Growing Up Under Spreadsheets: What We Lost

Human character trapped in a jail cell with a yellow pencil.
Credit: DALL-E 2

"How many of you have used an electronic spreadsheet, like Microsoft Excel?" begins Dan Bricklin in his 2017 TED Talk: "Meet the inventor of the electronic spreadsheet."

The entire talk is worth a watch, but it's the 8th word that catches my ear: "electronic."  Dan uses this word because, as he shows, spreadsheets weren't always electronic–they were first physical, as accounting worksheets, and more generally as columnar pads.  

The World that Was

Dan, and indeed the entire world of business, was steeped in such old world physical media in the late 1970's, which directly influenced his eureka:

"If I did [the program] like a map and put ABC across the top, and numbers along the side, and you saw 'B7' as a formula, you'd know exactly where it was on the screen.  Restricting you to a grid helped solved my problem."

Human computers, shortly before the invention of spreadsheets.

Dan's digital world was also severely limited: the Apple II on which his program VISICALC was first released, had a maximum resolution of less than 300 x 240.  Facing this reality, a matrix is not only the sensible choice, but perhaps the only rational one.  Which means the breakthrough application that Steve Jobs openly credited for the success of the Apple II looked like this:

VISICALC on the Apple II

This rows x columns DNA would evolve into all future versions of spreadsheet software, from VISICALC to its rival (and destroyer) Microsoft Excel to today's GSheets.

The World that Wasn't

As they say, when fate knocks, you answer.

But what did the limitations of Dan's physical and digital environment cause him to lose, or leave behind?

Check out Dan's handwritten notes--showing the way he actually thought through the problem in his business class.

If you squint, you can see a few tables of numbers (rows and columns).  But the vast majority of the document is bursting with components of spatial reasoning: arrows, distance, headlines, scenes divided by lines, scribbles in the margin, tree-shaped graphs, a seamless interweaving of math and language.  This is holistic, high-resolution thinking on display!

But because the most painful part of his experience was the arithmetic, and because of the digital hardware of his day, the world-changing invention was this:

To Infinity

Today's world offers an abundance of computing power, high-resolution displays, and user interfaces that adapt to users on the fly.  We don't explore maps one atlas page – or even one digital square, at a time.  Instead we glide across the Earth with the swipe of a finger.  We edit vector-based graphics in our browsers.  Contact lists, photo galleries, and timelines scroll forever.  We brainstorm on collaborative whiteboards.  At school, kids learn math using online graphing calculators, applying concepts learned through the colorful lines and shapes of Sal Khan's YouTube blackboards.

The infinite canvas is the foundational medium of the Internet era, for consuming and creating.

Against this backdrop, a strict rows x columns interface stands out like an 8-bit game.  Useful?  Absolutely.  Nostalgic?  Yes.  But writing low-level expressions and sacrificing our spatial reasoning to fit the constraints of 40+ years ago is also a tragedy.

If "software is eating the world," why are so many of our business interactions still ruled by software that was designed for accounting and finance?   For those internal, operational, and traditional roles, spreadsheets may still be ideal.  But for problem solvers on the front-lines of growth, sales, marketing, it's time to give ourselves and our audiences something new.