Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Lotus Spreadsheets – Part 3 – Identifying the Components of a Transformative Tool

Posted on | November 29, 2014 | No Comments

As mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the electronic spreadsheet emerged as an extraordinary meaning-making technology that not only began to be used to produce constructive information, but was complicit in a new organization of global capitalism and arguably, a new rationality shaping the future of our modern civilization.

Spreadsheet applications are a foundational technology for the financial machinations of a global system based on monetary representation, calculation, and manipulation. They incorporate several types of media into a new technology able to represent, compute, and formulate new types of knowledge. It is not my intention to be apologetic for the current global economic system or even argue for a technologically determinist role for the spreadsheet, but rather to investigate the disciplinary, interactive and transformative capabilities that emerged with the diffusion of the spreadsheet innovation throughout modern society.

In this post, I begin a formal analysis of the digital spreadsheet by identifying some of its component parts, a type of Cartesian reductionism, but with the intent of showing also how they all work together to create a powerful organizational and productivity tool. Spreadsheets combine a number of technologically enhanced cognition features to create, manipulate and visualize what Jean Baudrillard called “hyperrealities.”[1] These are “the maps that precede the territory”, the diagrammatic rationalities that engender or create the territory. In other words, spreadsheets not only appraise aspects of reality, but are constitutive technologies that can shape perceptions and empower control over the lived experiences of people and the resources that support them.

My interest is not just in the pedantic issues of extracting more efficiency from labor, or empowering a corporate raider, but rather to investigate spreadsheet technology as both a disciplinary and a transformative tool. Furthermore, I see the analysis of the spreadsheet as illuminating major characteristics of the modern world order of recently globalized networks of technocratic finance. Ultimately, an analysis of spreadsheet applications should reveal and help restructure complex social, corporate and institutional arrangements.

So to move into the next stage of my analysis, I will examine how the PC-based spreadsheet combined five rudimentary components together to create a new system for inputting, organizing, processing and presenting information. This structure allows the user to create new aggregates of numerical data, new classifications and connections between disparate resources and new simulated scenarios of alternative possibilities. They are:

  1. written symbols;
  2. lists;
  3. tables;
  4. cells and;
  5. formulas.

PC-based spreadsheet applications like Lotus 1-2-3 and later Microsoft Excel combined these components in ways that structure and process data to produce new forms of meaning and utility. Information is entered and organized into columns and rows of vertical and horizontal lists. Each row has a numbered address while the columns are identified by letters. The combination of rows and columns enables a multifaceted table that intersects at numerous points called cells.

Numerical, alphabetical, and (later) Unicode-enabled representations such as the ideographic Chinese characters populate the cells and provide the basic intelligibility. The place-holding function of zero and modern arithmatic capabilities are especially important in the success of the spreadsheet application. Information arranged throughout the tables can be operated on systematically by formulas designed to produce specific types of output values. The formal analysis of the electronic spreadsheet will connect these various constituent elements with the meanings that can be created and acted on according to their respective institutional contexts.

In summary, Part 1 of this “spreadsheet saga” introduced the “microcomputer” spreadsheet application starting with VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 and how they diffused rapidly throughout the corporate world in the 1980s. Part 2 presented some of the historical background that led up to the 1980s and why the corporate environment was ripe for a tool like the PC-based spreadsheet, particularly its use in modeling complex mergers and acquisition strategies. Above, I identify the key components that were combined to create the spreadsheet as a dramatically powerful tool to itemize and organize financial and material resources. In my next few posts on this topic, I will examine the components in detail, starting with writing, numbers, and especially the power of zero.


[1] Baudrillard received some notoriety when the character Neo in the movie Matrix (1999) reveals his stash of money and data storage disks in a hollow version of one of his books, Simulation and Simulacra, It also uses his term “Desert of the Real” as a way of saying power is in the map not the territory.
[2] A lot of good work is being done on the spreadsheet in terms of risks, Ray Panko for example, has done excellent work identifying mistakes that can occur.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a 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. His first faculty position was at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.


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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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