The seductive, science fictional power of spreadsheets

Maybe the map IS the territory?

Cory Doctorow
10 min readApr 29


A Lotus 1–2–3 spreadsheet with green-on-black, low-res type; its center has an irregular vignette revealing a space station.

Tomorrow (Apr 30) at 2PM, I’ll be at the San Francisco Public Library with my new book, Red Team Blues, hosted by Annalee Newitz.

This week, John Scalzi was kind enough to let me write a guest-editorial for his Whatever blog about the themes in my new crime technothriller, Red Team Blues; specifically, about the ways that spreadsheets embody the power and the pitfalls of science fiction at its best and worst:

Yes, spreadsheets. Marty Hench (the protagonist of Red Team Blues) is a 67-year-old forensic accountant who specializes in unwinding Silicon Valley financial frauds, a field he basically invented 40 years ago, when, as a PC-struck MIT dropout, he moved from Cambridge to San Francisco to recover the stolen millions hidden in spreadsheets.

Working through this book — and its two sequels, which travel back in time to the 1980s and Marty’s first encounters with VisiCalc and Lotus 1–2–3 — I was struck by the similarities between spreadsheets and science fiction.

While many people use spreadsheets as an overgrown calculator, adding up long columns of numbers, the rise and rise of spreadsheets comes from their use in modeling. Using a spreadsheet, a complex process can be expressed as a series of mathematical operations: we put these inputs into the factory and we get these finished goods. Once the model is built, we can easily test out contrafactuals: what if I add a third shift? What if I bargain harder for discounts on a key component? If I give my workers a productivity-increasing raise, will the profits make up for the costs?

These are the questions that anyone managing a complex system asks themselves all the time. Historically, the answers have sprung from intuition, from fingerspitzengefühl — the “fingertip feeling” of how a system’s components work and what their potential and limitations are. But intuition can calcify, become a rigid set of rules that increasingly diverge from the best strategy.

By contrast, spreadsheets yield a set of crisp, instantly tallied answers to any question you put to them. Change the input and watch…



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog:; Mailing list:; Mastodon: