Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Digital Spreadsheets – The Time-Space Power of Accounting, Part 1

Posted on | January 22, 2017 | No Comments

Part of upcoming book on Digital Money and Spreadsheet Capitalism

Accounting is, understandably, an acquired taste, but it should be recognized as a key component of an organization’s structural characteristics and a key source of its longevity and power to grow. One of the first major uses of computers was to make the accounting process easier and faster. Later, the spreadsheet became a key technology in the accounting process and its use for management decisions. Accounting practices and associated technologies are complicit in the formation of modern capitalism and the way it develops.

This new series of posts continues my analysis of the digital spreadsheet as a technology of power by considering their integration into organizational information systems, particularly accounting. This post covers the important historical role of accounting in developing time-space dominance for early bureaucracies and the formation of capitalism. The next post investigates how spreadsheets have transformed accounting and the modern global economy.

While accounting is often dismissed as a realm of the mundane, a more serious inquiry connects it to real power over material and communicative domains. Anthony Giddens’s theory of “time-space power” is particularly useful here as it has the control of information and communication at its core. The former head of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Giddens’ developed a wide-ranging analysis of social systems that connected information technologies, including accounting and book-keeping, to economic, political, social power.

For Giddens, there is no overall mechanism or motor of social change such as class conflict or universal progress. Instead, he claimed, societies can better be understood through a process of “structuration” that reconciles the influence of human actors and the rigidity of social structures. Structuration includes the production of time-space power – the ability to reproduce and expand social systems (such as corporations, governments, and other collectivities) over chronological spans of time and geographical distances of space.[1]

Drawing on anthropologist Jack Goody, Giddens pointed out that the keeping of written accounts such as ledgers and lists about people, objects, and events generated new types of social control and organizational power. In Writing and the Organization of Society (1984), Goody studied ancient temples and monasteries and argued that writing techniques were developed as a form of social power. Lists became containers, not just an aid to memory, but a definite means of encoding and protecting information over time, first as a mechanism to store information over time, and then in more narrative forms.

Giddens argued that every social system ‘stretches’ across time and space and that “information systems,” including early media such as books and clay tablets have been critical to this dynamic. Writing, lists, and tables, as well as modern computer-based technologies, combine storage abilities meant to capture and store information over long durations as well as media that can be transported or transmitted over long distances. Steam engines and then modern communications systems, starting with the Victorian telegraph, allowed for relevant financial and logistical information to be gathered quickly over large spans of geographical space.

Another influence on Giddens’ perspective on the historical role of accounting was the seminal sociologist, Max Weber. Weber studied the emergence of capitalism and identified several key precursors including cities; the separation of the household from companies; contract laws; the bureaucratic nation-state; filing systems; and the organized control of territory by a unified government that allows commerce to develop. He especially stressed the importance of money and the associated role of accounting.

Weber saw money culture and the associated role of double entry bookkeeping as central components in the development of capitalism and modern bureaucracies. New accounting techniques allowed businesses to keep track of items and inventories and balance assets with monetary accounting. This enabled the calculation of the inflows and outflows of money and helped determine sources of profit and losses. Bookkeeping as a system of information, along with file keeping, allows for crucial organizational information to be maintained and supports the stability of organizations over time.

Giddens continued this train of thought, emphasizing that accounting “…allows for the distancing of economic relations across time-space, facilitating the storage and co-ordination of information used to regularize such relations.”[2] Lists in narrative and numerical representations form the basis of accounting techniques and most notably double-entry bookkeeping.

Giddens emphasized, “Double-entry bookkeeping allows the adjusting of inflows and outflows that occur over long periods of time-space.”[3] The system of double-entry accounting developed over the years from simple writing technology using lists and journals of written text and moved towards the more abstract book-keeping and eventually spawned an accounting discipline.

With numbers having mostly shed their connotations of mysticism and superstition by the 19th century, they were quickly becoming a preferred mode of representing business fact. Business accounting’s “credit-ability” was sanctified by the long-term development of a system of accounting with double-entry bookkeeping as its center method. Especially with the new mechanical techniques of calculation, accounting’s influence expanded culturally and geographically.

Historically, Laura Poovey’s analysis of the influence of double-entry bookkeeping on the rise of the European mercantile class is instructive here. She argued that the system of books used in early accounting helped raise the status of merchants through the verification of debits and credits. The process of recording inventories of wealth and transactions in a series of lists, journals, and ledgers, ultimately rendered them in terms of monetary accounts in a single currency. This provided a growing system of trust among merchants that formed the basis of Western capitalism.

    The nature of the double-entry fact can be grasped by recognizing that this system of bookkeeping did not simply record the things merchants traded so that they could keep track of assets or calculate profits and losses. Instead as a system of writing, double-entry bookkeeping produced effects that exceeded transcription and calculation. One of its social effects was to proclaim the honesty of merchants as a group. One of its epistemological effects was to make the formal precision of the double-entry system, which drew on the rule-bound system of arithmetic, seem to guarantee the accuracy of the details it recorded. – Mary Poovey

    Double-entry bookkeeping provided a structured narrative that provided a trusted representation of the organization for owners and investors. It’s techniques emerged first to check for errors, but later resulted in the separation of a business from its owner, a precursor condition for the emergence of the corporation and the wide-scale success of capitalism. The stock ticker, for example, allows ownership to be dispersed more easily over space. Ticker-tape machines provided stock prices and the first electrically-powered broadcast news to investors over wide geographical spaces.

    New levels of certainty brought on by accounting methods created widespread social changes that transformed Western Society. Along with the proliferation of capitalism and the modern corporation, the emergence of “state-istics” as it was increasingly used by governments created a wider social dynamic that included a new level of trust in numbers being used in science and engineering.

    Accounting and other numerical techniques changed Western civilization. Modern capitalism emerged only after the integration of telegraphic systems with the information processing of accounting processes. The telegraph emerged in the 19th century as a key technology to collect and organize accounting information. It should be of no surprise that Western Union, the first modern corporation, connected telegraph systems across the US continent.

    While double-entry bookkeeping made capitalism possible, the spreadsheet took it to new levels of possibility. Monetary accounting provided the written “real-time” constitution of a corporation, and with the spreadsheet, this power multiplied. Accounting as a type of information storage became integral for an organization’s power and consequentially its long-term survival. Not only did the speed in which accounting procedures and calculations occurred become vastly faster; new types of analysis and information were produced, and the transmission of accounting information expanded. Spreadsheets increased organizational tempo and coordination over distances.

    Notes

    [1] “Structuration Theory in Management and Accounting,” by N.B. Macintosh and R.W. Scapens
    “Structuration Theory in Management and Accounting N.B. Macintosh and R.W. Scapens” in Anthony Giddens: Critical Assessments, Volume 4. edited by Christopher G. A. Bryant, David Jary.
    [2] Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Power, Property and the State. Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California, 1981. Print.
    [3] Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Power, Property and the State. Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California, 1981. Print. p. 117.
    [4] Poovey, M.A. (1998) A History of Modern Fact. p. 30.

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    AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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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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