Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Digital Spreadsheets as Remediated Technologies

Posted on | May 5, 2021 | No Comments

In his classic (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan argued that “the content of any medium is always another medium.”[1] For example, the content of print is the written word, and the content of writing is speech. Likewise, the content of the telex was writing, and the content of television was radio and cinema. The book was notable for coining the phrase, “the medium is the message,” and pointed to the radical psychological and social impacts of technology.

McLuhan had a specific focus on the effects instead of the content transmitted by each medium. He probed how new forms of technologies extended the senses of humans and changed the activities of societies. He invited us to think of the lightbulb, not so much in terms of its luminous content, but in the way it influenced modern society. He noted it creates new environments and changes in lifestyles, particularly at night. This post will examine the media technologies embedded in the digital spreadsheet that have made it a transformative technology and changed modern life.

Mediating “Authentic” Realities

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay Bolter and Robert Grusin extended McLuhan’s ideas to a number of “new media,” including television, computer games, and the World Wide Web. They argued new media technologies are designed to improve upon or “remedy” prior technologies in an attempt to capture or mediate a more “authentic” sense of reality. They used the term “remediation” to refer to this innovation process in media technologies.[2] For example, VR remediates perspectival art, which remediates human vision. TV not only remediates the radio and film but now the windowed look of computers, including the ticker-tape scrolling of information across the screen.

Unfortunately, but understandably, they neglected the spreadsheet.

And yet, the digital spreadsheet is exemplary of the remediation process. Several years ago, I initiated an analysis of the spreadsheet that focuses on the various “media” components of the spreadsheet and how they combine to give it its extraordinary capabilities. To recap, these are:

  1. writing and numerals;
  2. lists;
  3. tables;
  4. cells, and;
  5. formulas.

The digital spreadsheet refashioned these prior media forms: writing, lists, tables, and formulas to create a dynamic meaning-producing technology. Writing and lists have rich historical significance in the organization of palaces, temples, monasteries, as well as armies and navies. Indo-Arabic numbers replaced Roman numerals and, with the introduction of zero and the positional place holding system, expanded the realm of numerical calculation. Numbers and ledgers led to the development of double-entry accounting systems and the rise of merchants and later modern businesses.

Tables helped knowledge disciplines emerge as systems of inquiry and classification, initially areas like accounting, arithmetic, and political economy. Still, later areas such as astronomy, banking, construction, finance, insurance, and shipping depended on printed tables to replace constant calculation. Charles Babbage (1791-1871), a mathematician and an early innovator in mechanical computing, expressed his frustration with constructing tables when he famously said, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam.”

First with VisiCalc and then Lotus 1-2-3, these media elements worked together to form the gridmatic intelligibility of the spreadsheet. Bolter and Grusin proposed a “double logic of remediation” for the representation of reality: transparent immediacy and hypermediacy. Both work to produce meaning. However, the former tries to forget the mediation at work and produce transparent immediacy, such as watching a live basketball game on television. The latter tries to foreground the medium, especially through computer graphics. Financial news programs on TV such as Bloomberg Surveillance mix the immediacy of live news using hosts and guests, with hypermediated indexes of stock markets (DJIA, S&P 500, NASDAQ, etc.) and other economic indicators such as GDP. How do spreadsheets attempt to perceive, display, and produce reality? How do they heal our perception of reality?”

Windows to the World Wide Web

It was the personal computer (PC) that brought the spreadsheet to life. The Apple II brought us VisiCalc in 1976 with 40 columns and 25 rows, a small area that could be navigated quickly using the arrow keys. One of the first formulas developed for the spreadsheet was net present value (NPV) that calculated the return on investment (ROI) for projects, including large purchases of equipment. Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (DOS) was the technical foundation for Lotus 1-2-3 as the IBM PC and “IBM-compatibles” proliferated during the 1980s. The spreadsheet was becoming known as the “killer app” that made buying the “microcomputer” worthwhile. But it was the Graphic User Interface (GUI) that popularized the PC, and thus the spreadsheet.

The Apple Mac marked the shift to the GUI and new desktop metaphor in computing. GUIs replaced the inputted ASCII characters of the command line interface with a more “natural” immediacy provided by the interactivity of the mouse, the point-able cursor, and drop-down menus. The desktop metaphor drew on the iconic necessities of the office: the file, inboxes, trash cans, etc.(p.23) A selection of fonts and typographies remediated both print and handwriting. The use of the Mac required some suspension of disbelief, but humans have been conditioned for this alteration of reality by story-telling and visual narratives in movies and TV.

Microsoft’s Excel was the first spreadsheet to use the graphic user interface (GUI) developed by Xerox PARC and Apple. Designed for the Apple Macintosh, it became a powerful tool that combined the media elements of the spreadsheet to produce more “authentic” versions of reality. An ongoing issue is the way it became a powerful tool for organizing that reality in ways that benefitted certain parties, and not others.

Excel was the center of Microsoft’s own shift to GUIs starting in 1985. Called Windows, it made spreadsheets a key part of its Office software applications package. Microsoft had captured the IBM-compatible PC market with DOS and initially built Windows on top of that OS. Windows 2.0 changed the OS to allow for overlapping windows. Excel became available on Windows in 1987 and soon became the dominant spreadsheet. Lotus had tried to make the transition to GUI with Jazz but missed the market by aiming too low and treating the Mac as a toy.

Windows suggested transparent views for the individual to different realities. But while the emerging PC was moving towards transparent immediacy, the spreadsheet delved into what Bolter and Grusin would call hypermediacy. This is an alternate strategy for attaining an authentic access to the real. Windows promised transparent views of the world, but the spreadsheet offered new extensions of the senses – a surveying and calculative gaze. – by remediating.

Spreadsheets drew on the truth claims of both writing and arithmetic while combining them in powerful ways to organize and produce practical information. They combined and foregrounded the mediums involved to present or remediate a “healed” version of reality. Each medium provides a level of visibility or signification. The WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) environment of the desktop metaphor provided a comfortable level of interactivity for defining categories, inputting data, and organizing formulas and displaying that information in charts and graphs.

The Political Economy of PC-based Spreadsheets

How has the digital spreadsheet changed modern society? Starting with VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3, the spreadsheet created new ways to see, categorize, and analyze the world. It combined and remediated previous media to create a signifying and pan-calculative gaze that enhanced the powers of accounting, finance, and management. Drawing on Bolter and Grusin, can we say that digital spreadsheets as remediated technology became a “healed” media? What was its impact on the modern political economy? What was its impact on capitalism?

The spreadsheet amplified existing managerial processes and facilitated new analytical operations. Its grid structure allowed a tracking system to monitor people and things. It connected people with tasks and results, creating new methods of surveillance and evaluation. It could register millions of items as assets in multiple categories. It itemized, tracked, and valued resources while constructing scenarios of future opportunity and value.

Digital spreadsheets introduced a major change of pace and scale to the financial revolution that started with Nixon’s decision to go off gold and on to an “information standard.” The spreadsheet facilitated quick analysis and recalculating loan payment schedules in an era of inflation and dynamic interest rates. It started with accountants and bookkeepers who quickly realized that they could do their jobs with new precision and alacrity.

PCs and spreadsheets started to show up in corporate offices, sometimes to the chagrin of the IT people. The IBM PC legitimized the individual computer in the workplace, and new software applications emerged, including new types of spreadsheet applications such as Borland’s Quattro Pro. Spreadsheet capabilities increased dramatically through the 1980s. These new processes of analyzing assets allowed for the shift to a new era of spreadsheet capitalism.

Reaganomics’ emphasis on the financial resurgence and the globalization of news meant that money-capital could flow more freely. It’s no surprise that the digital spreadsheet brought in the era of leveraged buyouts (LBOs) and widescale privatization of public assets. Companies could be analyzed and their assets separated into different categories/companies. Spreadsheets could determine NPV, and plans could be presented to investment bankers for short-term loans. Then certain assets could be sold off to pay off the loans and cash in big rewards.

Similarly, the assets of public agencies could be itemized, valued, and sold off or securitized and listed on share markets/stock exchanges. The “Third World Debt Crisis” created by the oil shocks of the 1970s created new incentives to find and sell off public assets to pay off government loans. This logic happened to telecommunications companies worldwide. Previously, PTTs (Post, Telephone, and Telegraph) were government-owned operations that returned profits to the Treasury. But the calculative rationality of the spreadsheet was quickly turned to analyzing the PTTs and summing the value of all the telephone poles, maintenance trucks, switches, and other assets. At first, these companies were turned into state-owned enterprises (SOEs), but they were eventually sold off to other companies or listed on share markets. By 2000, the top companies in most countries, in terms of market capitalization, were former PTTs, now transformed into privatized “telcos.”

Capitalism is highly variable. Regulations, legislation, and technologies change the political economy and shape the flows of information and money. World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in 1996 and 1997 reduced tariffs on computers and other IT-related products and pressured countries to liberalize telecommunications and complete PTT privatization. By the late 1990s, these telcos were adopting the new Internet Protocols (IP) that allowed for the World Wide Web. Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks were instrumental in developing new switching and routing systems that allowed telcos to convert into broadband providers and dominate the ISP markets.

A spreadsheet is a tool, and it was also a world view – a reality by categories, data sets, and numbers. As the world moved into the financialization and globalization of the post-oil crisis Reagan era, the PC-based spreadsheet was forged into a powerful new “remediated” technology. Was it responsible for a new era in capitalism? Where combinations of media framed by the computer windows guided and shaped the perceptions of a new era of capitalism. Today, we have Apple’s iWork Numbers, Google Sheets, and LibreOffice Calc but Microsoft Excel is still the dominant spreadsheet. But how has Microsoft scaled Excel, particularly the use of lists and tables with Access and SQL language?

Notes

[1] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.
[2] Bolter, J. D, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999. Print.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at 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 at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. 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, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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