February 28, 2015


A recent Planet Money episode did a brief history of the spreadsheet, using as its base a 1984 Harper’s article about A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge. 1 I think the podcast is a great intro to the history – VisiCalc, Dan Bricklin, people buying computers just to use it – and gives some sense of how important the spreadsheet was to the computer being accepted in every day life. The contrasts between doing spreadsheets manually – on paper! – and on the computer were so stark and dramatic that the typical arguments countering technology adoption got swept away.

How stark? One of the seductive features of technology is its maleability. One aspect of this is asking it “What if?” questions, and the speed at which you can do this can fundamentally change how you think about problems and solutions. 2 Back in the day even a simple question – for example, one they posed during the show was something like “What happens if we make candy bars 5% smaller?” – would take days to answer. Spreadsheets made it possible to answer it immediately and then move on to the next question with that answer fresh in your brain. So: stark.

And it so happens that I’m reading (again) Close to the Machine which has a great few pages (76-80) about the spreadsheet and its differences to the Web. Ullman wrote the book in 1997: fairly early in the Web’s life and before a lot of the interactivity that we take for granted these days, but nearly 20 years after the spreadsheet’s introduction. But I think the comparisons and her points continue to apply today. Generally they fall into examples of the tension between software for consumption and production.

First, there’s how users interact with the technology:

When I watch the users try the Internet, it slowly becomes clear to me that the Net represents the ultimate dumbing down of the computer. The users seem to believe that they are connected to some vast treasure trove – all the knowledge of our times, an endless digitized compendium, some electronic library of Alexandria – if only they could figure out how to search it properly. They sit and click, and look disconcertedly at the junk that comes back at them. Surely it must be their fault, they reason; surely if they just followed the right links, expressed their query more accurately, used another search tool, then pages and pages of interesting information would soon be theirs….

In front of a spreadsheet, however, their helplessness and confusion vanish. When users want to show me the sort of information they have been storing, they open elaborate, intricate spreadsheets full of lists and macros and mathematical formulas, links to databases, mail-merge programs, and word processors. They have, in effect, been programming.

A lot of programmers look down on spreadsheets. Particularly because a fairly common programming task is turning a single-user spreadsheet into a multi-user shared system. 3 This typically involves unwinding years of history and business decisions codified in a spreadsheet’s workings, a hard task in any medium. But I think it’s even more difficult because complex spreadsheets can be foreign to developers: they’re not laid out like a program that you can read serially, the functionality has to be ferreted out piece by piece.

But spreadsheets are indeed programming. That fact that they’re commonly created by actual domain experts who are solving actual problems (vs creating tools to help other people solve problems) should be reason enough to mine them for gold.

Here’s another way of looking at that question:

The spreadsheet presumes nothing. It has no specific knowledge, no data, no steps it performs. What it offers instead is a complex vocabulary for expressing knowledge. It is, literally, a blank sheet of paper with a notion of columns and rows – and everything held on that sheet is presumed to come not from the program but from the human user. In the relationship between human and computer that underlies the spreadsheet, the human is the repository of knowledge, the samrt agent, the active party. The user gives data its shape – places it in columns and rows, expresses the complex relationships among those columns and rows – and eventually turns data into more knowledge. It is the end user who creates information, who gives form to data, who informs the spreadsheet.

The blank-sheetness gets at the heart of programming. Spreadsheets model the world, just like software does.

Finally, another contrast to carry us out:

The spreadsheet is the program that all but created the personal computer. The spreadsheet and the word processor – two tools empty of information, two little programs sitting patiently and passively for their human owners to put something interesting into them. Now, fifteen years later, the Internet browser is the program creating the second generation of the personal computer. the browser – a click-click baby tool for searching the Web, where everything of interest already resides. It is a journey through the looking glass in the age of information: one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.

If you haven’t read her book I strongly recommend it. It’s a collection of essays, and a fairly slim one at that. Her book The Bug is also a fun one. She’s a wonderful evoker of many essences of software and creating it.

  1. ...written by Steven Levy. It's pretty amazing how long he's not only been writing, but also writing with both insight and perspective.

  2. ...which is, of course, the driving motivation behind agile software practices. And the better we get at it the more questions we can ask -- about tools, practices, libraries, patterns, hardware, all the way down.

  3. shout out to my Summa friends

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