Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


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Microsoft’s famous spreadsheet application, Excel, was originally designed for Apple’s Macintosh personal computer. This post explores the beginning years of the personal computer and its transition to its more modern interface pioneered by Apple and its Macintosh computer. This transition opened the way for new software innovations, particularly the development of the Excel spreadsheet application by Microsoft. Excel has since become the mainstay spreadsheet application in organizations around the world.

The Apple Macintosh or “Mac” was based on the Graphical User Interface (GUI, pronounced “gooey”), that was primarily developed at Xerox Parc in Palo Alto, CA. It was sometimes called WIMP for its Windows, Icons, Mouse, and Pull-down menus technology. The Apple II and IBM PC were still based on something called a command line interface, a “black hole” next to a > prompt that required code to entered and executed on. For example, to find a word or other string of characters, you would type find /V “any string” FileName at the prompt C:\>

This command line system required extensive prior knowledge and/or access to readily available technical documentation. The user needed to know the codes or copy them from a manual. The GUI on the other hand, allowed you to point to information already on the screen or categories that contained subsets of commands. Eventually, menu categories such as File, Edit, View, Tools, Help were standardized on the top of GUI screens.

A crucial issue for the Mac was good third-party software that could work in its GUI environment, especially a spreadsheet. Representatives from Jobs’ Macintosh team visited the fledgling companies that had previously supplied microcomputer software. Good software came from companies like Telos Software that produced the picture-oriented FileVision database and Living Videotext’s ThinkTank used “dynamic outlines” to capture levels of thought and promote creative thinking. By April 1985, they had sold 30,000 copies, or to about 10% of all Mac owners. However, that number was still small compared to the potential of the business world.

For the Mac to be useful for a business, Apple needed a new VisiCalc. Jobs’ longstanding relationship with VisiCorp was strained because the VisiCalc distributor was trying to develop its own “PARC-like system” for IBM PCs called Visi-On.[1] Lotus was the up-and-coming software producer and signed on with Apple to produce an ambitious spreadsheet application called “Jazz,” but the software soon ran into trouble. Steven Levy wrote:

    Apple was desperate for the Macintosh equivalent to VisiCalc, something so valuable that people would buy the computer solely to run it. It had high expectations for Lotus’s product—after all, Lotus 1-2-3 had been the IBM PC’s VisiCalc—but Lotus’s Jazz turned out to be a dud. Mitch Kapor’s charges had clumsily missed the point of Macintosh. In the Lotus view, Mac was a computer for beginners, for electronic dilettantes who still clung to a terror of technology. Jazz was the equivalent of a grade school primer, an ensemble of crippled little applications that worked well together but were minimally useful. No one bought it.[2]

Other companies had partial success in creating a spreadsheet for the Mac, but part of the problem of getting a good spreadsheet for the Mac was that its screen was small and not conducive to spreadsheet work. Microsoft’s Multiplan for the Mac was an early offering. Ashton Tate produced a spreadsheet for the Mac called Full Impact that contained much of the software used in an Apple in-house spreadsheet called Mystery House. Unlike its Apple II predecessor, the Macintosh was failing to make significant inroads into a business world that was enamored with the PC and Lotus 1-2-3.

Apple’s innovative Macintosh technology did not go unnoticed by Microsoft. Microsoft was shown the embryonic Mac near the end of 1981. Apple authorized Microsoft to develop software languages and apps for the Mac GUI-based system. Gates and company had gone public in March of 1985 netting the co-founder’s 45 percent share in the company some $311 million in net worth. The young company was working secretly on their own GUI interface while continuing to develop software for the Mac. Meanwhile, Microsoft pressured Apple to give them a license for the GUI interface and threatened to stop work on the software they were producing for Apple.[3] In October 1985, Apple CEO John Scully gave in and offered them a license for the Mac GUI. But much to the ire of Apple, Gates’ company had developed their own GUI that it layered on top of its DOS operating system. In November 1985, Microsoft began to ship Windows 1.0, a DOS operating system with an awkward but much friendlier face.

The Macintosh’s initial “killer app” turned out desktop publishing that helped them develop their WYSYWIG (what you see is what you get) technology. In mid-July 1985, a company called Aldus released a final version of PageMaker. For the producers of corporate newsletters and other small publishers, the Macintosh began to show great promise. For the first time, documents could be manipulated and shown on the screen exactly as it would be published. But the WYSYWIG appearance on the screen was only minimally effective without the capacity to print what was shown. The printing solution came from another computer scientist from Xerox PARC. John Warnock had created technology called Postscript that allowed a laser printer to print exactly what was on the screen. In 1982 he created a company called Adobe that caught the attention of Apple. Jobs canceled work on other projects and bought nearly 20% of Adobe while carefully integrating their technology into the design of a new Laser printer.

Combined with applications like Pagemaker and Macpaint, the new software-print combination inspired thousands of graphic artists and painters to try the Macintosh. While Apple lost market share in the financial sphere, it became the darling of graphic designers and publishers. One casualty, however, was Steve Jobs who was ousted by CEO John Scully and the Apple board in May 1985 after Apple recorded its first-ever quarterly loss. In September, Jobs sold his shares of Apple.

The new GUI-enhanced machines presented a major challenge for the software industry. The original company that created the famous VisiCalc spreadsheet was sued by its distributor VisiCorp, formerly Personal Software, in September 1983 for failing to keep the software current. A counter-suit was filed and the legal hassles distracted software development. Consequently, the spreadsheet application never made an adequate jump to a GUI environment. Lotus Development bought out Software Arts after a chance meeting between Bricklin and Kapor on an airline flight. Soon after, Lotus discontinued VisiCalc. But Lotus also took a nosedive as its failure with Jazz was a fateful mistake, providing a crucial opening for Microsoft. Gates and company released Excel 2 for the “fat Mac” in 1985. Although it was the first version, it was numbered to correspond with the new Mac. Soon Excel became a popular spreadsheet for the Macintosh, especially after the release of Excel 2.2 for the Macintosh in 1989 that was nearly twice as fast as the original.

Microsoft went on to develop several versions of Windows, its new GUI operating system and as they got better, the Excel spreadsheet became more popular. Windows 2.0 was released in 1987 and Microsoft offered versions of Excel for Windows and for DOS that year. But both applications were awkward and did not become very popular. Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 after the release of Windows 2.01, claiming its interface design had been copied, but to no avail.

Lotus 1-2-3 had been the top-selling software product of 1989 but that was also the year the GUI gained popular acceptance within the DOS world with the introduction of Windows 3.0. The DOS-based Quattro Pro by Borland had been on the rise against the dominance of Lotus 1-2-3, but neither could resist the power of the user-friendly Excel 3.0 and the even better Excel 4.0 released in 1992. Meanwhile, Excel remained the only spreadsheet available for Windows until 1992 when Lotus countered with its Lotus 1-2-3 4.0 for Windows. But Excel 5.0 signaled Microsoft’s rise to dominance, partially because of the inclusion of the Visual Basic Programming System. Windows soon monopolized the PC desktop and Excel became its flagship business tool.[5]


[1] Visi-On information from Steven Levy’s Insanely Great. The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer that Changed Everything. NY: Penguin Books. p. 160.
[2] Quote on the Jazz failure from Steven Levy’s (1995) Insanely Great. The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer that Changed Everything. NY: Penguin Books. p. 219-20.
[3] Information on John Warnock and Postscript from (2002) Computing Encyclopedia. Volume 5: People. Smart Computing Reference Series. p. 38. Also see Levy (1995) p. 212-213.
[4] Apple vs Microsoft in Freiberger, P. and Swaine, M. (2000) Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. Second Edition. NY: McGraw-Hill. p. 361.
[5] Information on spreadsheet competition from Rob Clarke’s “A Formula for Success,” PC WORLD, August 1993, pp. 15-16.



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.

Potential Bill on Net Neutrality and Deep Pocket Inspection

Posted on | October 17, 2018 | No Comments

Just got this discussion draft by Eliot Lance Engel (D-NY) from one of my former colleagues at New York University and a former Verizon executive, Thomas Dargan. Eliot Lance Engel (D-NY) is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 16th congressional district that contains parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.[1] US telecommunications policy is based on the Communications Act of 1934 that created the Federal Communications Commission and established the importance of common carriage, a concept that is included in current understandings of net neutrality.



H. R. __

To amend the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit broadband internet access service providers from engaging in deep packet inspection.

—— introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on ______________


To amend the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit broadband internet access service providers from engaging in deep packet inspection.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

This Act may be cited as the “Deep Packet Privacy Protection Act of 2018”.


(a) IN GENERAL.—Title VII of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 601 et seq.) is amended by adding at the end the following:


“(a) IN GENERAL.—A broadband internet access service provider may not engage in deep packet inspection, except in conducting a reasonable network management practice.

“(b) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit a broadband internet access service provider from engaging in deep packet inspection as required by law, including for purposes of criminal law enforcement, cybersecurity, or fraud prevention.

“(c) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:

“(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘broadband internet access service’ means a mass-market retail service by wire or radio that provides the capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service, but excluding dial-up internet access service.

“(B) FUNCTIONAL EQUIVALENT; EVASION.—The term ‘broadband internet access service’ also includes any service that—

“(i) the Commission finds to be providing a functional equivalent of the service described in subparagraph (A); or

“(ii) is used to evade the prohibitions set forth in this section.

“(2) DEEP PACKET INSPECTION.—The term ‘deep packet inspection’ means the practice by which a broadband internet access service provider reads, records, or tabulates information or filters traffic based on the inspection of the content of packets as they are transmitted across their network in the provision of broadband internet access service.

“(3) NETWORK MANAGEMENT PRACTICE.—The term ‘network management practice’ means a practice that has a primarily technical network management justification, but does not include other business practices.

“(4) REASONABLE NETWORK MANAGEMENT PRACTICE.—The term ‘reasonable network management practice’ means a network management practice that is primarily used for and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband internet access service, including—

“(A) delivering packets to their intended destination;

“(B) detecting or preventing transmission of malicious software, including viruses and malware; and

“(C) complying with data protection laws and laws designed to prohibit unsolicited commercial electronic messages, including the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (15 U.S.C. 7701 et seq.) and section 1037 of title 18, United States Code.”.

(b) DEADLINE FOR RULEMAKING.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Federal Communications Commission shall issue a rule to implement the amendment made by subsection (a).

(c) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The amendment made by this section shall apply beginning on the date that is 270 days after the date of the enactment of this Act.


[1] Tom Dargan can be reached at US 914-582-8995
[2] Eliot Lance Engel (D-NY) official website.



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.

TIME Magazine’s “Machine of the Year”

Posted on | October 10, 2018 | No Comments

The Apple II was quite a success when it was introduced in 1977 with sales of US$770,000 in its first year. Its growth over the next few years, however, was tremendous. Revenues hit $7.9 million in its second year of operation and $49 Time's Machine of the Year covermillion in 1979. Its founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, were soon multimillionaires despite still being in their early 20s. Apple’s sales were initially concentrated in the hobbyist market with recreational software such as games dominating. Another important market was education, with simulation games for teaching mathematics, music, and science, etc. Most of these programs were poor in quality though, and in both of these areas, the software industries failed to develop significantly. It was not until the business market for microcomputer software matured that demand for the smaller machines solidified and ultimately ensured Apple’s success, but not without a challenge from a similar machine – the IBM Personal Computer (PC).

Although it was not apparent at first, three software packages: databases, spreadsheets, and word processing created significant demand for the PC in the business world. In 1983, dBase emerged as the database leader with 150,000 units sold, WordStar sold 700,000 packages to take the lead among word processing software, while VisiCalc led the spreadsheet market with 800,000 units sold.[1] It was the spreadsheet though that had the most significant allure. When VisiCalc was created for the Apple II in late 1979, sales of both increased rapidly. Software Arts, who marketed and priced its VisiCalc for around $100, had sales of $11 million its first year while Apple’s sales also continued to grow, reaching to $600 million in 1982.[2] With the success of these three software areas, microcomputers were proving to be more than toys.

Until the electronic spreadsheet, the Apple II was largely considered primarily a hobby toy for “men with big beards” to control things like model train sets.[3] But VisiCalc combined the microcomputer and money in extraordinary new ways. It was the “killer app” which launched the PC revolution, but it also brought powerful new techniques of numerical analysis to the individual. Countering the prevailing notion that accounting calculations were the domain of meekish accountants and subordinate secretaries, electronic spreadsheets reached a whole new range of entrepreneurs, executives, traders, students, etc. Competition was growing though, and in 1982 it was a small company called Microsoft whose new spreadsheet called Multiplan received acclaim. The software continued to advance however, especially when a former employee of Personal Arts (a company hired to market VisiCalc) took his earnings from rights to software he developed to start his own company and create a new spreadsheet program that would dominate sales for the rest of the decade. The new software package was called Lotus 1-2-3.

Lotus 1-2-3 was a product of a new company started by Mitch Kapor. Like Steve Jobs and Wozniak, Kapor came from a bastion of military investment in computer technology, but in this case, it was Boston, not Silicon Valley. In the 1960s, he actually had the chance to learn computer programming in his high school and had built a small computer/adding machine using a telephone rotary dialer for inputting data. But also like Jobs, he was highly influenced by the counter-cultural movement, primarily a reaction to the Vietnam War. After exploring a wide variety of life experiences including teaching meditation for awhile and getting a masters degree in counseling psychology, Kapor returned to his computer roots. He went to work for Personal Arts and designed a program called VisiPlot/VisiTrend in order to increase the readability of the spreadsheet.

But after a management change he left the company. Before he left though, he received $1.2 million for the rights to his software program. Despite his counter-big business sensibilities, he took the money and started his own company called Micro Finance Systems. Their first product was called the Executive Briefing System. But before he released it, he changed the name of the company to Lotus Development Corporation in honor of a mediation practice. Soon he got venture capitalist Ben Rosen to invest in a new product that would integrate a spreadsheet and a word processor into his graphics program. After an unsuccessful attempt to produce the word processor, they added a database program and began to market Lotus 1-2-3.[4]

The success of this new spreadsheet software was tied intimately to the success of another new microcomputer, the IBM Personal Computer or the “PC.” On August 12, 1981, Big Blue introduced its personal computer based on a 4.77 MHz 8088 Intel chip with 16K (expandable to 256K) of RAM and an operating system, PC-DOS, licensed from an upstart company called Microsoft. The IBM PC came with a 5.25-inch floppy disk and room for another. Working secretly as “Project Acorn” in Boca Raton, Florida, the renegade IBM group also created expansion cards, monochrome monitors, and printers for new machine as well as a host of new software programs. The IBM PC was attractive to traditional businesses and to mainstream computer users who had previously considered the small computer little more than a toy. The availability of the spreadsheet however, turned the IBM PC into a practical business tool.

Just as VisiCalc helped the Apple II take off, Lotus 1-2-3 contributed greatly to the IBM’s success and vice-versa. The new spreadsheet package actually integrated its calculative abilities with graphics and database capabilities thus the numerical suffix on its name. For the user, it meant that not only could they do sophisticated types of calculating, they could also print the results out for business meetings, and store it as data in an organized manner. Within a year of its software release, the Lotus Corporation was worth over a $150 million. The relationship with the IBM PC was symbiotic, as Big Blue’s new little computer sold over 670,000 units were sold in its first year.[5] Lotus Corp meanwhile became the number one supplier of software as its sales revenues grew to $258 million in its third year.[6]

Lotus 1-2-3 also benefited greatly from what was arguably the deal of the century, Microsoft’s ability to license its operating system to IBM without granting it exclusive rights. Microsoft’s 1980 deal with IBM, which allowed it to sell its DOS software to other PC manufacturers meant that Lotus 1-2-3 could be used on any “IBM-compatible” microcomputer, including the semi-portable Compaq machine. Compaq was started in 1982 and set out immediately to reverse engineer IBM’s BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) in order to produce its own IBM “clone”. Soon it had developed its own microcomputer that would run the same software as the IBM PC. Compaq achieved remarkable sales of $111 million in its first year and went on to become a Fortune 500 Company.[7] Meanwhile, Lotus 1-2-3 became the most popular PC software program sold throughout the 1980s. Not unrelated, Bill Gates was on his way to becoming the richest man in the world as he made money off both the OS for the IBM PC but also each of the clones that used Microsoft’s operating system.

The personal computer was fast becoming a popular icon. By 1982 the sales of the Apple II were strong and the IBM PC was quickly gaining a piece of the rapidly growing market share. Furthermore, other companies were looking to compete and by the end of the year over 5.5 million personal computers were being used as Atari, Commodore, Compaq, Osborne, Sinclair, Tandy Radio Shack, and Texas Instruments each offered their own models for sale.[8] Another important factor for the personal computer’s popularity was its new data communication capability. Hayes successfully marketed a 1200bps modem, allowing computer users to access information services like Compuserve, Lockheed, and The Well.

The new PCs were so successful that TIME magazine decided to honor them. Originally it planned to name Steve Jobs as its “Man of the Year”. But because sales of other PCs were rising so dramatically, they changed their mind. Instead, in a January 1983 issue, TIME decided to name the “Personal Computer” its “Machine of the Year”. Although the magazine’s yearly acknowledgement generally goes to real people and was originally scheduled to go to Apple’s Steve Jobs, the dramatic sales of the IBM PC at the end of the year convinced them to change their minds.


[1] Computer: A History of the Information Machine. p. 260.
[2] Apple statistics from Rose, Frank (1989) East of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer. NY: Viking Penguin Group. p.47. VisiCalc information from Jones Telecommunications & Multimedia Encyclopedia at, accessed on October 24, 2001.
[3] This is a term from the documentary, Triumph of the Nerds that played on PBS during 1996.
[4] Freiberger, P. and Swaine, M. (2000) Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. Second Edition. NY: McGraw-Hill. p. 338-344. This section contained biographical information on Mitch Kapor and the beginnings of Lotus 1-2-3
[5] Information on IBM PC release from Michael J. Miller’s editorial in the September 4, 2001 issue of PC MAGAZINE dedicated to the PC 20th anniversary.
[6] Information on Kapor and Lotus from the (2002) Computing Encyclopedia. Volume 5: People. Smart Computing Reference Series. p. 128.
[7] Information on Compaq from (2002) Computing Encyclopedia. Volume 5: People. Smart Computing Reference Series. p. 38.
[8] Number of PCs in 1982 was accessed on December 10, 2001 from:



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.

Digital Spreadsheets – Techno-Epistemological Power over People and Resources

Posted on | September 27, 2018 | No Comments

In previous posts, I wrote that digital spreadsheets had emerged as a constitutive technology that can shape perceptions, organize resources, and empower control over the lived experiences of people and the dynamics of social organizations. In this post, I look at how communicative, command, and cultural dynamics provide an important context for the use of spreadsheets and the production of power within various organizations. Spreadsheets are used in many ways in an organization and by many people. Who can use the spreadsheet? Who can enter information? Who can make decisions based on that information?

Understanding spreadsheets helps us see how they work in organizations and how they are implicated in the reproduction of their information practices and institutional memories over time. I previously described the different media components of the spreadsheet that come together to create the gridmatic framework that registers, classifies, and identifies new conceptual understandings of organizational dynamics. These institutions or collectivities can be a neighborhood coffee shop or a global corporation; they can be a local Girl Scout Chapter or an international NGO.

Spreadsheet use is a techno-epistemological practice that alters the structural reality of the organization and operates in the enabling and constraining aspects of its operations. They combine media and computational capabilities in ways that conceptualize organizational realities by inventorying and tracking resources, providing comprehensive schematic views, and facilitating managerial decision-making by modeling situations and providing “what-if” scenarios. Techno-epistemological practice is the production of knowledge or justified belief. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to know something? What gives spreadsheet knowledge its validity?

Spreadsheets are noted for their ease of use and a familiar tabular visual format for organizing and presenting information. Its central technology is the list, which has a long history of being integral to the management of palaces, temples, and armies.[1] Its table structure adds additional dimensions by combining columns and rows of lists that intersect at individual cells. The tabular grid of cells enhances the viewing and structuring of data values by using labels and annotations. Additionally, the computational capabilities of the spreadsheets connecting groups of cells and the low levels of competency needed for formulaic programming enhance their organizational effectiveness.[2]

For my analysis of spreadsheet power, I have often drawn on the work of Anthony Giddens, particularly his theory of “time-space power” that has information management and communication at its core as they “stretch” social institutions over durational time and geographic space. He identified three structural properties that work together to provide the cohesion institutions need to maintain themselves and grow over time. These are signification (meaning), domination (power) and legitimation (sanction).[3] An organizational agent utilizes these structures, called modalities, for social and operational interactions – communication and interpretive scheming; facilitation and provisioning; as well as; norms, shared values and proscriptions. Giddens sometimes uses the term “discipline” that resonates better with what I’m trying to argue than “domination,” so I will often use the latter term.

Gidden’s “duality of structure” describes some of the limits and possibilities of human action in a social context. The structure defines both rules and resources for the human operative as well as constraints and enabling factors. It acknowledges the knowledge-ability of the agent as well as the limits of rationality.

These structures simultaneously enable systems of comprehension and action for organizational agents. Together these structures often provide overlapping systems of cognition that form the communicative, command, and cultural dynamics of modern organizations. When spreadsheets are integrated into the organizations, they become implicated in the complex workings of these structural properties and, subsequently, they propel social organizations through time and across spatial dimensions, or what Giddens calls “time-space power.”


For the most part, my analysis of the spreadsheet has focused on signification. Words, list-making, table construction, and algorithmic formulations create points and grids of cognitive significance that produce the intelligibility of the spreadsheet. Each representation is structured by their own sets of rules and dynamics. Writing uses phonographic lettering (or ideographic in the case of Chinese and Japanese Kanji) systems with words and sentences organized by grammar and syntax.[4] The list is simple but profound – it is a non-syntactic ordering system that can be combined with columns to organize classification systems of major consequence. Tables create flexible grids of meaning that can show patterns, relationships, and connections.

Likewise, the placement system of numbers and the role of zero in a base-10 positional system helps organize accounting and financial systems. Indo-Arabic numerals standardized a book-keeping and calculative system that structured organizational dynamics and propelled global capitalism.


How does the spreadsheet work within an organizational context? How are spreadsheets connected to the power dynamics of a modern organization? The notion of power is complex, but as Giddens argues, it is key to structuring and stretching organizations over time and across spatial distances. Power operates to ensure the repetition and expansion of institutional practices and/or to intervene to create changes and disrupt an organization. It has a transformative capacity, sometimes enabling, and sometimes dominating. What conditions provoke which transformations? Budgets, in particular, work to organize resources in an organization, and the PC-based spreadsheet made it easier to enter data and change information to suit different goals.

Giddens emphasizes that control over resources is one key to power in an organization. Power can be authoritative – control over social actors such as employees, volunteers, inmates, students, soldiers, etc. With a spreadsheet, each person is identified, registered, classified, and associated directly with responsibilities, eligibilities, and accountability. Power can also be allocative – control over the distribution of material resources such as computer equipment, vehicles, office supplies, etc. Control may be a strong term, depending on the institution; administering, coordinating, or leading are some other terms that may be useful to understand how spreadsheets help manage authoritative and allocative resources.

Authoritative power defines the capability of agents to manage the social environment of the organization through a combination of disciplinary and motivational practices. Disciplinary power is enhanced by the spreadsheet in that information-keeping is simplified and visually expressive. Spreadsheet information is usually abbreviated (as opposed to the file), and situationally limited and organized with comparison with other personnel in mind. For example, as I coordinate teaching schedules, the spreadsheet lists courses, times, days, and instructors. Take this satirical quote from Colm O’Regan, an Irish stand-up comedian and writer:

    As much as oil and water, our lives are governed by Excel. As you read these lines somewhere in the world, your name is being dragged from cell C25 to D14 on a roster. Such a simple action, yet now you’ll be asked to work on your day off. It is useless to protest. The spreadsheet has been printed – the word made mesh.

Spreadsheets can provide a surveillance function when tracking detailed information on performances and can be used to compare different workers, students, patients, etc. Spreadsheets can also “organize the time-space sequencing” of events and actions when organized as time-tables. Contrarily, spreadsheets can be organized to monitor accomplishments and assign monetary or other awards.

The other category of resource power, allocative, involves control over material objects and goods. Allocation has to do with the distribution of resources, and provides a key nexus of power in organizations when only certain individuals are empowered to use or apportion resources. Think of a military structure where the chain of command signifies the power to assign duties to subordinates or allocate provisions such as food, water, and ammunition to different units. The development of different types of barcodes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies are ways modern information systems are used to track resources and integrated right into spreadsheet formulas.

It is no accident that the privatization era emerged concurrently with the spreadsheet. While a number of historical forces converged to facilitate the mass transfer of public wealth into private hands, the spreadsheet became the enabler – listing, commodifying, and valuing resources. The transition of government-owned telecommunications systems or Post, Telephone and Telegraph organizations (PTTs) into state-owned enterprises and finally into publicly-listed corporations required the identification and inventorying of assets such as copper cable lines, telephone poles, and maintenance trucks.

Spreadsheets provided an extraordinary new tool to cognize and help control the resources of an organization, including its people. It is useful to include an analysis of power when examining the spreadsheet and its use in organizations as it is involved with both the control of authoritative and allocative resources and their implication in the reproduction or transformation of organizational routines.


The third structural property for social interaction, legitimation, deals with the norms or sanctions that operate within an institution. Giddens emphasizes that human action is crucial in the enactment of organizational structures. Their social identities and organization status emerge out of the interplay between signification, domination and legitimation in a process he calls “positioning.” Legitimation deals with moral constitution of the organization, its rights, its values, its standards, its obligations. It defines codes of conduct such as appropriate dress and way people are addressed.

Human actors negotiate their situation with their own knowledge and skills sets and the organizational contexts that provide the “rules” for appropriate actions and behaviors. Agents draw on stocks of knowledge gathered over time via memory, social cues, and signified regulations to inform him or herself about what is acceptable action. They anticipate the rewards of that action by considering the external context, conditions, and potential results of that action and its time-space ramifications. They learn to work within the guidelines of the organization, how to do the jobs they are assigned and how to read the political dynamics.

Different organizations have varying criteria for success and sanction. Success generally relies on some measure of competence while sanction refers to both the constraining and enabling aspects of authoritative power and involves permissions and penalties. What behaviors will be encouraged or penalized? What sets of values are rewarded? Who will be held accountable for certain actions and outcomes?

Those in the organization who know how to use spreadsheets for various tabulation, optimization, and simulation purposes in support of decision making have a decided advantage. Spreadsheets have been acknowledged for their support in managerial success, primarily because of their ability to model situations and provide “what-if” scenarios. The spreadsheet table combines cells that hold assumptions, cells that contain tentative values, and a formulaic framework that produces a prediction.

In this post, I attempted to connect how spreadsheets work with some of the communicative, cultural and political processes that occur in institutions to enable control over people and material resources. In particular, I show how a combination of resources, rules, and roles work to structure the relations in institutions and convey important messages about the degree of power held by different people and positions. Although often criticized for safety and usability, spreadsheets are part of the organization’s information system that propels it through time, and across space. More ethnographic research is needed to better understand the role of spreadsheets in the organizational context.


[1] Jack Goody’s (1984) Writing and the Organization of Society is noted for its historical research on the power of the list.
[2] 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.
[3] “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.
[4] “Differential processing of phonographic and logographic single-digit numbers by the two hemispheres,” by



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.

The Cyberpunk Genre as Social and Technological Analysis

Posted on | August 13, 2018 | No Comments

I once taught a Freshman seminar at New York University in Information System Management (ISM). The course was introductory and only two credits so I felt we needed a focused, yet comprehensive set of analytical concepts to shape our discussions and assignments about ISM in the modern world. I decided to use the “cyberpunk” genre (a subgenre of science fiction) to look at the relationship between current digital technologies and the types of societies they were engendering.

Frances Bonner’s “Separate Development: Cyberpunk in Film and TV” in Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of the Narrative HAL-ICON(1992) pointed to cyberpunk’s “…frenetic pace, the excess of information, the inverted millenarianism (figured especially in various forms of decay) and the concentration on computers, corporations, crime, and corporeality–the four C’s of cyberpunk film plotting.”[1] All four “C’s” were integral components of the “Cy-Fi” literary classics such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) as well as films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix and the Terminator series.

Interestingly, cyberpunk has since gone mainstream and produced major blockbuster movies. Tony Stark, in the Ironman series, for example, certainly embodies corporeality with the Ironman exoskeleton, the corporation with Stark Industries, and computers with networked augmented reality. Its villainy indicts several sources including disgruntled Russians and aliens – not standard cyberpunk icons but an indication of the expansion of the genre towards “cy-fi” – cyberfictions. More recently, The Ghost in the Shell (2017) starring Scarlett Johansson reprised the anime classic by the same name. Created by Shirow Masamune, it became an animated movie in 1995.

Let’s discuss the 4 “C’s” in more detail:

Computers could easily be replaced with “cyberspace” as the combination of digital processing and networked communications provides a convenient point of departure for an analysis of contemporary cybersocieties. ColussusComputers initially appeared in literary productions as large, dominant “brains”, such as the giant computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), no doubt based on the SAGE computers built by IBM and MIT as a North American hemispheric defense system. By the 1980s, the network capabilities added new dimensions and thus plot devices. War Games (1983) drew on the history of the large mainframe computer (Whoppr) used for nuclear defense purposes but also introduced home terminals and a networked environment. Cyberspace soon competed with science fiction’s interstellar rocket-ship as the dominant literary icon.

Cyberspace is still often used to refer to realm of electronic communication. It usually refers to data stored in a large computer or network represented as a three-dimensional model through which a virtual-reality user can move. It is represented through graphics, keyboards, textboxes, and human-computer interfaces.

Corporations are organizations with limited liability. Investors are protected to amount of their investments and not liable for negligence or criminal conduct. They are designed to maximize profits for their investors and often with the ability to raise capital by selling shares to the public. Corporations often have a legal status as “artificial persons,” which gives them rights equal to citizens. This peculiar status emerged because of a legal decision called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that applied the 14th Amendment to corporations. This amendment to the United States Constitution was originally designed to secure rights for the recently freed slaves.

Corporations are prevalent icons in the cyberfiction genres. Intelligent buildings such as Network XXIII’s headquarters in Max Headroom or DieHard‘s Nakatomi Tower represent the phallic connotation of corporate vitality. In the age of the ethereality of electric digital money, the marble and steel highrise is the material representation of modern power. In the theological context, where the power is arranged hierarchically, height attains a spiritual significance. In “real” life, the corporate Majestic Tower in Wellington, New Zealand was built next to St. Mary’s Catholic church and given a mocking halo of lights as the country’s elite embraced a new corporate mentality. Corporations are often represented through icons such as skyscrapers, board rooms, logos, AIs, stock prices, ticker tapes, executives.

Criminality is a standard literary device that was successfully applied to the cyberpunk genre. Known historically in crime fiction and especially for its use in the gangster genre. The gangster as a product of the new urban civilization confronted the contradictions of liberal capitalism with its promise of a classless, democratic society. The genre pitted desire against constraint, where the gangster violates the system of rules and bureaucracy in the name of tragic individualism. The gangster character-type with its propensity towards dramatic action and individualistic profiteering has long been a vehicle for politicizing capitalism’s perennial problems — alienation, debt, greed, poverty, and unemployment. While most cyberfiction reifies the individual neo-liberal hacker and “his” struggle against officialdom, its more politicized forms point to skill base and capital investment required of high tech corporate espionage. Criminality in fiction is often represented by icons such as dress, weapons, language, violence, bling, computer hacking, and mug shots.

Corporeality is one of the most intriguing and under researched areas of the cyberfiction domain. What is the relationship between human bodies and technologies? How do technological developments augment or replace the human body. How can the body be bio-engineered? How can the body be commoditized? Drugs, implant devices, and external aids such as eyeglasses and hearing aids are some of the ways technology has been used to augment or control the human body. Cybernetic organisms, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborgs” and Tim Luke’s “Humachines” constantly test the boundaries of what we consider human and what we consider machine. Corporeality is often represented by icons such as mind-body and other interfaces, drugs, and interchangeable body parts.

Bonner suggested that narratives can be categorized as “cyberpunk” when they include some combination of computers, corporations, crime, and corporeality.[2] The 4 Cs of cyberpunk genre analysis provides categories to examine the technological, economic, medical and legal issues facing modern societies. They can guide the explorations of not only various imagined futures but the types of visual and auditory techniques that shape our mental constructions of worldly environments and possible speculative outcomes of current trajectories.


[1] Frances Bonner’s Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of the Narrative (1992) (Slusser, G. and Shippey, T. eds. Athens: University of Georgia Press)
[2] ibid, p. 191.



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.

Java Continues to be the Most Popular Programming Language

Posted on | May 31, 2018 | No Comments

It has been a while since I reviewed the most popular programming languages. The top 10 most popular programming languages according to the statistics gathered for the TIOBE Index for May 2018 are:

  1. Java
  2. C
  3. C++
  4. Python
  5. C#
  6. Visual Basic .Net
  7. PHP
  8. Javascript
  9. SQL
  10. Ruby
  11. R

The TIOBE Index uses several search engines to calculate the programming languages in which most lines of code have been written over the course of a month. In first place is the Java language that was developed by Oracle’s subsidiary Sun Microsystems in the mid-1990s.

Java was developed for interactive TV and mobile devices but found a more immediate home in the emerging World Wide Web. Sun had open-sourced the Java language under the GNU General Public License (GPLv2) in November 2006, so anyone else could copy and use its code. Java has consistently been in the top 5 programming languages for the last 15 years as has C and C++.

Java was a source of contention between Oracle and Google due to its influence on the Android operating system. Oracle claimed Google had infringed its Java copyright by using 11,500 lines of its code in its Android operating system. In 2016 Google won the Android case that protected the idea of “fair use” for APIs (application programming interfaces). The news was welcomed by developers who rely on access to open-source APIs to develop various services.

Java is valuable for developing apps in Android and is also popular in the financial field for electronic trading, confirmation, and settlement systems. Big Data applications like Hadoop, ElasticSearch, and Apache’s Java-based HBase also tend to use Java. It is also preferred for artificial intelligence (AI), expert systems, natural language, and neural network applications, mainly because of the availability of Java code bases and Java Virtual Machine (JVM) as a computing environment. It is also used for developing driverless car technology. Java tends to safer, more portable, and easier to maintain than other C languages.

Large organizations tend to use Java more than smaller, start up companies. If you want to work in start-up locations like San Francisco or Austin, Texas you might want to learn Python or a variation of Javascript. Seriously consider Java if you want to be employed in major cities with a high concentration of corporations, government agencies or research institutes.

Having said this, programming languages like C++ and Python continue to be popular. Python is probably the easiest to learn and is popular with Google Chrome and YouTube. Here are some other indexes that monitor the use and popularity of computer programming languages.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand, and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas where he keeps his American home. He spent 9 years as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

YouTube Meaning-Creating Practices

Posted on | May 28, 2018 | No Comments

Youtube has emerged as the primary global televisual medium, attracting about 1.3 billion viewers from countries around the world with over 5 billion videos watched every day. People suck up some 3.25 billion hours of YouTube videos each month and over ten thousand Youtube videos generated over 1 billion views since they were posted. Youtube contents range from homemade DIY videos to professional high definition television productions.

Youtube also provides opportunities for new publishers or “vloggers” covering a wide range of topics. Together, the world’s 10 highest-paid YouTube stars made $127 million in the year between June 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017, almost double the year before.

One big star to emerge on YouTube is Daniel Middleton (DanTDM) who made US$16.5 million last year. Middleton is a British professional gamer, and his videos primarily cover games like Minecraft, Plants vs. Zombies, and other favorite games that DanTDM’s primary audience, young kids, enjoy. Here he reviews the massive hit called Fortnite.

What makes DanTDM’s YouTube videos successful? What does he do to keep the viewer’s interested in his content and what keeps his audience coming back for more? How does he create entertainment and meaning for those who watch his show?

This series of posts will set out to explore a crucial relationship in (digital) media studies – between cultural/technical production practices and the meanings and feelings that are produced by those practices. Media production involves a combination of equipment and processes to capture and construct various images, edit sequences, and integrate audio and sound effects to produce specific results. Can we use some of the same analytical techniques to “interrogate” YouTube channels?

A good deal of related work has been done on television and film content. By exploring camera shots: close-ups, zooms, pans, shot composition, as well as montage: cutting rates, parallel editing, reaction shots, wipes, etc., important meaning-making practices can be discerned in the realm of YouTube videos.

Social media apps like YouTube present significant new complications in understanding the power of the global mediasphere. One area of concern are the metrics associated with YouTube. Ratings were always a significant part of television services to determine the value of programming. Youtube measures “views” and adds likes, dislikes, shares, playlisting, and subscribers to measure the credibility and commercial viablity of a channel. But vulnerabilities in the system allow many of these numbers to be tweaked by the “fake-view” ecosystem that has grown around YouTube.

YouTube has become a new frontier for media studies. The opportunity exists now to pioneer strategies for understanding this intriguing visual medium and the sets of meanings they create. What techniques are used in YouTube “channels?” What types of persuasive techniques are effective on YouTube channels. How do they differ from techniques used in film and television? Who is driving the narration of the video and what voices are they using?

But there are broader issues to address as well. What are the cultural, economic, and social implications of YouTube? What new ideas and cultural forms diffuse via Youtube? What economic activities and opportunities are made available through the platform? What impact will YouTube have on existing institutions?


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.

Anchoring Television News

Posted on | May 8, 2018 | No Comments

“The news is privileged discourse, invested with a special relation to the Real.” [1]

The news anchor is a finely tuned instrument for television performance. Unlike print journalism where disembodied letters of information suggest an objective third person, the televisual anchor is intimate and direct. They lead the viewer through the news while “anchoring” their attention to specific topics. The anchor anchors meaning. The anchor fixes meaning, in the sense that connections are made and reinforced through the credibility of the speaker. The anchor emphasizes what’s important, and what is to be dismissed or ignored.

He or she, or both, believe in the news, and that makes all the difference. Groomed and conditioned into the voice of authority, the anchor trades in the currency of assurance and credibility.

As the anchor is a guest into the homes and offices of the viewer, they must be trustworthy, well groomed, appropriately dressed, and present the sufficient manners appropriate to such an intrusion. But as they make themselves at home, anchors engage in light banter, laughing and joking with each other, including the viewer, albeit vicariously, in their community.

The anchor pulls the viewer into the hyper-real globe of television news and establishes the link between the world and its representation. As surveillance of the world is one of the key aspects of mass media, the viewer is transported around the world, peeking in on floods and coups, hurricanes and elections, earthquakes and ethnic cleansings. The viewer is included in the sphere of politics and economics.

When the anchor reads the news, computer graphics are often used. In particular, charts give a dynamic, historical validity to the news. A graph of a company’s share price tracked over the last month gives an empirical rhetoric to the argument. A three-month chart of a company’s stock price, for example, reconfirms the anchor’s argument about the relative strength or weakness of that company.

This post introduced some aspects of a formalistic analysis of television news. By examining the “anchor” of TV news, it suggests that television news has rhetorical dimensions that influences business decisions, government policies, and personal world-views.



[1] Morse, M. (1986) “The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition. In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. (ed.) Tania Modleski.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand, and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas where he keeps his American home. He spent 9 years as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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