Spreadsheets and the Violence of Forms: Tracking Organisational and Domestic Use





Spreadsheets, media history, risk.

How to Cite

Milne, E. (2015). Spreadsheets and the Violence of Forms: Tracking Organisational and Domestic Use. M/C Journal, 18(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1023
Vol. 18 No. 5 (2015): beginnings
Published 2015-08-20


With its capacity for modelling and “what if” logic, the spreadsheet operates as a media of beginnings and possible futures. It has proved indispensable in organisational life and labour, its failures the stuff of enduring legend about the Global Financial Crisis and the excesses of Wall Street. Indeed, the “European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group” maintains an archive devoted to cataloguing public “horror stories” of legal actions, business failure and government enquiries due to errors in spreadsheet calculations (EuSpRIG Horror Stories). One such tale of spectacular failure occurred in 2012 when a coding error was revealed in a spreadsheet formulae used by economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart to argue for the implementation of harsh austerity measures following the GFC. The spreadsheet purported to demonstrate that when debt levels exceed 90% of the size of GDP then national economies cease to grow, thereby justifying the reduction of public infrastructure and services. To substantiate the argument the data mapped worldwide national levels of debt for the period 1945-2009. However, the authors mistakenly omitted key countries from their spreadsheet – those from the start of the alphabet namely Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark. When these countries were included, the data showed economies can actually grow despite high levels of public spending (Yglesias). As Mike Konczal explains, the “core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel”.

In this paper I track the history and affect of spreadsheet use across organisational and domestic settings. Expanding upon the insights of Lisa Gitelman, JoAnne Yates and Ben Kafka, who focus on paperwork’s materialities to excavate the labour of bureaucratic media, I report on the early findings of a project exploring the role of the spreadsheet in everyday life. One of the interesting threads I pursue is how the spreadsheet becomes imbricated in the contours and vicissitudes of the home managing and recording its daily practices. Although spreadsheet applications have been extensively studied in business and engineering literatures there has been scant attention paid in the fields of cultural studies, media or, surprisingly, software studies and media archaeology. In the journal Computational Culture where one expects to see finely grained analyses of the algorithms and design decisions underpinning the spreadsheet it has not turned out to be a major concern. This isn’t to say that spreadsheets are omitted from discussions exploring the materiality of digital culture particularly from those interested in institutional life and “evil media” (Fuller and Goffey) but these are often references in passing to broader arguments. As this paper shows, the pervasive nature of spreadsheet use often eclipses its central role in our lives. 

In order to counter its ubiquity, to make visible its cultural impact, we need to focus on the material conditions from which it emerges and the specificities which shape its use. So I begin with a brief history of the spreadsheet format framed by legal questions of intellectual property and the ways in which these regimes enable its distribution. We then see how it operates to manage risk in relation to personal data management and the Quantified Self both in the organisation and at home. Cutting across these various sites and practices is an interest in how the spreadsheet acts “violently”, how its banality and familiarity belie its ability to generate affective intensities and real material impact. What does it mean to talk of the violence of forms? By this phrase I want to bring to the surface the ways in which forms and other administrative media operate as tools of governance. The spreadsheet in particular extends Yates’s argument in Control through Communication that the history of organisational paperwork is a story of disciplinary systems inaugurated by the circulation of internal documentation. In the early 20th-century workplace, memos, forms, tables, and circulars emerged to produce new hierarchies of managerial control through the downward communication of rules and procedures and the upward flow of reports. Recording and regulating labour, this often overlooked category of communication was instrumental in the move to quantify and monitor people’s activities at work (Yates). With properties of tabulation and calculation the spreadsheet operates discursively, it constrains emotions and bodies in particular ways. 

Spreadsheet History

The precise beginnings of the spreadsheet program are difficult to pinpoint. Of relevance here is the distinction between spreadsheets on mainframe, timesharing computers of the 1960s to 1970s and the software developed for the Personal Computer (PC) since the 1980s. Is there a direct lineage stretching from the computerised accounting programs designed by Richard Mattessich to the VisiCalc program written by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in 1979? Reacting to such a chronology, Frankston states that “Mattessich is creating his own myth” elaborating that he “completely misses the point”: 

I don't begrudge him his work in accounting in the 60's [sic] but it had not the slightest influence on VisiCalc. It was one of many online financial programs. I worked on some systems while at Interactive Data in the 60's and 70's. But VisiCalc was not an accounting program at all, it just made it possible for people to do accounting.

This distaste for accounting is echoed by Frankston’s co-creator Dan Bricklin who explains the original name for the program, “Calcu-ledger” was rejected because it carried too many connotations of bookkeeping (Bricklin, Dan Bricklin's Web Site). Instead, VisiCal, short for Visual Calculator, speaks to its genesis in a Harvard lecture theatre where sitting as a student, Bricklin imagined “if only we had a blackboard” on which one “could erase a number and write a new number in, and everything would recalculate” (Bricklin, "How"). VisiCalc is widely thought to have been the first “killer app” in that it enabled the extensive commercial success of Apple II. 

Questions of law play a significant role for understanding the history and use of spreadsheet programs. One of the early mainframe based software systems LANPAR (LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random) was unsuccessful in its original application for patent approval when lodged in 1970. Its developers, Rene Pardo and Remy Landau, faced twelve years of appeals before it was granted in a landmark case of 1983 only to be reversed in 1995 (Power). Also billed as the first electronic spreadsheet by its authors, LANPAR invented the “Forward Referencing & Natural Order Recalculation” algorithm. Unlike the earlier programs or some that would follow such as VisiCal, this feature allowed spreadsheet cells to automatically recalculate rather than rely on manual refresh. In other words, the program would use a “topological sort” to calculate values of spreadsheet cells that were dependent on other cells for their totals. During this period LANPAR spreadsheet software was licensed for use by a number of large companies including Bell Canada, AT&T and General Motors (Pardo). 

Patent law does not generally protect mathematical calculations. Since an algorithm is a set of instructions rather than a tangible invention it doesn’t meet a crucial principle of patent law that protects creations which perform specific functions. As many commentators have noted, software occupies a curious border position: while the code is simply a string a numbers it is also executable, a process that produces or invents. Software is not included within the US patent legislation and case law since the 1960s has seen intense commercial and cultural clashes unfold over what patentability means. Title 35 of the US Code grants patents to: “whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement” (USC 35). The test for patentability requires that the invention must be “novel” and “non obvious”, that is a patent won’t be granted if the product or process is already available to the public nor if its use is obvious to anyone with an “ordinary skill” in the area to which the patent pertains. Rights were exercised for computer software through other measures of intellectual property such as copyright and trademark but in the early days of software development when Pardo and Landau wanted to register their program, code was considered un-patentable. A series of decisions by the US Supreme Court during the 1980s, known as the “Patent-Eligibility Trilogy cases”, established that a software patent claim could not be dismissed “simply because it uses a mathematical formula, computer program, or digital computer” (Place). These precedents granted their patent for “Process and apparatus for converting a source program into an object program” (Pardo et al.). Sadly, their luck did not hold out. Armed with a newly minted patent, Pardo and Landau instigated an unsuccessful law suit for patent infringement in 1989 against Lotus and Microsoft who had themselves by now developed spreadsheet software. 

Lotus 123 was created by Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs and released in January 1983 to operate on the IBM PC, its key innovations being the introduction of macros, graphical charts and database capabilities. As the program VisiCalc had achieved with Apple II, Lotus 123 dramatically increased sales of the IBM and is one of the first software programs to run a television advertising campaign (Barker). Lotus overtook spreadsheet sales of VisiCalc who were generating $12m annually, and recorded $53 million in the first year of the program launch, ensuring it dominated the spreadsheet market through the 1980s. Although Microsoft had a spreadsheet program called Multiplan, it was Excel released for Mac in 1985 and for Windows in 1987 that outsold Lotus 123 maintaining market share throughout the 1990s and 2000s (Clarke). 

Running in the background as a counterpoint to this success is the court battle of Pardo and Landau. In a sense the authors of the LANPAR program were caught up in a broader legal stoush of the time as their patent claim bounced between two opposing statutory bodies who could not agree about the scope of software patentability. Routinely, applications were rejected by the US Patent and Trade Mark Office (USPTO) and then reversed and granted by the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (USCCPA) (Magri and Ellul). At stake for Pardo and Landau was whether they could prove their invention was patentable and further that they met the statutory test for “non-obviousness”. Rejecting their initial patent claim the USPTO found that being an algorithm disqualified it from protection: 

The courts above us have consistently said that a claim directed in its entirety to an algorithm is nonstatutory. An algorithm is defined ... as a procedure for solving a given type of mathematical problem. (In re Pardo)

The USPTO then dismissed a subsequent application by Pardo and Landau on the basis that the invention would be obvious to anyone skilled in the area facing the same problem the LANPAR software solved. After years of litigation, the patent was finally granted by the USCCPA who reversed the original rejection citing recent decisions, mentioned above, making algorithms patentable. These matters weren’t in direct contention in the $300 million law suit that Pardo and Landau filed against Lotus and Microsoft. Instead they lost due to inequitable conduct. Unfortunately it was shown these developers had misled the original patent office, failing to disclose their business relationships with witnesses whose testimony they used to argue that Lotus infringed their patent. In losing the case the patent was found unenforceable (Chisum). Debates about the definition and scope of software patents continue apace. Fears about its expansion and the prevalence of non-practicing entities, or “patent trolls” coalesced in the recent US Supreme Court case Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International which considered software patent eligibility, one of the first to do so since the “Patent-Eligibility Trilogies” three decades earlier. Although critics of the decision, denying the patent, argued the judgement should have gone further in guidance on computer patents, many endorsed its continued limits to algorithm patentability (Free Software Foundation). 

Reading spreadsheet history through these legal frames reveals the complex material, social and economic meshwork (Ingold) in which software applications emerge. I now explore the consumption practices and ecologies of spreadsheet use across organisational and domestic contexts to make visible the ways in which this bureaucratic media plays out in our everyday lives. 

Spreadsheet Risk in the Organisation 

Managing risk is a central narrative in contemporary culture for financial markets, commercial organisations and government institutions. Our world seems constantly threatened by ecological, military and informational crises; our personal lives facing pervasive emotional and medical danger (Van Loon). Operating within and often constitutive of these discursive and material fields, the spreadsheet anticipates risk through its algorithmic capacity for modelling and forecasting but it also instantiates that risk with its high propensity for error. This double logic is what gives the spreadsheet its urgency as a unit of analysis through which to understand organisational conditions of labour and regulation. Recognising the crucial social and economic function played by spreadsheets, the European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group (EuSpRIG) formed in 1999 as a collaboration between university researchers, professional associations and industry practitioners in order to “address the ever-increasing problem of spreadsheet integrity” (History). 

Error detection, regulation and resolution are notoriously difficult to achieve in spreadsheet research. One of the leading reports shows that spreadsheet errors are “pandemic” since 88% of spreadsheets examined contained miscalculations. A study conducted by Coopers and Lybrand revealed that 91% of spreadsheets are in error with a similar figure appearing in the audit run by KMPG (Panko). It is estimated that 1% - 5% of cell formulae contain errors (Gabbay). Spreadsheet risk is difficult to mitigate because of the lack of definition (categories applied vary from typing errors to incorrect cell formula); differences in error detection software used; and disparity in samples (spreadsheets tested in the laboratory as against those operational in the field) (Powell, Baker and Lawson). These inaccuracies have material implications when understood in relation to the prevalence of spreadsheets to fulfil corporate auditing obligations. As Panko argues, 95% of US firms rely on spreadsheets for their financial reporting methods. Spreadsheet error, risk and misuse had a direct impact on the collapse of the global financial system in 2008 (Croll). 

Spreadsheets rarely operate in isolation. One study reports that only 12% of use in businesses is limited to a single person with 48% routinely sharing with others (Baker et al.). Since few people password protect these documents, cumulative revision is common. In fact, spreadsheet design predominantly occurs in ad hoc ways: an unofficial or beta version then becomes “part of an established business process” (Baker et al.). A vivid illustration is provided by the California Amplifier Company who was found guilty of fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2004. The financial director of the company Barry Kusatzky “hid at least $7.8 million in expenses by fabricating financial statements, falsifying the company's books and records.” The SEC found that his “fraud went undetected because of the company's lack of adequate internal controls” since the financial statements of California Amplifier were “generated from a spreadsheet maintained by Kusatzky on his own desktop computer” kept “wholly separate from the company's accounting system” (SEC). Before Kusatzky, however, there was Enron. Here we see the violence of forms enacted as corporate malfeasance when nearly a quarter of its workforce, some 4,000 people, lost their jobs and life savings in the company’s spectacular collapse. The downfall of Enron, how it became synonymous with corporate corruption, was driven by a byzantine spreadsheet reporting system that gave an inaccurate picture of capital and risk by understating its liabilities and overstating its equity and earnings (Moncarz et al.).

What this shows is that the spreadsheet, along with third party applications such as Dropbox and Gmail, form a vast network of shadow IT within organisations. In response to the complexity of financial disclosure and a slew of high profile fraud cases, the Sarbannes-Oxley Act was introduced into US law in 2002 with Section 404 “Management Assessment of Internal Controls” requiring publically listed corporations to reveal their monitoring procedures. Established to implement the Act, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) sets out standards including how risk is audited, the consistency of financial statements and the controls for independent assessment (PCAOB). Since the law was enacted hundreds of guidelines have been produced to achieve compliance. Providing such guidance, PricewaterhouseCoopers recommends business run an inventory of all spreadsheets to record file name, description, author and the “frequency and extent of changes to the spreadsheet”. Developing robust policies to guard against financial mismanagement is to be applauded. But such recommendations miss a key point about the ways in which grey literature and informal economies operate (Lobato and Thomas). With particular reference to the function of shadow IT systems, organisations may well decry their popularity through terms of use policies but undeniably many rely substantially on this media. In other words, spreadsheet “risk” viewed through the lens of management policies ignores the micro practices in everyday work cultures to which we now turn.

Spreadsheets and the Quantified Self

Recent scholarship has pointed to the ways in which self-tracking, personal data management and the “quantified self” reconfigure bio-politics opening up new forms of agency while also widening the reach of surveillance devices (Daly; Jethani; Lupton). Wearable technology, locative media and a rapidly expanding constellation of applications and software – such as Fitbit and Evernote – underpin the auditing and archiving of personal consumption, activity and location. At the same time, burgeoning algorithmic cultures and technologies are also finding valency in the workplace where productivity is increasingly measured and evaluated (Chong; Gregg; McCosker and Milne). Forming a significant node in the media ecology of personal data analytics, the spreadsheet has, again, been somewhat ignored. Yet it plays a crucial role in the governance of self as it regulates and records bodily health and illness. In the final section of this paper I explore the personal and social uses to which the spreadsheet is put for recording and sharing the practices of daily life. 

Alongside new and emerging applications, the spreadsheet is used extensively by the Quantified Self movement (QS), a community founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007 to provide “self knowledge through numbers” (Kelly). Its popularity is in part because so many tracking applications make it easy to export information in a spreadsheet or as a CSV file. Katie McCurdy, for example, identifies the spreadsheet as her favourite self-tracking software explaining how she has been recording her health data for three years in an effort to manage her autoimmune disease. In this spreadsheet she registers symptoms, triggers and medications, making the information available through the website and presentations at the “QS Meet up Groups” (Ramirez). For Greg Kroleski, spreadsheets are a resonant method for representing longitudinal evidence of personal life. Registering his time over a six year period, he tabulates it into eight categories: “Survival, Labor, Spirit, Mind, Expression, Body, Social, Distractions and Transport”, uploading the spreadsheet as a Google doc and requesting comment (Ramirez). And in his book Experience Curating How to Gain Focus, Increase Influence, and Simplify Your Life Joel Zaslofsky is messianic in his praise of spreadsheets to “outsource memory”. As he explains, “everything that you experience from books to blog posts, to conversations to recipes … any experience you have can be curated.” Not only can it be recorded for personal retrieval purposes, the spreadsheet also grows your “curating currency” converting your experiences into “social, financial, spiritual and intellectual capital.” Interestingly, while endorsing the monetisation of “experience curating” Zaslofsky distances himself from the QS movement which he argues demands too much labour in capturing data rather than living life. Instead, his method requires only 0.1% of a person’s time to achieve (Zaslofsky). 

Discussions such as these are part of extensive narratives about human memory and its socio material support (Barnet; van Dijck) together with wider debates about the institutional processes of digital heritage policy development. These conversations also feed into research about Personal Information Management which examines the software and devices we encounter and must negotiate in our professional and domestic spaces. The lessons of paper, its ‘affordances’ (Sellen and Harper) seem particularly important here as office filing systems expand to incorporate ever increasing stacks of digital and physical data. In one study, modes of caching and retrieval across the “tree structure” of Windows were compared with those deployed as “filing and piling” using cabinets and desks to illuminate the different organisational strategies in play (Trullemans and Beat). The findings point to an increasing reliance on meta systems, such as spreadsheets or proprietary apps like Mendeley, to consolidate and retrieve information stored across a range of geographically dispersed analogue and digital locations. Is a particular book or document to be found at home or in the office? 

Such results chime with the initial findings from a research project exploring the role that media – social, technical, personal, broadcast—plays in home renovation and building practices. The study, funded by university and industry bodies through the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living aims to map the media ecologies through which people gather information about sustainable modes of renovation and, crucially, how these sites are shared and accessed (Hulse and Podkalicka). While we know something of the way media, in the form of lifestyle and property TV, contributes to the meanings people ascribe to their domestic space (Ouellette and Hay; McElroy; Andrews; Weber), work has not yet drilled down to the material specificities of consumption. In response, this project, with which I am involved, is running a national survey of home renovators to canvas such topics as how media helps to find and engage building practitioners, what media is accessed to plan a renovation; what sites are used to spark inspiration and ideas; and what media is used to document, record and share progress of the renovation project. In this latter category, we have been interested to see how high spreadsheets rank – second only to photographs – as the media of choice for recording renovations. Other methods reported in the survey include sketches, videos and blogs. Although evidence scraped from a variety of renovation forums and websites indicates unsurprisingly that spreadsheets are regularly relied upon for budget purposes in builds and renovations, what is still to be explored and suggestive from our study is how these functions might be complemented by other more novel uses. 


As a ubiquitous media product, the spreadsheet contours our everyday practices of work and home. It registers our financial dreams, charts our bodily experiences and records the hours we work yet this very ubiquity can often hide it from critical sight. In this paper I have sought to bring to the foreground the many ways that the spreadsheet materially impacts on patterns of digital consumption by exploring its beginnings and historical development and by showing how the program itself functions to model social and economic futures. Particularly in relation to risk management I argued that the spreadsheet operates according to a double logic. While its software makes forecasting and prediction easy it can actually bring about disastrous consequences due to its high incidence of error. Tales abound of “cut and paste” mistakes that enable fraud and deceptive business practices causing widespread financial violence and harm. Yet such incidents must be seen within the context of shadow IT economies used by the very same organisations that would censure others for incorrect spreadsheet usage. If its affective reach is felt across global financial markets, it also figures at the intimate, domestic level as the spreadsheet is used for self-tracking strategies to capture personal data about health and the spaces we inhabit. Stitching together diverse sites of labour and leisure, bureaucracy and home, the spreadsheet has been a vital expression of social and economic life for decades. What then accounts for its relative invisibility in media and cultural studies? Part of the problem is that the spreadsheet, like email, is at once indispensable and reviled, its banality obscuring its significance as an object of study and the irritations it provokes easily dismissed as the inevitable, routine experiences of a bureaucratic life. In this capacity for generating affect and material impacts, however, the incomprehensible form, the annoying “reply all” office email and the impossible to navigate spreadsheet demand attention. 


I thank the two anonymous referees for their very helpful feedback.


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Author Biography

Esther Milne

Esther Milne is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. She is an investigator in the CRC Low Carbon Living project entitled “Media and Communication strategies to achieve carbon reduction through renovation of Australia¹s existing housing”. Esther publishes widely in the area of media history and is the author of Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence (Routledge, 2010). She is currently writing a book for MIT Press called Email and the Everyday.