“the spreadsheet crowd”

I don’t intend to be guilty of what Peter Merholz referred to as “dismissal of the spreadsheet crowd”http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/merholz/2009/10/why-design-thinking-wont-save.html

I do intend to speak plainly about the strengths and weaknesses of the two epistemic patterns I am contrasting in this blog.

You read some quotes that sear into your mind and stay with you. This is one that has been with me since I read it in 1991:

"The most dangerous, hideously misused and thought-annihilating piece of technology invented in the past 15 years has to be the electronic spreadsheet. Every day, millions of managers boot up their Lotus 1-2-3s and Microsoft Excels, twiddle a few numbers and diligently sucker themselves into thinking they’re forecasting the future.

In truth, number-crunching with spreadsheets is like computationally pumping iron: You bulk up data but do virtually nothing for your conceptual quickness or flexibility. It’s an intellectual exercise that stretches the fingers more than the mind. But managers are infatuated with those matrices of laser-printed numbers just the same. There’s something comforting about them."

Michael Schrage Spreadsheets: Bulking up on data Los Angeles Times, 1991

This model allows us to understand both the power and the delusions of the spreadsheet. A spreadsheet captures both the drive to exhaustiveness (the seemingly infinite matrix to capture as many subdivisions of our analysis as we wish (yes I know it only has 65,536 = 2^16 fields, and I know people who have exhausted those meager limits and complained…), and the capacity for inference (its embedded formulae that instantly show the “therefore’s”)

Of course it takes me back to H.G. Gadamer:

“Analysis and methodical questioning tend not to call into question their own guiding presuppositions, but rather to operate within a system, so that the answer is always potentially present and expected within the system. Thus they are not so much forms of true questioning as of testing.”

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