Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL ECONOMICS, ENERGY STRATEGIES, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

The Digital Spreadsheet: Interface to Space-Time, and Beyond?

Posted on | April 16, 2023 | No Comments

“I must confess that I was not able to find a way to explain the atomistic character of nature. My opinion is that … one has to find a possibility to avoid the space-time continuum altogether. But I have not the slightest idea what kind of elementary concepts could be used in such a theory.” — Albert Einstein (1954)

As an avid bike rider, I’m intrigued by the perception of reality. Accurately perceiving road conditions, nearby traffic, and even the dynamics of staying balanced on my bike all seem crucial to avoiding unpleasant experiences. I’m also intrigued by the “perceptual” characteristics of digital spreadsheets. What do they let us see? What are the power implications of these perceptions? And, at another level, what are the calculative and predictive qualities of spreadsheet formulas? Do the mathematics of spreadsheets have correspondence with reality? Are they illusions? or do they create new realities?

This post examines connections between my investigation of spreadsheets and some of the cutting-edge theories of quantum physics, neuroscience, and how the human perceptual apparatus interacts with the world. This is not my usual fare, and it’s a big gap to traverse, so this post is exploratory and more of a search for concepts and language to frame the connection. It may not produce the intelligible results I’m hoping for, which is an understanding of how language, numbers, and mathematics operating in the grids of the digital spreadsheet are a source of productivity and power in world. Still, a few valuable ideas may emerge about understanding the digital spreadsheets and their interaction with the objective world, and possibly beyond.

Historically, I’m theoretically influenced by remediation theory, the notion that new media incorporate old media as they try improve on previous technologies and “heal” our perception of reality. It investigates how these remediated technologies converge and produce a more “authentic” version of the world.[1] Television, for example, not only remediates the sound of radio and the optics of film to improve its experience, but now the windowed look of computers, especially on financial channels. Even the microcomputer (PC), that went from the command line interface in early versions to the graphical user interface (GUI) known as WIMP, which stands for “windows, icons, menus, and pointer,” became a more rectified computer experience and easier to use.

I’ve been using this framework to explore spreadsheet components and how they come together to create a pretty incredible tool or “interface” with the world. Previous work on remediation confirmed that its objective is to examine its relationship with reality. Each component or media in the spreadsheet (writing, lists, tables, cells, formulas) introduces its own utility, and with it, a type of perceptual and organizing power. Furthermore, they pair up or work integratively to create a more complex cognitive/media experience.

To start off, the list is an ancient writing technology that has proven its powerful ability to be used to organize armies, monasteries, and palaces.[2] The book and movie Schindler’s List (1992) showed how lists can operate as a technology of social control, as well as a technology of resistance. The list is integrated into the “table-oriented interface” of the spreadsheet that displays and organizes information in a perceptual geometric space to show categories, cells, and relationships between data sets. The spreadsheet was the “killer app” for the PC, meaning people started to buy the personal computer just to run the application.

Spreadsheets produce a more “abstracted” version of reality. But do we really know what this means? Remediation involves cognitive/social media tools such as language, writing, numerals, and other forms of media and representation, such as simulations and mathematical formulations. In basic counting, fingers represent items that can then be displaced. Likewise, alphanumerical numbers represent and aggregate large quantities. With zero and positional notation, the numbers can get very large and still be manageable and manipulated to produce operations that produce intelligible and meaningful data, including information that can inform policy and strategy at the corporate and governmental organization level. The abstraction process renders events and inventories into qualities, dealing with ideas rather than events and items.

Words play an important function in organzing the spreadsheet. They provide both context and content. Lists are labelled and give context to other words and numbers. Words identify things and start to substitute for them and create relationships between them. Words become abstractions as they represent concepts or ideas rather than tangible physical objects. Words allow things to dissappear and yet still linger. What and where is the relationship between items in cells and rows? They transform data into aggregated or recategorized information.

Here, I want to consider the implications of Donald Hoffman’s theories of biological and cognitive construction of space-time reality for understanding the power of spreadsheets. First, I’m struck by Hoffman’s contention, shared by many physicists such as Nima Arkani-Hamed, that space-time is doomed and dissolving into more fundamental structures. This contention was confirmed by the 2022 Nobel Prize winners for Physics, where quantum theory won out over relativity.[3] The framework of reality sculpted by Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, and others have been incredibly useful as rigorous explorations/extensions of our corporeal space-time capabilities, but are they sufficient explanations of full reality?

Donald David Hoffman is an American cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine. Interestingly, he also has joint appointments in the School of Computer Science, the Department of Philosophy, and the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science. He works on cognitive and mathematical theories that tie perception with how we construct an objective world. His “Interface Theory of Perception (ITP)” is central to this post’s inquiry into the power of the spreadsheet.[4]

Hoffman contends that new orders of objective complexity and structure are made perceptible by mathematical computations of formulas. Hoffman argues his theory is further supported by Kurt Gödel’s famous “Incompleteness Theorem” that showed that any consistent mathematical system contains propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the system. Therefore, digital spreadsheets can possibly be viewed as an interface to multiple and successive stages of reality, including the levels of the objective space-time paradigm, but perhaps infinitely beyond.

Wolfgang Smith echoed Arthur Eddington’s mathematics that conjectured the act of measurement itself summons the quantum into the corporeal reality. Once you measure, you invoke the reality. Smith also contends that the act of measurement brings what he calls the physical (quantum) world into the corporeal (perceptual) world. Mathematical measurement triggers the transition from the physical to the corporal. It brings the subcorporeal potential into the world of objective possibilities.

The world we see with our five senses is real and consequential, but our language and mathematical models invoke the quantum world in a process Smith calls vertical causation. Unlike horizontal causation that occurs in space-time, vertical causation instantaneously links the physicist’s world with the corporeal world. But, by distinguishing two ontological planes, the lived world, and the physical world, you can observe certain discontinuities. Drawing on the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation interrupts the multilocality of particles, splits them into multiple realities, and brings them to a precise ontological place, the corporeal instrument. So, do the observational characteristics of the spreadsheet disrupt the multilocational potentials of the quantum world and bring them to an exact corporeal location?

Hoffman claims that this world is quite different from the world we construct with our perceptual apparatus. He likes to use the example of the desktop icon of a document on a personal computer. The icon is not the document. But you also don’t want to drag it over to a trash can, unless you are prepared to part with that document, and probably lose hours of work. The desktop icon hides the reality of computing devices because that much information is not necessary for using it effectively but gives us an indexical connection. In other words, the icons we perceive have an indexical connection with reality, they are connected, but they are not indicative of all the possible domains of that reality.

We don’t generally interact with the mechanics of the computer, just as we don’t generally interact with the quantum mechanics of reality. A long line of thinkers, from the Greek atomist Democritus, to Descartes’s mind-body dualism, and Alfred Whitehead’s critique of bifurcation have addressed this issue. But maps have been proven to be tethered to reality. Hoffman suggests that what we see in the world is a construction, but nevertheless, one that has payoffs and consequences.[5] Iconic representations can guide useful behaviors, such as crossing the street without being hit by a BMW icon.

So, let’s consider the spreadsheet to be an interface. An interface is a site where independent and often unrelated systems interact. They transcend a boundary and connect and act on or communicate with each other. For spreadsheet use, those systems are the graphical “gridmatic” display of the application on the screen and the “reality” they interface. Reality is a big term, but Newton-Maxwell-Einstein’s notion of space-time apply, to a point. So, the interface of the digital spreadsheet is conducted systematically to examine its power using a “formal” analysis of the spreadsheet. That requires examining the meaning-making capabilities of the parts-the writing, lists, tables, and formulas, and the whole working together.

Getting to the latter part of the interface is difficult, but starting with the former, we can explore the perceptual aspects. The spreadsheet has several media components that begin to address the rift between the objective and post-spacetime world. The spreadsheet experience is initially structured with the words and/or numbers in cells that indicate corresponding indexical and symbolic connections. The base-10 Indo-Arabic numeral system with zero used to create positional notations has been largely accepted worldwide as the accounting standard. They also create categories for lists and rows. Tables provide visualizations of 2-D matrix relationships. This critique of Hoffman is interesting, but gets it wrong. Its not that the timetable gives some indication of when the bus is coming. The timetable comes before the bus and sets up the whole transportation framework. Most intriguing is the vast array of constructions that are produced by the myriad of formulas incorporated into spreadsheets. 

The remediation contention is that the spreadsheet emerged to give us a more healed or rectified representation of reality. It does this by successfully integrating several media components, including formulas. Given that arrangement, it should be possible to continue to examine the media components and formulas as providing particular points of view that produce knowledge about specific aspects of “reality.” The components combine and build up to provide increased utility. Here, we may not get evolutionary payoffs, but power in social contexts. Formulas should also confer a utility or power that is measurable.

Take for example, the power of the ratio. A ratio sets up relationships across time and space. It is a technique that “fixes” or freezes a relationship in order to construct a moment of reality. Ratios have analytic capacity and can identify high and low performing assets, track overall employee performance, and evaluate profitability.

This type of analysis requires media strategies that analyse the components and formulas of spreadsheets as signifying or meaning-making processes. The spreadspread needs to be examined closely considering its interacting media interface and consider strongly the insights provided by a range of social and physical sciences on the other side of the interface. While Hoffman’s ocular-centric approach does not apply intimately to the spreadsheet, his insistance on a scientific approach is worthy of note and study.

Conclusion

This is a quest for information about how spreadsheets operate effectively in the world, so ultimately, it is quite agnostic about many mathematical, philosophical, and scientific debates. For example, I venture into the realms of discourse initiated by the Greek Philosopher Plato. It starts with remediation theory’s observation that new media incorporate older media to produce a more “healed” or authentic version of reality. Digital spreadsheets integrate several important media components towards this end, each of which organizes aspects of reality. The PC and its windowed graphical user interface empowered the spreadsheet to combine words, numbers, lists, tables, and mathematical formulas.

The digital spreadsheet, a visual interface, uses language and numerical information organized for intelligibility and uses media and mathematical formulas to initiate horizontal and vertical causation. The spreadsheet interfaces the conscious agent with space-time and the quantum realm to operate in the space-time reality and to “summon” new realities through the acts of writing and measurement. According to Hoffman, consciousness has an “earthsuit” (a biological machine hosting the ghost) with a set of perceptual tools shaped by evolutionary forces that helps me ride a bike safely. Perhaps it now has an additional tool or interface, the digital spreadsheet.

A last note refers to the overall social impact. How much of the social change since 1979 can be attributed to the digital spreadsheet? A professor of mine in graduate school, Majid Tehranian, used to refer to the rise of “spreadsheet capitalism.” To what extent can we attribute the massive shift towards financialization in the early 1980s to the technology of the PC-assisted digital spreadsheet? Can we say it “conjured” a new epoch into existence?[8] If so, what were the implications of this historical shift?

Notes

[1] Bolter, J. D, and Grusin, R.A. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999. Print.
[2] Jack Goody’s (1984) Writing and the Organization of Society is informative on the use of the list as a historical management tool.
[3] Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics for experiments that proved the quantum nature of reality using the experiment that Einstein himself configured to prove relativity. Smith argues this supports his notion of vertical causality.
[4] So, the Hoffman conceptualization consists of the following three interconnected theories. First is the evolutionary natural selection view that “Fitness Beats Truth (FBT).” Reproduction comes first; accurately gauging the domains of reality is not a necessary requirement. Theorem 2 is the “Interface Theory of Perception (ITP)” that I draw on here, although I find his ocular-centric (vision focus) perspective limited, as shown below. The third theorem is “Conscious Realism,” a fascinating set of ideas that proposes the primacy of conscious agents in the world rather than an objective space-time reality. Evolutionary game theory is where Hoffman stays to keep his theory in the scientific regime. Our biological interface with the world is evolutionarily gained. Our eyes and brains, for example, are designed (or purposely shaped) for reproductive payoffs, staying alive to procreate. I have extraordinary capabilities for surviving my bike rides (so far). But evolution has no particular interest in the truth of reality. Biological agents don’t need to handle that much complexity. They are only interested in reproductive and survival payoffs.
[5] Hoffman, D.D. The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes Illustrated Edition. W. W. Norton & Company. Print.
[6] According to Dr. Wolfgang Smith, the act of measurement brings what he calls the physical (quantum) world into the corporeal (perceptual) world. Quantity and qualities are real. The world we see with our five senses is real, but our language and mathematical models invoke the quantum world. Measurement is a transition to and from the physical to the corporal. It brings the subcorporeal potential into the world of possibilities. He says in one world, the grass is green, and in the other, “its all quantum stuff.”
[7] Drawing on mathematician William Demski’s “complex specified information,” Smith suggests this is how complex designs are formed. It mathematically proves that improbable events, such as the writing of a book are not feasible. He explains, “A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex. A long sentence of random letters is complex without being specified. A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified.” Unfortunately, Demski was embraced by “intelligent design” movement that ultimately caused him much distress and hampered his career succes.
[8] I start to use term like “summon,” “conjure,” and “evoke” as they have a mystical, almost magical resonance. It is on purpose, but not without recognizing a potential cost in terms of acceptability and viability. There is also a touch of numeromancy and even numerology here that I want to avoid.

I’ve often approached spreadsheets from what I call a techno-epistemological inquiry. It recognizes the unique knowledge-producing capabilities that emerged with digital technologies, particularly databases and spreadsheets. This strategy has been influenced by post-structuralism and “deconstruction” methods that expose the instability of meaning and how power centers in society use language and other signifying practices to intercede to produce and fix meaning.For example, VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 began to be used in the early 1980s financial revolution to perform complex business calculations and interact with the data to evaluate different scenarios. Digital spreadsheets allowed financial analysts to inventory and value the assets of corporations and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Subsequently, the information could be used to borrow money and take over other businesses, as well as enable government agencies and SOEs to be privatized and sold in global capital markets.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2023, April 16). The Digital Spreadsheet: Interface to Space-Time and Beyond? apennings.com https://apennings.com/technologies-of-meaning/the-digital-spreadsheet-interface-to-space-time-and-beyond/

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Although his major focus is on ICT, he sometimes teaches quantum theory in his introduction to science and technology class. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught comparative political economy, digital economics and traditional macroeconomics. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.

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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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