Image by Ottica. Original photograph (c) Timo Arnall.

Rod McLaren

By Hand & Brain


Sandcastles and Spreadsheets

Sandcastle Spreadsheet, in Google Sheets. By Rod McLaren

Sandcastle spreadsheet in Google Sheets, by Rod McLaren.

Ada and I are making sand castles at the beach.

I am scooping coarse grey sand into a bucket, and my daughter is patting it down. Sand castles start with digging: gathering the material is inseparable from the act of building. Beach sand is the readiest to hand of construction materials. I turn out the castle and Ada says ‘Again’.

We excavate trenches, scooping sand into a levée on one side. We build walled enclosures that become cars or boats. We dig holes down through the layers of sulphurous seaweed compost and crushed seashell until we meet sea water, which pauses before welling up, pulling the walls over itself so it can hide from the sun. Elsewhere the water is bolder, and rushes forward at the sand structures. As it recedes, it scours the sand out from underneath our feet, making us wobble.

That instability at the water’s edge makes me imagine for a moment that we are standing in a desert town, the grains of sand picked up and whipped away by the wind, saltating other grains loose, bouncing up and on in an electrically-charged vicus of recirculation, abrading the bricks from buildings, eventually leaving only a ghostly grid of mortar.

Van Gogh complained about a storm depositing a thick layer of sand onto a marine painting that he had to scrape off twice. Bacon used sand to add texture to a painting of Van Gogh.

We shape heaped piles of sand into fortifications, which we immediately extend, hollow out, stamp back down into heaps, reinforce, de-build and re-make. We draw squares, lines, grids, ‘Mummy’, anchors, boats and ships with fingers, feet and sticks into the sand.

It’s hard to make and complete any work that sits outside my job, so it has been a delight to have made so much art with Ada in the last two years. We draw on paper, blackboards, whiteboards and beaches. We paint, and cut and stick things together. We play with clay on an orange battery-driven pottery wheel, and have made pots and space ships. We have learnt to marble paper. We play music together, and how we dance.

Ada and I have also started a thing called ‘copy drawing’. We sit facing each other and, as she draws on her half of the page, I try to copy her marks on mine. It starts with measured turn-taking (‘Can I have the green pen so I can do that boat now? … Thanks.’), but she loves seeing her actions mirrored and usually it becomes an accelerating and wild performance. She sometimes hides colours from me, and often insists that we swap sides. Ada turns it into a drawing frenzy and I turn myself inside out keeping up.

The natural mode of drawing when there are two hands holding pencils is something that bounces between conversation, illustration, story and performance. We take a line for an adventure.

Sand is a seemingly ubiquitous building block: concrete and other construction aggregates, sand paper and paper-making, the foundry’s mould, the filler in paint, rubbers and adhesives. Porcelain and glass. A morse code pattern drawn on a beach inspired the barcode. Silicon the semiconductor — by turns conducting electricity and insulating — and the chip.

On the beach, the lines we drew lead down to the wave edges. In the bay yachts and power boats are anchored, and working boats commute from fishing grounds round the headland. We hold off the waves with sand walls for a while, digging against the tide to protect our fortresses, but then we defect from the land to the sea’s side and welcome a delicious destruction: we open a channel to our sand castle’s moat and the sea pours in. After London, the drowned world — you turn your back a few minutes and the waves consume it all. The drowned world, fragments shored in ruin.

Centuries before it gave us computers, sand was the re-usable medium that helped us count. The etymology is unclear but it may have twice given its name to counting: abacus perhaps derives from the Phoenician abak (sand) or Hebrew avak/abhaq (dust), and arabic numerals (huruf al-ghubar, ‘letters of sand’) from abacus.

I make spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets are infinitely extendable grids of calculatory fabric, and their purpose is to save you time by repeating and automating arithmetic operations. They are numeric descriptions of the intent and direction of a body of work, of a corporate body, or of their outputs. They are the financial part of your business plans, or the proof that you cannot afford to rent that house, or an MP’s tally of their expenses, or a schedule, or a to-do list. The grid admits everything.

Most of mine are small what-if machines for fiddling with: type your numbers here, choose these options here, see the results cascade down the screen there. Look at this graph — does it tell the story you hoped? Spreadsheets are scenario-makers.

The material practice of the spreadsheet touches accounting, statistics and programming, but for most of us it is typing lists and doing sums.

Every cell can contain text, data or formulae; every cell, row and column may be endlessly multiplied and referenced. These two qualities make spreadsheets an indeterminate material matrix — the textured all-over-ness of a Pollock painting. Or the empty space of a desert landscape in whose expansive lines could be written every story.

Spreadsheets can render scenarios with total variability, but the complexity needed to turn every product, object, idea or structure in a spreadsheet into a twiddlable dial or live display often suffocates the insight in a sandstorm of choking numbers. So they’re at their best when you have a foundation to build on — a decent number of fixed assumptions atop which you want to see the effect over time or scale of a limited number of variables. See the myriad permutations proliferate from a small number of questions.

It’s not essential to the numbers themselves but I prefer to make spreadsheets tell their story clearly and simply, and make them pleasant to look at. The grids want to be decorated.

Making a spreadsheet is very pale work next to making a product or a painting, and they remain secondary and supplementary to the needs of the actual product or business they describe. But since they are one of the artefacts we use to theorise and then direct the activity of fifteen people, I try to make them with diligence and even some craft.

Spreadsheets appear to be reliable, but should come with warning labels. They are about as far as you can get from the ‘thingful’ reality of an object in the world. Nor are they maps — any visual correspondence between the numeric and the cartographic grid is misleading. Spreadsheets are their own terrain, unstable and uncharted.

The characteristic grid-like simplicity of the view, the absence of barriers… a landscape where nothing officially exists, absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen… — that’s Reyner Banham describing deserts, though I like to imagine he was looking at a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet’s homogeneous texture and mute pliability makes it hard to tell when they are internally consistent or complete. The UK financial regulator noted that the credit derivatives markets rely heavily on the power of spreadsheets, but hinted that the presence of errors — ‘concrete examples where the spreadsheets failed’ and the lack of controllability added inherent risk. It appears that none of the spreadsheets could model their own role in the financial crisis.

This characteristic is multiplied because they are emailed, shared and often repeatedly re-edited until they are lost or abandoned.

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.

At the beach we all become architects. High tide, a critic, sweeps our castles aside.

Sandcastle Spreadsheet in Google Sheets, by Rod McLaren

By Rod McLaren.

This is part of By Hand & Brain, an essay by 7 people.
Next: Introduction
Image by Ottica.
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