Dear Edgeworth--I am a graduate student who must give a presentation for an economics seminar. I am very nervous. Since Tuesday my bowels have stopped working. I am having trouble deciding whether to use overhead transparencies or a computer slideshow. The visiting economics professors use the overhead transparencies. But this seems an outdated technology, yes? Why do they do this? Why do they use such a silly technology? Surely a computer slideshow would be better. Yes? WHat is the meaning of this? Please tell me. I do not wish to make a mistake. Gratefully, Gunther
Dear Gunther--At first glance, the answer would appear to be obvious. Laptop-driven slideshows dominate in almost every way. They liberate the presenter. Gone are the worries about lost or backward pages. There is no fumbling through stacks of plastic to find an earlier equation, no disruption in narrative flow. Computer slideshows allow the presenter to focus on the intellectual content of the work, not on hand-eye coordination or manual dexterity. (It goes without saying that most economists have precious little manual dexterity to spare). In addition, computer slideshows cost less. Market prices tell us that a box of transparencies—sheets of blank plastic—is more valuable to humankind than the collected works of any economist, living or dead.
Nevertheless, I would urge Gunther and my other readers not to be deceived. Despite the extra cost and the vastly inferior performance, transparencies win out every time. We must never forget the role of information asymmetries in labor market outcomes. Those who watch your presentation, those who stand in judgment of you, those whose petty whims will determine whether you eat or starve, have no way of knowing for certain whether you’re an idiot. The sad truth is you could have faked your thesis. Your advisor or coauthor could have whispered all the answers in your ear. It follows that your true ability is as unobserved and unobservable as the humility of a Chicago theorist in a room full of MBAs.
But do not despair! It is within your power to signal your unobserved ability. Why do male peacocks have those enormous tails? Why, to signal to the females, of course. “If I can evade predators with this big, functionless, and somewhat buffoonish tail weighing me down,” the male peacock means to say, “I must be very fit indeed.” We academics, dear Gunther, are peacocks. If you use vastly inferior technology to give your presentation, if you handicap yourself, if you tie your hands behind your back, if you do absolutely nothing to enliven your presentation in any way, if you practically dare your listeners to stay awake through your litany of pointless technicalities in smudged black ink, you will have demonstrated to your audience how big your tail is. Business school graduates signal their stupidity by using effective tools in their presentations. Do not risk being mistaken for an MBA, Gunther! It is the kiss of death!
Econometric reasoning supports this interpretation. Haven’t you noticed that time-share salesman and other intellectually challenged types create computer slideshows with lots of bells and whistles to disguise the fact that they have nothing meaningful to say? Naïve thinkers believe that salesmen, having nothing to say, seek out the flashier platform. Not true! We, your judges, realize that the observed correlation tells us nothing about the direction of the causality. It could go in the other direction, Gunther. It might well be that using superior technology to communicate your ideas actually makes you stupid. Do not be seduced, Gunther! Do not use a laptop slideshow. It will signal your shortcomings in the tail department, which could limit both your job and dating prospects. More important, there is every reason to believe, given the econometric reasoning I have set forth above, that using a laptop to give a better presentation actually turns you into a half-wit.
I am glad you sought out my advice so that I could save you from torpedoing your career. It gratifies me to be have been of assistance, to have given back something to the vocation that has treated me so well.