Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


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.


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