Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Lotus Spreadsheets – Part 4 – Symbols and Lists as Administrative Technologies

Posted on | February 14, 2015 | No Comments

Spreadsheets like Lotus 1-2-3 were designed to facilitate organizational coordination and activity by setting up relationships between symbolic and material resources. Using a grid structure, spreadsheets achieve their efficacy by combining the following components:

  1. symbolic representation;
  2. lists;
  3. tables;
  4. cells and;
  5. formulas.

In this post I will examine how the first two components, symbolic representations and lists, have developed as epistemological technologies that organize administrative knowledge and came together to make the spreadsheet useful. In a future post I will examine tables, cells, and formulas.

Writing processes using letters and numbers have been historically potent technologies involved in actively constituting business and other social formations through symbolic representation. Letters representing sounds and ideographic characters representing concepts were crucial inventions for managing bureaucracies and facilitating trade relations. By capturing the sounds of oral language with written marks, conceptual understanding could be represented, stored, and communicated in new ways. Writing came to be a trusted system for registering and categorizing facts and truth.

Historically, this was not always the case. Symbolic representation achieved credibility in the West through a long process that had mercantile writing at its core. Accounting methods originating in the 13th century that turned narratives into written and numerical facts helped create what Mary Poovey called an “epistemological revolution.” This included not only capitalism, but the rise of the modern state and the gradual acceptance of the scientific method and “positive” facts.

This worldview, often called positivism or empiricism, unlike theology, privileged the development of facts and knowledge based on sensory experience that could be verified by logic, mathematics, or science. The spreadsheet requires the ability to symbolically itemize facts in phonographic (sound), ideographic, or numerical form and organize them spatially in columns and rows to create additional significance.

Lists have been an especially potent visualization tool. “List” is both a noun and a verb; a thing as well as a process. The list emerged as a decontextualized, verbless use of words that nevertheless provided a list_expensespowerful technique for historically managing temples, palaces, and eventually the modern corporation. Lists create boundaries that both distinguish individual entries within the list, as well as separate its items from those on the outside. Lists organize meaning in new ways. They establish classifications and relationships between previously disparate items.

Listing encourages an interrogation. This process encourages analysis of the list’s entries, either individually and/or as a group, allowing operations that may reveal new summations and taxonomies. Hobart and Schiffman reinforced this view, “In contrast to the flow of speech, lists create boundaries, which both distinguish the individual entries within the list, and separate all its items from those outside. These internal and external boundaries encourage the scrutiny of its entries, individually and as a group, revealing the possibility of new classifications.”[1]

Jack Goody divided lists into three different categories: retrospective (inventory), prescriptive (shopping), and lexical. The retrospective or inventory list was used mainly for administrative purposes to keep track of things.[2] The property of an estate, for example, would have jewels, cattle and other animals, an itemization of foodstuffs paid or owed taxes. etc. Lists helped keep records for the monarchy: treasury, soldiers, armaments, nobles and their kin. It was also a key technology for the bureaucracies of the emerging system of nation-states that developed a keen interest in tallying the population and its characteristics. Lists were also kept by cleric-scientists who began the recording of natural facts: astronomical events, climate factors, wild animals, etc.

For merchants, the inventory list became an indispensable component of double-entry bookkeeping, an accounting system that helped lay the practical and ideological foundation for modern capitalism. While Luca Pacioli, a mathematician turned Franciscan monk, is credited with popularizing the technique around 1494. It was developed over hundreds of years by merchants in Venice and around the Mediterranean. The first recorded examples date to around 1300. It involves several measures starting with a list of short narratives describing a transaction, a debt, a loan. Several other steps resulted in the reduction to numerical monetary figures under two categories, debits and credits. Finally, at the end of the day (or week) a tally of the two lists needed to be equal.

Goody’s other two list types are the prescriptive lists; basically to-do lists, like a shopping list. This is a series of recorded things to be done or accomplished. They pre-script a future activity. Finally, lexical lists stored related words and meanings like a dictionary. They were important for the formulation of various types of knowledge.[3] List technology is a crucial component of the spreadsheet. Historically, lists have allowed thoughts and speech to be symbolically materialized – to be inspected, reviewed, and rearranged in new and novel ways not available before the development of writing.

Although mainly written vertically in a column, lists can also be contained in the rows of a spreadsheet. In a future post, I will be looking at another important meaning-creating technology that shaped the capabilities of the spreadsheet. The table, a conjunction of vertical lists or “columns” with horizontal lists called “rows”. Tables added new dimensions to a list, creating new relationships, classifications and intersections that point to particular values. The technology of the timetable, for example, has made modern transportation such as the railroad and air travel possible by ordering the time-space location of multiple vehicles in schedules that give passengers choices to select.


[1] Quote on the list from Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution by Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. p. 46.
[2] A lot of my thinking emerged from reading Anthony Giddens, particularly his (1981) A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Vol. I. p. 94-95. I’m also indebted to a very good paper “un-Black Boxing the List: Knowledge, Materiality, and Form” by Liam Cole Young, Western University Canada for Goody’s different types of lists.
[3] Jack Goody’s (1984) Writing and the Organization of Society is one of the seminal books on the politics of the list.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University 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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