The Magic of Tables

Try keeping a budget in your head.

Tracking and memorizing what money has gone out, how close you are to your limit for the month in various categories, remembering money committed to future expenses vs what’s available, etc.

The stress is real. The task is too taxing.

Now introduce the simplest tool imaginable. A table. Not the kind you eat on, but the kind you write or type in. Just a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines on a page that create little boxes.

Getting all those numbers out of your head and into written symbols in little cells is one of the most amazing powers humans possess. Animals don’t use spreadsheets.

Even though we’re still staring at symbols which only abstractly represent the actual quantities of money (itself a representation of past value creation), putting numbers into a table concretizes everything. It immediately relieves stress (I’m happy just writing about it) by allowing all the moving parts to be frozen at given slices in time and seen at the same time.

Our brains can do amazing things. But visualizing the state of all parts of a system of many moving parts at any given point in time isn’t one of them.

Getting information out of your brain and into a table makes you a kind of wizard. The levels of complexity you can command with ease are mind-boggling (especially if you’re an advanced spreadsheet user).

I think double-entry bookkeeping is one of humanities greatest achievements. And it’s all built on the simplest of tools. A surface with crisscrossing lines on it.

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