How Spreadsheets Shape Organizational Life: A Case Study in the Materialities of Information

Material manifestations of digital representations — as bits of a disk, signals in a wire, or images on a screen — shape, constrain, and enable various forms of human and social action. Based on a book in progress that draws on a range of examples including network protocols and database architectures, this talk will focus on example of spreadsheets to make this argument. A number of recent studies have examined the role that Powerpoint plays in organizational life. Organizational scholars like Wanda Orlikowski and Joanne Yates have looked at the Powerpoint presentation as a particular genre of organizational practice; critics like Edwards Tufte have bemoaned the dumbing-down of powerpoint-driven communication. In ethnographic work of large-scale science, my colleagues and I were struck by a related phenomenon, which is the prevalence of spreadsheets, not just as a document format, but as something that gets incorporated into meetings. This talk will show how the ways spreadsheets are designed — the constraints and shapes they offer and require — structure talk and action in particular ways that get organizational work done.

Paul Dourish
UC Irvine