Author:William Deringer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Paper short abstract:
The pioneering spreadsheet software VisiCalc was released for the Apple II in 1979. This paper examines one way VisiCalc afforded new kinds of economic vision: how it enabled bankers to envision leveraged buyouts. In doing so, this study reflects on a new “mode of uncertainty” in modern finance.
Paper long abstract:
Wall Street lore holds that "junk bond" king (and felon) Michael Milken once blamed the 1980s boom in hostile corporate takeovers on the inventors of VisiCalc, the pioneering spreadsheet software released for the Apple II in 1979. VisiCalc holds a celebrated place in computing history, cited as the decisive program that made personal microcomputers into commercial tools and, some claim, spurred the personal computing revolution. But what new kinds of economic thinking, acting, and especially seeing did VisiCalc afford? Taking Milken's mythic comment as a prompt, this talk will explore one aspect of VisiCalc's new visual affordances: the way spreadsheet modeling enabled financiers to envision previously imponderable financial transactions, notably the leveraged buyouts so exemplary of finance in the "go-go" '80s. Projecting the consequences of hypothetical corporate mergers and acquisitions was an intricate, time-consuming task. By making it possible to model an array of scenarios simultaneously, VisiCalc radically restructured bankers' imaginative horizons. It became possible to imagine almost any corporation as a potential takeover target. In attending to these transformations in financial vision, this paper will extend current scholarship in the historical and social studies of finance. First, it will turn the focus onto investment banking, a domain of financial action largely overlooked within a scholarly literature that sees trading as the archetypal activity of financial capitalism. Second, it will elaborate a different "mode of uncertainty" in modern finance, one which relied on calculation to manage future unknowns, but where the quantification of risk was not the central problematic.
Soft Focus: How Software Reshaped Technical Vision and Practice