Pandemic Objects: Spreadsheet



May 19, 2020
Invitation of for Marie Foulston’s Google Doc Party. Image credit: Marie Foulston

Zoom discos; Houseparty quizzes; WhatsApp groups; Teams meetings: the shutdown has amplified and accelerated the use of online apps and software as vital ersatz inter-personal communication, bringing along with it senses of either vague comfort or deep frustration. Each platform – dependent on the subtleties of its pre-shutdown UX design – comes with its own constraints. These strengths and weaknesses serving our isolated state are a condition likely never once considered in the boardrooms of the start-ups or tech-giants that gave rise to them. Yet, here we are, beholden to these platforms to keep relationships alive, in a situation not anticipated by the software itself.

It doesn’t have to be so limited. With the move towards app-ification and cloud-hosting, there is hardly a piece of software out there that doesn’t have its own communicative capacity. I – like many – often find myself hopping between several different apps a day to keep conversations going among friends. Inexplicably, a conversation from someone can flow seamlessly from Messenger to WhatsApp to Instagram to Twitter to Facebook.

Screenshot from the ‘Hallway’ of Marie Foulston’s Google Doc Party. Image credit: Marie Foulston

But we’re still just talking about a handful of platforms; the tip of the iceberg of the communicative possibilities at our disposal. Marie Foulston, former V&A curator who curated the museum’s landmark Video Games exhibition in 2018, has been digging in, making the best of cancelled lectures, exhibitions, and missed social engagements by exploring alternative formats for convening online. In her own words, over the past weeks she has been helping “bring together a virtual field trip through Black Mesa, a landscape photography workshop for spacemen in No Man’s Sky and relocated a keynote talk from Somerset House to an Animal Crossing island.” Most recently, she has turned to the most unlikely of social platforms, Google Sheets to throw a house party. In the past few years, Google Sheets has proved an incredibly powerful tool in pooling collective information, and most notably to form ‘whisper networks’ bringing to light sexual misconduct in both the media world as well as the architecture community, in a way that would have been impossible on more public platforms like Twitter. Here, Google Sheets takes on a more playful, creative, and exploratory form, as described by Marie herself in this excellent Medium article. Such explorations, pushed on by social-distancing policies, suggest the potential to yield promising new techniques for carving out alternative publics and forums in an increasingly centralized internet ecology. Or at the very least, a new way to have fun online.


Related objects from the collections

Visicalc software and documentation by Apple

Visicalc software and documentation, Apple, 1979. Museum no. CD.45-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

VisiCalc is a spreadsheet application released on floppy diskette for the Apple II by VisiCorp in 1979. Developed by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, VisiCalc simplified complex financial modeling tasks and transformed the Apple II into an indispensable business tool as well as home computer able to run games and word-process. VisiCalc is recognised as one of the earliest, if not the first, ‘killer app’ within computing circles as its success led to significant sales of the Apple II.

Poster, Lord Hanson’s Spreadsheet

Poster, Lord Hanson’s Spreadsheet, 1991, Britain. Museum no. E.1823-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Spreadsheet applications would continue to drive the personal computer industry as an indispensable tool for business management in the 80s and 90s. So much so, that during the move towards mobile computing, such as with the Psion Series 3, the power of the spreadsheet was again highlighted as a key feature. Here, the poster profiles one of the most prominent industrialists of his time, Lord Hanson, and his distinct advantage of having a spreadsheet in his pocket.

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