Everyday data automation: the magic of spreadsheets

Jason Zanon

“In my time we didn’t depend on high-tech gadgets like you do. We didn’t need a mechanical washing unit to wash our clothes. We just used a washing machine.”

-Fry, Futurama (season 2, “Mother’s Day”)

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic but he forgot to add that as onetime “magic” drops behind the twilight horizon of our accelerating technological journey it becomes in turn indistinguishable from nature itself: just a bare fact of life, whose disappearance can scarcely even be contemplated without a dystopian turn of mind.

Robotics and automation make a trending topic today, and many businesses and nonprofits find themselves unsettled by the prospect of automating core data operations. It’s a completely understandable worry.

Yet it is also the case that we already automate data operations with such ubiquity that we’ve practically forgotten it’s happening at all. They’re part of our nature … but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t (aren’t) magical too.

NPR’s Planet Money recently examined the wonder of a humble and miraculous tool that many of us now use unthinkingly for everything from kids’ soccer schedules to nine-figure business decisions: the spreadsheet. Personally, I’m just a bit too young to remember when spreadsheets were literal desk-spanning taped-together sheets of paper requiring erasers and hours of tedium … or the moment that digital spreadsheets burst onto the scene as if conjured by a wizard.

It’s an enchanting 20-minute listen featuring an interview with spreadsheet automation pioneer Dan Bricklin.

Figure tabulations have of course been the lifeblood of sports geekery since the backsides of bubblegum cards, and it’s no surprise that spreadsheets — and the new models and calculations they made possible — have helped to power an analytics revolution reaching from big league general managers to your office playoff pool. Here’s another podcast, this from fantasy sports experts, thoughtfully exploring the way spreadsheet data automation has shaped their lives and work.

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