The university has been restructured into a spreadsheet, an .xlsx doc that leaves the screen without warning and goes to work.
This restructuring – arranging the university in rows and columns where data can be manipulated and calculations made – allows for some puzzling promises, such as a commitment to research without researchers and a dedication to teaching without teachers. Feedback is encouraged but never enters the spreadsheet itself.
For the administration, consultants and stakeholders are the university’s essential workers – the spreadsheet protects them at all costs. Real estate revenue, military and industry contracts have been accounted for. Students, seen as clients, are lured and promptly ignored; their complaints are met with endless surveys, and their learning is increasingly outsourced to for-profit educational services. Casual workers are inserted here and there, used to console students, and write entire courses and programs without pay.
The administration blames the novel coronavirus – it says that this is the reason the spreadsheet was created, why tough decisions must be made – but that story belittles the history of this document, and the documents before it. Long before the pandemic it had become difficult to study in the university; difficult in the sense that there is nothing about the university-as-spreadsheet that accounts for study.
In the heat of this unfolding crisis, vice-chancellors accidentally reveal the underlying logics of the spreadsheet. Budgets must be reduced, savings must be made; they tell us this as they consult the spreadsheet that surrounds them like a moat. The spreadsheet contains hard data, raw data, objective truths, they say. The numbers don’t lie. But the document is as much an operation of judgement as it is one of fiscal analysis; the spreadsheet obscures as much as it reveals.
The head of Australia’s oldest university, Michael Spence, tells us that the problem with simply calculating total staff numbers is that ‘they are not equivalent full-time numbers, they’re warm body numbers.’ He continues: ‘if you literally teach the piccolo for an hour a week, you get counted as a person.’ Meanwhile, the head of Australia’s wealthiest university, Duncan Maskell, advances the case for the differential valuation of life, arguing that if COVID restrictions mean that ‘we have an economy that’s not functioning, we’ll have serious poverty problems which we all know, lots of studies show will lead to increased morbidity and mortality in society.’ If some lives are lost now others will be saved later, he tells us. Or, perhaps more accurately, let the spreadsheet do its work.
In thinking about the history of spreadsheets and the bookkeeping impulse of today’s university we’ve been reading the work of Luca Pacioli, a fifteenth-century Franciscan conventual and mathematician who in 1494 published Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita (Summary of arithmetic, geometry, proportions and proportionality), whichcontained a 26-page guide – Particularis de computis et scripturis (Details of calculation and recording) – on accounting and business methods, including balance sheets, double entry bookkeeping and many other tools still used by accountants today. As Pacioli outlined, ‘three things are needed by anyone who wishes to carry on business carefully: 1) Cash and/or credit, 2) A good accountant and 3) Proper internal control.’ The first two points of advice are self-explanatory, but the third is worth considering. As Pacioli writes: ‘With a system of internal control, business transactions are recorded in a systematic way that one may understand each of them at a glance. The way to do this is to record each transaction with a double entry in the journal.’ This seemingly benign advice transforms when, as Pacioli instructs, the business ‘takes note of everything’; every aspect is translated into a debit and credit relationship. He advises the businessman to create a detailed inventory, for
Who can say what will happen to a businessman? Businessmen operate on land and sea, in peace and war, during boom and recession, in health and plague. During all these times, they need to know the right decision to make in markets and international industrial fairs.
And from this detailed inventory comes three ‘books of account’: 1) The memorandum or daybook, 2) The journal, and 3) The general ledger. When put together, these three books should provide the foundation for any commercial endeavour, writes Pacioli. Moreover, this method doubles as a rhetorical device for justifying decisions or defending oneself against enemies, real or imagined. Like the representational illusionism being perfected by Pacioli’s contemporaries in the field of painting, these books conjure a kind of magic, standing in for, and legitimising, all business decisions; just as linear perspective becomes space, bookkeeping becomes business.
Travel now into John Mair’s 1783 treatise, Book-keeping Methodiz’d, where he lays out an instructional manual for maintaining precise records that includes a section on the sugar trading colonies of the Caribbean, which notes that people should not appear in the accounts, only commodities. Enslaved Black people become tabulated objects, measured, and valued. Like Pacioli, Mair describes bookkeeping as an ‘art’, bestowing it with a type of scientific and moral legitimacy that placed the economic and political growth of empire as the ultimate aspiration. Maskell’s necropolitical push to reopen the economy – one voice among many who make this argument – owes something to Mair. This, of course, is not to claim there is a simple relation between the two or that the experience of university work is akin to slavery (such a proposition would be both inaccurate and offensive). Rather, a question on our minds is what relationship do today’s spreadsheets, which move through the institution and in a sense become it, have with colonial bookkeeping and accounting practices, specifically those practices developed and perfected in plantation economies?
Drawing on the thought of C.L.R James and the Plantation School economists, Chris Taylor writes: ‘if plantation slavery resides at the origins of capitalism, this is because the plantation-form insistently presides over those moments in which capitalism re-originates itself, moments in which new epochs of exploitation and accumulation emerge – early industrialism, Fordism, post-Fordism. Every form of capitalist labor process bears a homology to the plantation, because the plantation is all there is.’ Today’s spreadsheets, like the colonial bookkeeping practices they emerge from, perform operations of reduction and quantification. But to only think of the spreadsheet in these terms is to miss the fact that the document is a verb as well as a noun. Like maps, timetables and ledgers, the spreadsheet is not a static or neutral document, it gives flight to a series of operations and techniques concerned with invention, assessment and capture, in need of targets, constant updating, translation and correction. To properly understand how this plays out we must stay with the plantation which, as Caitlin Rosenthal argues, gives us the blueprint for business innovation:
Sophisticated accounting techniques were not incidental to plantation slavery: the power of masters gave them power as managers. Instead of attracting and retaining labor, planters acquired it and accelerated it, aided by the threat of violence. They subjected enslaved men and women to experiments, allocating and reallocating labor from task to task, planning meals and lodging, and measuring and monitoring productivity and reproductivity.
When, for example, Thomas Affleck, a Scottish agricultural reformer who settled in Mississippi as a plantation owner, wrote The Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book, first published around 1850, he noted that his models should help to establish ‘a uniform system of plantation management and discipline that would contribute to successful and profitable planting, and to the health, comfort, and happiness of Negroes.’ His manual comprised of four general recommended categories: Keeping a daily diary, Cotton Record Keeping, Overseer’s Record Keeping and Responsibilities and Slave Accounting, and the Value of Property and Income Determination. He encouraged plantation managers to write down passing events no matter how small, including weather conditions or any incidents or behavioural issues that might affect finances at the end of the year, when the crops were sold, debts had to be settled, and budgets balanced. In Affleck’s manual, successful accounting does not restrict itself to fiscal matters. It is deeply concerned with the bodies and environments it presides over, but its objects of concern are always focussed on their relevancy to the business model – a form of orderly madness where good, responsible management keeps the enslaved ‘happy’ (and thus the master happier).
Affleck’s manual synthesised earlier and contemporaneous accounting practices in the antebellum South, establishing a more efficient and readily available model for planters and managers. And with the record and account books as proof of his experience, he was able to market his management skills as an object of knowledge (meaning Affleck could be said to have fashioned himself into a proto-consultant). As he wrote, promoting his manual, ‘These works have been in the hands of the most experienced and methodical planters of the Southwest, for several years. The demand has been steadily on the increase, exhausting the first two editions and leaving large orders unfilled.’ So not only does this accounting and recordkeeping expand to include almost every aspect of the business, it seeks to multiply, become ever more productive, layered and confusing, even as it promises simplicity. It travels into ever more minor moments of life, translating a storm or an irritable slave into a number, a calculated risk, to be accounted for against the profits, and to be recouped somewhere else. Management models are added to and tweaked as they are transplanted and taught; when modified they change the framework for what decisions are possible, and through this process managers of all kinds are brought into existence.
The capitalist plantation was organised by twin forces: the power of numbers, on one hand, and the brutality of the command, on the other. The command manifested not only as physical violence but also in incentivisation schemes and quotidian, unexceptional practices of coercive obligation. For the more ruthlessly efficient among the plantocracy, the collection and tracking of numbers and quantities in the spreadsheet revolutionised the management of the plantation by enabling planters and overseers to set the pace of labour and establish production quotas that could be continuously measured. While some enforced production targets with sheer force, dispensing, as Rosenthal tells us, ‘lashes in precise relation to picking, whipping slaves as many strokes as the number of pounds they fell short of their daily or weekly tasks’, others developed incentivisation schemes that forced the enslaved to competitively accelerate their rate of labour. Drawing on the experiences of former slave Henry Bibb, as chronicled in his 1849 Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Rosenthal continues:
instead of extorting picking from their slaves “by the lash,” some planters would “deceive them by giving small prizes.” An overseer began by “dividing the hands off in three classes” by skill, and “offering a prize to the one who will pick out the most cotton in each of the classes.” By this means, the slaves of every level increased their pace in pursuit of the prizes. After repeating such challenges several times and “weighing what cotton they pick every night,” the overseer could tell “just how much every hand can pick.” After giving the small reward to the winners, he then required them to “pick just as much afterward” or be “flogged.”
This attention to accounting practices was not limited to the physical management of life but pertains to the affective and perceptive realm as well. The science of management extends to the psychic and affective dimension of the labourer so long as this contributes to an increase in their productivity. In other words, the effective management of slaves involved not only violent disciplinary tactics but the attempt to fashion enslaved subjectivity through what Saidiya Hartman describes as everyday ‘scenes of subjection’ – the directive to dance, sing, love, and find joy within the boundaries of bondage.
Incentivisation goes hand in hand with austerity. Permanent jobs are replaced with casual contracts that last ten weeks at a time or rolling zero-hour contracts that fix precarity as the status quo. The bulk of teaching work in the university is done by casualised workers who, up until now, have been incentivised with the distant promise of future permanence while being forced to compete for access to work that is quickly disappearing as class sizes are increased and courses rationalised. Squeezed by the spreadsheet, casualised workers are thought of purely in terms of how much teaching value can be extracted from them. At the same time, they are told that in order to get that elusive permanent position the casualised worker must publish in top-tier (mostly paywalled) journals; you must teach and write courses; you must develop a public profile and be ‘seen’ in the sector; you must write a book; you must edit a collection; you must produce knowledge.
The university is, of course, not the plantation. We find ourselves following the way documents come to life and how they speak to a genealogy of management techniques. The contemporary university, unlike the plantation, cashes in on our critical capacities, celebrates our dissent, profits from our diversity. And all of these things – identities, affects, ideas, desires – must be regulated and domesticated. The spreadsheet seeks to tame that which resists taming, for our identities and affective lives are only useful so long as they can be made to produce surplus value or generate future forecasts.
In time travelling through documents, from accounting practices and ledgers to today’s calculation tools, an important event occurs in 1978, when Dan Bricklin, a Harvard Business School student, develops the first version of an electronic spreadsheet. Bricklin’s spreadsheet was submitted as an assignment that asked students to produce financial projections for numerous scenarios relating to a corporate market campaign. Although it’s doubtful Bricklin was thinking of the ledger book, he was undoubtedly translating it, this time into basic software. Bricklin named the software VisiCalc, a portmanteau of ‘visible calculator’, and this first iteration would be limited to running calculations on spreadsheets of up to five columns by twenty rows. Bricklin would later reflect that early adopters of his spreadsheet appeared as if they possessed ‘magic powers, and were able to move up in organizations because of them’. The ability to control the numbers and forecast futures through technological sorcery saw the widespread adoption of the spreadsheet in the realms of business and finance.
But VisiCalc would quickly be supplanted by Lotus 1-2-3, an electronic spreadsheet developed in 1983 that combined charting and basic database functions to the already existing calculation capacities of Bricklin’s model. In 1982, Microsoft would enter the race to develop the most sophisticated electronic spreadsheet with software called MultiPlan, which was improved with the addition of a graphic interface in 1985 and rebranded as Excel, then re-released as Excel 2.0 for the Windows operating system two years later. These developments, or what we are calling translations, lead us to a present in which the spreadsheet is found almost everywhere: sorting and classifying data, modelling behaviours and forecasting trends, regulating productivity in the workplace and the home.
With the birth of the electronic spreadsheet came the ascendancy of the algorithm, which can be defined, in rudimentary terms, as a process of computerised calculations and problem-solving operations. Algorithms enabled data stored within a spreadsheet (which is a relational database) to be instantly searched, retrieved, combined, and processed. More than twenty years ago, the media theorist Lev Manovich announced that the ubiquity of the database and the algorithm would result in ‘the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself.’ Manovich predicted a reality in which all relations would be reduced to the interplay between these two kinds of software objects:
Any process or task is reduced to an algorithm, a final sequence of simple operations that a computer can execute to accomplish a given task. And any object in the world – be it the population of a city, or the weather over the course of a century, a chair, a human brain – is modelled as a data structure, i.e. data organised in a particular way for efficient search and retrieval.
Manovich’s diagnosis aptly describes the algorithmic worlds we currently inhabit. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that spreadsheets and the algorithms that are fed into them are neutral or rational or objective. The pragmatic definition of the algorithm as a set of guidelines or rules for performing a task obscures the complexity of algorithmic operations. Algorithms do not simply solve problems in the abstract but, as Ed Finn tells us, ‘solve problems that have been identified as such by the engineers and entrepreneurs who develop and optimize the code… such implementations are never just code: a method for solving a problem inevitably involves all sorts of technical and intellectual inferences, interventions, and filters.’ In short, algorithms depend on classifications systems that have been constructed, parameters that have been set, problems that have been identified.
While the algorithms that work on Excel spreadsheets might remain relatively simple operations when compared with the machinic systems that sort and stratify massive data sets into perceptible patterns, it is important to not to lose sight of their complicated effects. In the workplace, the classification systems that organise the structuring of data in the spreadsheet are determined by managers and productivity consultants, and to many extents dissolve into the daily tasks of management like sugar in tea. Similarly, the problems in need of solving or the forecasts in need of generating have been identified by the same players. Despite the appearance of scientific objectivity, the spreadsheet is always a product of judgement: some things enter the spreadsheet while others are discarded; some things are assigned value while others are dismissed as worthless.
The quantification of work in the spreadsheet has generated new productivity techniques that increasingly centre on individual time management. Melissa Gregg argues that technologies like spreadsheets encourage workers to monitor their own behaviour in order to transform oneself into a better and more productive subject. Citing Peter Sloterdijk, Gregg argues that ‘the “subtle insufficiency within me” is made visible through technologies of capture––the film record, the relay ticker, the time audit spreadsheet. The worker’s newfound sense of efficiency and purpose prompts a need for reform and improved technique.’ Here the worker internalises a logic of productivity that permeates both work and leisure time. A line can be traced from the affective management techniques pioneered on the plantation to those that arise from the cells and rows of the spreadsheet and the opacity of its formulas and algorithms.
In the university, the spreadsheet finds its way into teaching and research; broken down into percentages, each task and activity is given a weighting and fed into a workload formula within the spreadsheet. A one hour face-to-face tutorial might correlate to three hours of total time (teaching and preparation) in the workload formula. The weighting is reduced for any repeat tutorials. The co-ordination of a course is assigned a different number of hours and marking is calculated in ever granular ways. In short, the component parts of the job are separated from each other, taken to be discrete acts that can be quantified and assigned a stable value. The spreadsheet, we are told, ensures that management does not exceed the amount of work that is stipulated by our Enterprise Bargaining Agreements. The spreadsheet upholds the contractual obligation that has been agreed upon between employer and employee, balancing it, or so the story goes. But the complexity of university workload formulas is that they vary from faculty to faculty across a single university. In other words, there is no standard for the way that things are assigned value as they enter the spreadsheet, (just as Pacioli made clear, decisions can be justified because they have been accounted for). As the National Tertiary Education Union notes, ‘without a uniform method for calculating teaching workloads across the University, it is virtually impossible to determine the degree of equity that prevails, let alone achieve it.’ Casualised workers are left with even fewer protections, excluded from the meagre affordances of workload formulas and forced to sign contracts that involve systematic wage theft and exploitation.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the spreadsheet seeks only the extraction of value. In reality, the document is concerned as much with future growth as it is with present-day efficiency. The spreadsheet births complex modelling that are used to construct narratives of endless growth and accumulating prosperity. The spreadsheet is both a document of fiction and a document of control. As we have already suggested, the numbers that appear in the spreadsheet are spurious or partial or both – a product of delusion and petty coercion, the work of aspiration rather than reality. When the next crisis arrives, following hot on the heels of the last one, the projections collapse, and the budgets cease to balance. Where the urge was once to regulate the unruliness of study into something profitable, now the response to crisis is simply elimination. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney put it, ‘the elimination of the job comes hard on the regulation of work’.
The elimination of the job – cuts, redundancies, rationalisations, restructuring and all of the other euphemisms that management employs – follows no discernible logic other than that of the bottom line. The administration of cuts is often heralded by the rhetoric of regret, with countless meetings and endless consultation periods, but the bottom line is the destination. Here the mechanics of the spreadsheet as a set of management techniques concerned with driving efficiency gives way to institutional panic. The books must be balanced at all costs, and so cuts are made with little attention to the impact they will have on the work being done, or to be done. Teaching, learning, and research are sacrificed so that the ledger might be temporarily kept in order. Teaching must now be done without teachers, research produced without researchers, class sizes increase, services are outsourced, the degradation of the student experience is re-branded as an ‘exciting opportunity to innovate’, and everyone employed comes to know, in no uncertain terms, they should be lucky to have a job. The spreadsheet ruthlessly pushes more and more workers to a place outside of, or adjacent to, the waged, and at the same time it pushes more and more students away from study through a combination of fee hikes and the systematic destruction of critical inquiry. Precarious work becomes even more elusive, a scrapyard of last-minute jobs, where working conditions are eroded and learning conditions a distant afterthought.
But if this reads as a pessimistic reading of the situation let us clarify our thinking with a question: how do we escape the operation of the spreadsheet and the way it both regulates the work and seeks the elimination of the job itself? We see the fact that the spreadsheet doesn’t account for study as opportunity. We take study to be a mode of thinking together, distinct from that which the institution demands of us. Study remains on the move. It is not the same thing as knowledge production, which by now, in the university, is trapped in the language of spreadsheets and metrics – bound to the logics of extraction and profit. Study is always already occurring around us, in this document going back and forth, in the activity motivated by a desire to find a way to share in each other’s needs and to find a way out of the structures that keep us apart. Thinking with Moten and Harney, it’s worth decoupling the work from the job. They ask:
What does it mean, then, to work for an institution – the self, the university – whose disappearance you desire, particularly when the expression and refinement of that desire is the work you do? What does it mean to work against the institution you work for when your working against the institution is extracted by the institution as surplus?
If the histories of management trouble us to ask who and what gets caught in a spreadsheet, let’s also ask how these histories tend to disappear in the making of any new model, manual, recordkeeping technique or strategy. Not only do we lose sight of the line that connects contemporary managerial logics to the plantation and its violent forms of bondage and coercion, but we also lose sight of the historic resistances and tactics against the operation of the spreadsheet. Many enslaved people recognised the tactics of incentivisation and the regulation of affective life for what they were – attempts to reveal and ensure maximum rates of productivity. Coordinated ‘go-slows’, or what Frederick Law Olmsted refers to as ‘soggering’ in his study of cotton plantations, was one form of quiet resistance that sought to defy capture and quantification. What else might we learn by tracking the continuity of the spreadsheet from one historic moment to another; by reading the piecemeal and anxious archives in order to excavate the resistances buried within them?
An attention to the histories of resistance contained within the archives of management or the logic of the ledger might help us to re-imagine the ‘general strike’, a task to be made visible in the context where we write this, where industrial relations law is stacked against the worker and the act of withholding one’s labour has been outlawed outside of Enterprise Bargaining rounds. Here the dismantling of industrial relations protections for workers and the systematic attempt to limit industrial action to Enterprise Bargaining periods constitutes a concerted attack on the ability of workers to organise on a different set of political terms. Limiting strike action to bargaining rounds limits the terms of struggle, where we’re forced to argue on the terms of the document – whether that be the spreadsheet or the Enterprise Agreement – rather than claiming a political horizon for ourselves.
The general strike is often figured in terms of a proletariat that strikes against industrial capital, withdrawing their labour in a single, coordinated effort that brings production (and by extension accumulation) to a halt. In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois expands the traditional concept of the proletariat to include the enslaved, arguing that the exodus of slaves from plantations in the South to the Union Army of the North, and the corresponding withdrawal of their labour from the southern economy, was the decisive turning point of the US Civil War. For Du Bois, this exodus was not merely a refusal of work but an act that sought the elimination of the plantation itself:
This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.
Here Du Bois productively mistranslates the concept of the general strike, augmenting it to include a class of workers historically excised from conceptions of industrial struggle. But the exodus that Du Bois describes relies on countless forms of resistance and struggle, over and over, enacted within the enclosure of the plantation itself: from ‘go-slows’ to subtle forms of noncooperation to violent revolt. It is these acts of resistance that lay the foundations for the general strike, meaning the strike doesn’t come from nowhere; it emerges from the persistent dream that different worlds are possible, and what’s more: it already takes place in all the acts – small and large – that condition and mobilise collective dreaming.
Might the very concept of the strike be further expanded and augmented? Saidiya Hartman encourages us to learn from the struggles of Black women whose labour and resistance are often excluded from hero-masculinist accounts of radical action. She writes: ‘The “everyday resistance of enslaved women” in the context of a slave economy, for example the refusal to reproduce life, has never been considered as a component of the general strike. Yet, they too were involved in a fundamental refusal of the conditions of work and intent on destroying an economy of production in which their wombs and their reproductive capacity were conscripted along with their labor.’ To define struggle in these terms is to understand the strike as inextricably linked to other forms of struggle such as refusal, noncooperation, and nonparticipation. We want to suggest that excavating the resistances obscured by the spreadsheet, or relegated to its margins, might help us to find our way towards the general strike at a moment in which such action appears to be but a distant possibility. What does it mean to practise noncooperation and nonparticipation in the context of the university? And how might refusal lead us to a strike, conceptualised, following Du Bois, as an exodus? In the first instance it means refusing the spreadsheet. Rather than fighting for a share in the structure of governance we seek the abolition of managerial techniques rooted in histories of bookkeeping and its misfortunes. We seek a general strike that does not simply expand the conditions that organise work but radically alters the ways in which work is conceptualised in the first place, resisting the pathological urge to quantify the work we do so that we might find a way into study as a shared and collective practice. As university workers, as students, as adjuncts and tenured professors, our fate is not locked into the logics of the spreadsheet and its costly illusionism. For say we refused – and therefore found a way out of – the regulatory and eliminatory logics of this document? What joy! What study!
Thomas Affleck, The New Edition of the Plantation Record and Account Book (Weld & Co., New Orleans, n.d.)
Rizvana Bradley and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Regard for One Another: A Conversation Between Rizvana Bradley and Saidiya Hartman’, LA Review of Books, October 8, 2019
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1935)
Ed Finn, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2018)
Melissa Gregg, Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2018)
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, ‘the university: last words’ (self-published, 2020)
Jan Richard Heier, ‘A Content Comparison of Antebellum Plantation Records and Thomas Affleck’s Accounting Principles’, The Accounting Historians Journal, vol 15, no. 2, Fall, 1998
Lev Manovich, ‘Database as Symbolic Form’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 5 (2), pp. 80-99, 1999
Fra Luca Pacioli, Particularis de computis et scripturis (Jeremy Cripps edition) (Pacioli Society, Seattle University, 1995)
Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2018)
Chris Taylor, ‘Plantation Neoliberalism’, The New Inquiry, July 8, 2014