong medicine.

“Perhaps we might talk over a cup of coffee,” I suggested to Pekka, after what I interpreted to be his victory in the conference room with the projector cord.

Pekka was silent for a long moment, perhaps because he had no specific slide to address my question. “Coffee,” he at long last uttered, “is in the silver pitcher at the far end of the table. Tea is in the black one.” There were sandwiches on the table, too, though they went unmentioned.

Though I was not successful with Pekka, after several weeks in the presence of this Finno-Ugric tribe, I twice managed to make eye contact with one I believed to be a single female. One day, I managed to engineer it where we were both walking through the same corridor in the same direction. I walked faster to catch up with her and just as she turned her head I removed a shiny blue can of Gin Long Drink from my pocket. “I have more,” I said.

She quickened her pace which I took as nervousness. “Could we not meet?” I said emboldened by her palpable quickness of breath. She stopped and looked at her feet. “I could tweet you,” she offered guardedly, and she dashed down a staircase on her right. I did not follow. Despite her beauty — she was a fine specimen — a 140-character limit was not going to allow me to complete the magazine.

I began to worry how I might write an entire magazine requiring 40,000 words if the most input I was to receive was a host of Powerpoint slides and random, 140-character tweets. I sought guidance from the medicine man who had brought me to the tribe.

“The drums say you have Gin Long Drink,” he said to me before I had even a chance to sit down. “Long Drink is strong medicine.”

Indeed. And I knew a ferryboat where it was kept.

The magazine proved a success. The stories celebrated the wisdom and cleverness of the tribe and enumerated the superior quality of its goods. And despite their worry that a photograph could steal a soul, they permitted my colleague Kaupo (whose name amused them) to make attractive, well-lit images of them in their daily routines. Pekka was photographed in front of a projection of a histogram, remote control in hand. Heikki was shown from behind, staring hard at a multi-color pie-chart slide on his computer.

As a show of thanks, I was invited to the tribe’s summer conclave, where after a welcome Powerpoint detailing the tribe’s seasonal successes, we adjourned to a row of chairs near a pristine lake. Male tribesmen removed their shirts to tan their pale bodies. Strong medicine in blue cans was passed, but it was still some time before the silence was broken.

“If you close your eyes and stare right at the sun,” said Pekka, “then the image you see is much like Powerpoint.” Braves all around grunted in assent.

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