Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Digital Spreadsheets – Part 5 – Ease and Epistemology

Posted on | May 6, 2016 | No Comments

To pick up the story, I started this analysis of the spreadsheet looking at the emergence of Lotus 1-2-3 within the context of the 1980s. This included the importance of the personal computer and the Reagan Revolution – characterized the by the commercialization of Cold War technologies, and the globalization and increasing financialization of individual and organizational life. Spreadsheets came to be used by a new breed of analysts for leveraged buyouts (LBOs) and other financial manipulations. The PC-enabled spreadsheet soon became a fixture of modern organizational practice.

Part 3 introduced the formal analysis of spreadsheets that examined how this new technology incorporates other media starting with zero and the Indo-Arabic numerals. The base-10 decimal system, within a positional place-value notation, gave the zero-based numerical system a previously unprecedented calculative ability. Other representational systems include alphabetical writing and list technology. Below I introduce the importance of the table as an organizing system that is empowered by the computerized spreadsheet and is part of a system of knowledge production that is central to our modern forms of capitalism.

Bonnie A. Nardi and James R. Miller of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories noted that the effectiveness of a spreadsheet program derives from two major properties: its ability to provide low-level calculation and computational capabilities to lightly trained users; and its “table-oriented interface” that displays and organizes information in a perceptual geometric space that shows categories and relationships.[1]

The columnar spreadsheet had an important if non-distinguished history as the bedrock of the accounting and bookkeeping professions. It became universally more relevant when it was programmed into the first electronic spreadsheet for the Apple II. VisiCalc was created when its co-inventor needed to make calculations for an MBA course he was taking.

As its name suggests, VisiCalc combines the two most important components of the electronic spreadsheet – visual display and calculative ability. Tables are both communicative and analytical technologies that provide familiar ways to convey relatively simple or complex information as well as structure data so that new dimensional relationships are produced. These became particularly useful for accounting and sales, as well as finance.[1]

The interactivity of the personal computer keyboard and screen was a prominent advantage in the growing popularity of the electronic spreadsheet. It provided immediate feedback and reduced the learning curve of spreadsheet applications like VisiCalc and later Lotus 1-2-3 for the IBM PC and its clones. Users could easily isolate individual cells and input information while also applying formulas that ranged from simple mathematical calculations to more complex statistical analyses.

Later the graphical user interface and the mouse made the Apple Mac and Windows-based PCs even more interactive and user-friendly. Microsoft Excel, originally designed for the Apple Mac, emerged as the dominant spreadsheet program. Drop-down menus that could be accessed with a mouse-controlled cursor provided instructions and options to help use the spreadsheet. Users could quickly learn how to complete various “high-level, task-specific functions” such as adding the values of a range of cells within a column. More about this in the next post on formulas.

Nardi and Miller also pointed to the visual aspects of the spreadsheet. The table combines an easily viewable display format in a simple geometric space. The tabular grid of the computer spreadsheet interface provides a powerful visual format for entering, viewing, and structuring data in meaningful ways. Users are able to view large quantities data on a single screen without scrolling. Relationships between variables become discernible due to the table display. This facilitates pattern recognition and the ability to isolate specific items. Organized around the intersection of rows and columns at a point called the “cell,” spreadsheets provide relatively simple but important computational and display solutions for information work.

Tables draw deeply on the meaning-creating capabilities of the list, an integral component of the spreadsheet. The list was one of the first uses of writing and an ancient technology of organization and management. It is a visual technology that isolates individual items from all others and yet connects them visually to other items, creating new categories and taxonomies.[2]

The list is “remediated” in the spreadsheet.[3] In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, new media can be seen as the incorporation and recombination of previous media. In other words, the list takes on new significance in the spreadsheet as it is re-purposed horizontally as well as vertically to create the tabular format. The term remediate come from the Italian remediari and means “to heal.” The list is “healed” as it becomes part of the table because it attempts to provide a more authentic access to reality. The history of media is one of attempting to develop advanced systems of representation that provide new ways to view the world. In the table, additional dimensions to a list are created, offering new lists and displaying the possibilities of new relationships. The synergy of this new formulation in the spreadsheet, a conjunction of vertical lists or “columns” with horizontal lists called “rows” creates the table’s intellectual dynamism.

The table acts as a problem-solving medium; a cognitive tool that not only classifies and structures data but offers ways to analyze it. The rows and columns provide the parameters of the problem and individual cells invite input and interpretation. The format of the table also suggests connections, dependencies and relations between different sets of data. With the table, it is easy to discern categories represented in the vertical and horizontal dimensions and scan for individual data values and to get a sense of the range of values and other patterns such as a rough average.

The formal analysis of the spreadsheet focuses on the various components of the spreadsheet and how they combine to give it its extraordinary capabilities. The spreadsheet has emerged as both a personal productivity tool and a vehicle for group collaboration. Spreadsheets produce representational frameworks for garnering and organizing labor and material resources. Numerical innovation stemming from the adoption of zero and other systems of mathematical representation have made the computerized spreadsheet a central component of modern life. It has also helped establish the centrality of financial epistemology as the working philosophy of modern capitalism. Spreadsheets and other forms of financial representation produce the ongoing flows of knowledge that run the modern economy.[4]


[1] Bonnie A. Nardi and James R. Miller (In D. Diaper et al (Eds.), “The Spreadsheet Interface: A Basis for End-user Programming,” Human-Computer Interaction: INTERACT ’90. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1990. Spring, 1990.
[2] Jack Goody’s (1984) Writing and the Organization of Society is informative on the use of the list as a historical management tool.
[3] Bolter, J. and Grusin R. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press.
[4] Hood, John. “Capitalism and the Zero,” The Freeman: Foundation for Economic Education. N.p., 01 Dec. 2000. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society at the State University of New York (SUNY) in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in the 1990s.


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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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