Spreadsheet realism

“The spreadsheet’s unreality is dangerously doubled because, while their ordered data and formulae always comfort you that you have authored a controllable certainty, most spreadsheets are mere conjectures, provisional plans, ideas or hopes.
Spreadsheets are dreams.”
Rod McLaren, Spreadsheets are dreams

When Beeker published the brilliant essay, by Rod McLaren in 2015, I was blown away by the poetry of Rod’s writing. At that point in my career, I had a growing reliance on Excel as a mode of planning and organising of education. Since becoming Head of Department, the creation and interpretation of spreadsheets has become an important part of my daily life. I often joke to colleagues and students about being lost down the spreadsheet mines.

It’s a bit of a cliche to highlight that the ivory towers of academe have been felled by over burdensome educratic bullshit. The common cry of privileged academics protesting that time spent ‘doing admin’, taking them away from ‘important scholarly work’, is not the point of this post. It’s also not a post from a designer, with a dramatic level of autonomy, moaning about the realities of daily work, where management, accounting and funding proposals (bureaucreativity as Silvio Lorusso calls it) takes them away from real creative labor.

What I’d like to explore is the aesthetic, political and educational possibility and problematics of Excel; the narratives we tell through it; the realities we bring into being through the rows and columns of quantified possibility; a place where dreams become educational reality; a tool to distance educators from education.

I spend a lot of time discussing the ‘dark matter’ of design. The far reaching, difficult to measure, hard to control, invisible infrastructure that keeps the world ticking. We seek ways to make these forces visible, enabling us to bend, stretch and break them — allowing for new material realities. Through the willful, forceful engagement with the systems, processes and standards that give shape to our material existence, we start to understand how we make tangible change.

This brings me to my new found admiration for spreadsheets. As a designer, Excel was one of the last pieces of software I learnt to use. Still now, my understanding of it is superficial and basic. But what I have learnt over the last two and a half years, is how the spreadsheet acts as a medium to breath life into a fragile, partially imagined world. How I can utilise numbers and projections to tell narratives about a world I want to see, how I use it to convince and cajole a different reality into existence.

My first proper use of a spreadsheet, was when I started to manage the BA Design nearly 13 years ago. I was thrown into a role where I had to use Excel to draw up a timetable (I literally mean draw — because I certainly didn’t use it as anything other than a terrible desktop publishing programme). To begin with, it was a software that was used by both academics and administrators, and therefore could be read across different computers / platforms. It also allowed for the presentation of quickly editable, organised, complex information. Cells could be cut and pasted, staff could be redeployed, rooms reassigned and sessions could be shifted to different points in the curricula.

Over the decade of doing this painful annual process, I learnt the concrete reality of spreadsheet realism… the numeric, organised articulation of a timetable of activities, had strange, unexpected and often explosive consequences. Through entering names and numbers into a cell, I was allocating ‘human resources’, defining peoples working week, pacing a learning experience, making bodies move around space, causing tensions and creating new relationships. What started as a presentational tool, grew agency and became instructional… performative.

Armed with my new awareness, I started to understand Excel as a space to think, a place to sketch ideas. This is probably nothing new to the majority of the business world, where their ideas become feasible through the authoring of a financial model. But for me, as a designer, in education, it was fascinating. I could start to think about new forms of interaction, structure and delivery through the sheets of Excel. I could intertwine complex ideas, delivered by multiple people, through time, with different levels of resource, to enable different learning experiences.

However, during this time, I was focused inwardly. My spreadsheets where an extension of both my ‘leadership’ and ‘organisational’ self, they allowed me to amplify my ideas and communicate them effectively to a team of people and a group of students, who I had regular contact with. Since becoming Head of Department, my spreadsheets have gone into the wild. My reality became exposed to a world outside my department, outside of design.

Soon I realised that the spreadsheet became the way to build a case for change. It was a tool that ‘management’ understood. How any narrative of the future gets supported through and by an accompanying spreadsheet became essential in gaining agency within a large organisation. To convince a wide range of different stakeholders of any significant change, I had to have the ‘numbers to back it up’. Obviously, the contents on my spreadsheet weren't empty signifiers; I often managed to convince due to the quality of the idea and the reality I was pointing towards. But the point is; that the Spreadsheet made certain possible futures more likely. It tinted my view of the future, gave futures a form that became more palatable to some, less to others.

But this came at a cost. As I became more immersed in spreadsheet realism, the distance between numbers and what they signified became greater. The relationship between reality and the representation of the future of that reality began to fracture. Relationships between staff, moments of educational joy, transformative learning experiences, where buried under numeric representation. The performance of the software hid the nuance of the experience, which ultimately made it more difficult for me to think about new possibilities. I found myself ever more adept in my new realism, but evermore disconnected to the future I was aiming to produce.

This could just be a reflection of a person that has been in a position, slightly removed from the front lines of teaching for a couple of years. But I think it’s more than a longing to get back to my students. I think it’s part of how software and bureaucratic systems transform and mask the relationships they mediate and purport to support. It’s also a reflection on how difficult it is to ‘manage’ higher education, through the tools provided, in the structures that have been build over hundreds of years, whilst remaining connected to nuances of the greater project*. Because spreadsheet realism is merely a fractured part of a greater shifting social and economic reality**. The task at hand is to think and act through the tools that transform the potential of our thinking and prototyping possibilities, without them distancing and corrupting us from the relational potential of lived experience.

  • *by project I mean the intellectual, critical, pedagogic and design project of progressive and expansive engagement in the world.
  • ** Capitalist Realism