The purpose of this paper is to provide a critical reflection on how ongoing revolutionary technological changes can extend the possibilities of accounting into artistic spaces. In addition, arts ability to protest, challenge, open and inspire may be instrumental to humanise technological advances transforming the accounting profession.
This paper draws upon the methodological, theoretical and empirical literature of accounting, technology and art and outlines a research and professional agenda for developing the role of art in the context of accounting and technology.
The authors unravel and navigate the paradoxical “in-between” of art, accounting and technology. It emerges that the transformative power of new technologies lies not only in the technologies themselves but also in their ability to extend the possibilities of accounting into the artistic spaces of visualisation, curation performance and disruption. New technologies, combined with artistic spaces, present a unique ability to open up the latent disruptive potential of accounting itself, pushing accounting in new directions towards more humanistic models of multiple narratives.
The insights of this paper are relevant to open professional and scholarly dialogue that relates accounting, art and technologies during a significant period of disruptive and transformative technological changes. This paper provides new understandings of how art through visualisation, curation, performance and disruption can force accounting researchers and practitioners to challenge the traditionally held views of accounting, opening us towards more futuristic models of accountability.
McGuigan, N. and Ghio, A. (2019), "Art, accounting and technology: unravelling the paradoxical “in-between”", Meditari Accountancy Research, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 789-804. https://doi.org/10.1108/MEDAR-04-2019-0474Download as .RIS
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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited
New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, crypto-currency and blockchain, big data and visualisation, virtual and augmented reality, social media, network systems technologies, simulation and gaming, have the ability to further dehumanise accounting, accountants and accountability through enhanced technocracy (Dai and Vasarhelyi, 2017; Schmitz and Leoni, 2019; Warren et al., 2015). However, these same technologies equally have the potential to extend the possibilities of accounting, disrupting its bounded past and pushing accounting into spaces such as art which may open accounting towards more humanistic models of accountability (Gallhofer and Haslam, 1996; Gallhofer et al., 2006; Gallhofer and Haslam, 2005). This paper, thus, aims to draw critical reflection in such a disruptive age to stimulate dialogues that unravel and navigate the paradoxical “in-between” of art, accounting and technology. That is, the type of “in-between” space that such disparate disciplines may, when combined, occupy.
Many may very well think of art as the antithesis of accounting. However, there is a growing body of accounting literature that brings accounting and art into theoretical relation (Gallhofer and Haslam, 1991; Gallhofer and Haslam, 1996; Brown, 2010; Davison, 2010; Davison, 2015; Davison and Warren, 2009; Graves et al., 1996; Parker, 2009). The majority of this work has focussed on visual-oriented theories (Davison, 2015), including a singular study on accounting and art (Yamey and Yamey, 1989), theoretical comparisons of accounting and art (Gallhofer and Haslam, 1991; Gallhofer and Haslam, 1996; Brown, 2010), style and aesthetics (Davison and Skerratt, 2007; Beattie et al., 2008; Preston et al., 1996), visual semiotics (Davison, 2007; Davison, 2009; Hancock, 2005), visual rhetoric (Davison, 2008; Davison, 2014; Quattrone, 2009) and music (Jacobs and Evans, 2012). An undeveloped area within this literature appears to be a parallel consideration of technology and disruption within accounting. Art, through its properties of visualisation, curation, performance and disruption, may extend the possibilities of accounting to embrace more humanistic models of accountability in this period of substantial technological change.
Accounting and accountability are by no means exempt from the disruption and transformation that the society is now experiencing in entering the fourth industrial revolution (Schwab, 2017). Susskind and Susskind (2015) position a significant threat facing the professional elite where they argue “[i]n the long run, increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society” (p. 303). Automation is now commonplace in many workplaces, particularly in relation to the preparation of accounting reports, auditing and compliance work (Roos, 2015; Dawson, 2015). Colleagues may constitute worker-bots that use computer software to replace many simple and repetitive tasks (Guthrie et al., 2015). Digital technologies, visualisation and big data are set to impact significantly on the future workforce of accounting, financial services and auditing business professionals (Fawcett, 2015). However, much of the recent accounting literature takes a very mechanical approach to technology where technology is seen through the lens of innovation and productivity as a way to promote more efficient processes.
Here, we draw caution to the adage of “technology for technologies sake”. In shaping our collective futures, if technologies are driven solely by efficient economic interests, then we lose site of the deeper elements underlying the existence of such technology – namely, human interest, identity, content, meaning and function. Jurriënne Ossewold reminds us that:
“We must never forget that technology is never “neutral”. […] these technologies not only affect media usage and communication, they also affect how we see and experience ourselves, our human image, our worldview and our identity. They force us to take a second look. If we do not, then new technology will only lead to old wine in new bottles, and eventually we’ll end up in a technocracy” (Arets, 2017).
This presents a paradox, perhaps best represented in the legend of Golem (Burton, 2013), where new technologies left unchecked may adapt and morph into a state unable to be controlled by humans. We are seeing an adaptation of the double-entry recording system codified in the Middle Ages by Luca Pacioli in Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita to the use of crypto currency technologies like the blockchain, set to revolutionise future economies, as it is managed by its network and not by any one central authority. This decentralised technology, a global network of computers jointly managing transaction databases, known as distributed ledger technology that allows for instant peer-to-peer exchange, represents one of the largest disruptors to business today (Narayanan et al., 2016). How will such architectural, political and logical (de)centralisation reshape business environments? The legend of Golem illustrates how the heroic creature can so easily turn into a monster, needing constant direction. Today technology needs to be kept accountable with diverse human oversight and direction.
Further, what if these new technologies enabled an awakening of the disruptive nature of accounting itself? The practice of accounting is complex and varied. It involves many different actors, organisations, politicians, financial industries, government regulatory agencies, accounting professional bodies and the profession they represent, accounting firms, accountants, managers and members of the general public living amongst such complexity, all of whom perceive accounting in multiple ways (Hopwood, 1994). Therefore, accounting is simultaneously an object, a process, a practice, a logic, an ideology, the source of identity and a profession shaped by its surrounds.
Theoretically, accounting by its very nature is mutable and can activate other stories, constructing alternative realities of social and organisational phenomena beyond that which is considered the norm (Hines, 1988; Morgan, 1988; Reiter, 1995; Tinker, 1985). As such, accounting itself becomes disruptive. Gallhofer and Haslam (1996) hint towards the information age as an era of hopeful counter action, providing “new avenues for alternative accountings and related dialogue and dissemination”. For:
“[…] once [accounting’s] fixity and immutability is called into question. It can then be directed, through a struggle over its contested meaning and signifcance, along a different path. What is accounting? What do we want from it? What forces consitutute it now? How should it be regulated? What is its place in the order of things? And where can one begin to change all this?” (p. 37)
New technologies may, thus, extend the possibilities of accounting into artistic spaces. In this light, if we consider the etymology of the word technology being derived from the Greek “tékhne-logìa”, then tékhne means art, skill, craft or the way in which something is gained and logos means the word by which inward thought is expressed, a saying or an expression. Literally, technology means words or discourse about the way things are gained (Whitney, 2004). Technology, therefore, can equally equate to arts, crafts or techniques as much as it can to science and the tools in which to action something into existence. It is only between the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century that we started using technology to represent the sub-group of human practices concerning the behaviour in the production of goods in the industralised age. In recent years, this has taken a further narrowing of the term, synonymous with complex systems of machines and the techniques in which we use to operate them (Nye, 2007). Thus, technologies as a socio-cultural term may be as much psychological as they are mechanical.
This is particularly important to consider when external factors – economic, ecological and sociological – are bringing into question current organising frameworks, causing humanity to recalibrate, reinvestigate and redesign its way of living towards more sustainable futures. The future of work, climate change, population explosion, migration, sustainability, political instability, over consumption of resources and failing economic structures represent systemic factors, which will continue to reshape how we do business and the shape of accounting, both locally and globally.
The paper is organised as follows. Section 2 discusses the nature and role of art, considering exactly “What is Art?” Visualisation as a characteristic of art is considered together with accounting in Section 3. Section 4 finds insights into accounting through a curatorial lens, while Section 5 discusses the performative nature of accounting. Section 6 considers the disruptive nature of accounting and conclusions are provided in Section 7.
2. What is art?
The artist’s work is the ordering of what in most minds is disordered – (I A Richards)
A work of art is an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling – (Suzanne Langer)
[…] art is something we do intentionally […] things humans make or do – (Richard Wollheim)
Art comprises works that express the artist’s imaginative, creative, conceptual ideas or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power (Oxford English Dictionary, 2019; Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, 2019). Art in this context is fundamentally human, being borne from human skill and labour, to express human feeling, beauty and emotion (Richardson, 2011). There is intentionality present where the artist has limited resources, perspective and means, thus “makes a limited [but intentional] representation of the “reality” captured on his or her canvas” (Morgan, 1988, p. 477). In completing work at ordering of what in most minds is disordered, the artist, therefore, is entangled in a web of reality construction, not dissimilar to accounting (Morgan, 1988; Hines, 1988). Like artists, accountants interpret reality in a particular way; through an economic portrayal of organisational activity, accountants present a partial and, therefore, limited view of that reality. In presenting the economics, financial profitability and liquidity position of organisations, accountants say something, whilst leaving other things unsaid. “[…] we face the problem that whatever perspective we choose to adopt, others are squeezed from view” (p. 480) (Morgan, 1988).
Human intentionality of art provides a disruptive technology with an ability to protest, challenge, open and inspire (Kaushall, 2018). Art, therefore, has the ability to offer up social and political protest. Adorno (2006) argues that art can equally open individual awareness and express human suffering and hope that cannot be represented in language alone. Art, offers resistance by forcing the observer into an awareness of his or her surroundings. A contemporary example can be found in the work of Theaster Gates. Gates acquired sections of firehoses to create an abstract composition, the Civil Tapestry project, that draws on political significance to create an awareness. The dates and locations of the sourced firehoses – “1962”, “Compton, CA” – tell the story of the 1962 riots over racial integration and how such hoses were turned on Alabama protestors, subjected to police brutality. The “neutrality” of an abstract composition found in a gallery is situated against the political significance of its earlier purpose (Godfrey, 2012).
Art can challenge widely accepted views through poetic or artistic language. Art does not communicate through commonly accepted language and socio-cultural norms. It instead purposes itself to offer an experience of otherness (Adorno, 1997). Through his gender-defying figures, Philadelphian artist – Jonathon Lyndon-Chase – draws on his everyday experiences to examine the relationship between space and gender as social constructs. In so doing, he presents us with a challenge to gender normativity, forcing us to study the ways in which gender identity is affected by our immediate environment and the dominant societal norms that exist within that space (Thackara, 2018).
Art can open the human experience towards otherness. Accounting is fundamentally concerned with the problem of representation and “accounting for” “complex and multi-dimensional realties through metaphorical constructs that are always limited and incomplete” (p. 480) (Morgan, 1988). It is these metaphorical constructs that enable an individual to understand and experience one thing in relation to another (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). However, as a complex social phenomena, accounting as a concept is incapable of completely encompassing all the features of an object. Adorno (2006) describes this as the non-identity of concept and object. That is, we are bound by our own unique but limited understanding of the world and need to articulate that understanding through the limitation of language. Artworks can open a happening that may be experienced but which cannot always be measured or described conceptually. The influential work of performance artist Marina Abramovic exemplifies such an openness. Through her boundary-defying practice, Marina has developed a creative process that blurs and, therefore, opens the lines between the observer and the observed. Her In Residence project, staged at Sydney wharfs, Walsh Bay in 2015, questions the observed performer and the observing public, “switching these roles and asking the public to participate in the action and therefore to be the observed […] In this space, using the exercises as a vehicle, the artist and public share the role of performing body” (Abramovic, 2015). In doing so, the artist is creating an opening of human experience with the potential for transformative action.
Art has the ability to inspire new thoughts, ways of seeing and action in its audience. By critically thinking about the society, art can offer alternatives. Kaushall (2018) argues:
Artworks potentially provide a means of refuge for independent social critique. Such a critique may not bring about practical change – for instance, it cannot reverse a President’s executive orders. However, a critique involves thinking, which pushes against the blind acceptance of pervasive values. So although they may seem impotent compared to mass protest movements, radical works of art are important precisely because they do not use the same power or force that rules society. (p. 16)
Sydney-based conceptual artist, Ian Milliss, uses his artistic practice to critique the thinking behind systems that lead to inequality, environmental degradation and climate change. During 2013, he participated in an innovative arts festival in the country town of Kandos, Central New South Wales, Australia. Economically depressed with the closing of the cement works in 2011, Kandos was in desperate need of revitalisation. Ian created a poster that reimagined the future for Kandos, turning its problems into opportunities. He transformed the cement works into a visionary hotbed of the future, incorporating a training centre for the future of renewable energies, solar thermal beds, climate adaptation research, sustainable mobility and even a school of cultural adaptation and innovation. The poster was art; the art was fiction, but it was artistic fiction that inspired individuals to action. The Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation now exists and fellow artist, Gilbert Grace, has created the sustainable mobility by “growing” biological bikes from bamboo and hemp.
The transformative potential of new technologies in accounting is not so much that technologies are disruptive themselves, but rather that they have the ability to amplify the latent disruptive potential of accounting itself and by pushing accounting towards artistic spaces. Art can be used to protest, challenge, open and inspire binary ways of thinking in accounting. In this way, art can be used to humanise a significant period of disruptive and transformative technological change, whilst accounting can benefit from incorporating artistic elements into its practice. In addition, the adoption of an artistic perspective as a disruptive form of technology may also extend the possibilities of accounting into new spaces of visualisation, curation, performance and disruption. Such a socio-cultural view of technology forces us to challenge our own traditionally held views of accounting opening us towards more futuristic models of accountability.
3. Accounting as visualisation
Since its origins, Luca Pacioli’s “bookkeeping” in the Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita represented a way to visualise transactions among merchants. Pacioli created an account that transposed into numbers the complexity of business deals, settled in multiple languages across vast cultural distances and geographies. Ledgers and financial reports, such as this, represented the first graphic representation of calculative exercises, encapsulating the double-entry bookkeeping being practiced in thirteenth-century Italian banking and now standard knowledge among the accounting and finance professions (Sangster, 2015). The relevance of these visualisations, however, goes well beyond the numerical.
Over time, annual reports have substantially increased their visual representation. Past research has analysed the prominence of CEO’s photographs included in the opening of the annual report to understand narcissist personality characteristics in CEOs and the impact this has on firm’s strategy and performance (Chatterjee and Hambrick, 2007), using visual rhetoric to analyse images of the business elite in annual reports as well as in the media more broadly (Davison, 2010), the size and characteristics of the CEOs’ signature in the SEC filings (Ham et al., 2018) and the colours presented in the annual reports (Frownfelter-Lohrke and Fulkerson, 2001). This visual representation of account extends to the “everyday” where the authors have observed cases in which restaurant tax invoices are transformed into a visual representation of a dinner (Figure 1). Does this create additional value for the dinner guest through a unique visual playfulness?
Companies are increasingly including infographics and data visualisations as a means in which to narrate stories about their financial reports, the content of which is left to the organisation’s discretion as they start to understand their usefulness. Indeed, the use of data visualisations may assist organisations to escape the “financial cage” to vision multiple narratives. Further, the use of data visualisations may contribute in overcoming the complexity associated with accounting numbers. By using data visualisations to build multiple narratives and effective storytelling, organisations could overcome the problem of accounting technicalities dominating and, therefore, impairing the understanding of disclosure.
Interestingly, the widespread use of visualisations may disrupt how actors external to organisations use such data. For instance, auditors are also increasingly using data visualisation to show the results of their activities. Christensen et al. (2018) show that the use of vivid visualisation enhances auditors’ ability to observe disconfirming management estimates and to report such indication in their reports. The authors show that the use of vivid visualisations in accounting reporting does not negatively affect firms’ external perception in terms of litigation risk or juror biases.
Indeed, visualisations are extremely complex forms of communication because of the potential for multiple layers of messaging associated with their innate features, for example, the level of vividness, size, shape, etc. Accounting visualisations have the potential to disrupt current organisational disclosure by providing easier access to multiple narratives. This is particularly the case when they are presented in a layered, interactive and fluid manner that allows for self-interrogation, such as those found within the SAP Digital Boardroom (see for example, www.sap.com/hk/products/board-room.html). In this case, users have digital-enterprise insight into the business and they can monitor, simulate and support business changes.
Through visual representations, organisations can provide narratives that incorporate and reflect more easily their values, culture and priorities. The tailoring of visualisations in accounting is particularly important in the social media age, where increasingly more importance is assigned to images Instagram, a social media allowing users to post images and short texts, present among the largest increase in users’ across social media platforms over the past five years now allowing any company to instantly communicate to over one billion people.
Given the potential large and easier access to companies’ information through visualisations, organisational accountability is of particular concern. In particular, the limited regulation on disclosures other than annual reports, such as videos, images and social media messages, leave room for opportunistic managerial behaviours (Frownfelter-Lohrke and Fulkerson, 2001).
By embracing visualisation, accounting can represent a viatucum towards a common language between organisations and multiple publics. At the same time, it allows companies flexibility in the way activities are reported. The hope is that the use of more visual representation will enhance a dialogic type of accounting between organisations and publics (Bellucci and Manetti, 2017). Through visualisations, organisations can create new forms of ‘accounts’ that lead to more diverse organisational narratives.
4. Accounting as curation
In my practice, the curator has to bridge gaps and build bridges between artists, publics, institutions, and other types of communities. The crux of this work is building temporary communities, by connecting different people and practices and causing the conditions for triggering sparks between them – Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects Serpentine Galleries, London.
Curatorial practice is perhaps best known in the context of art, where the curator acts as a selector and interpreter of art works to curate an exhibition. However, the art of curation is pervasive and has now infiltrated the roles of producers, commissioners, exhibition planners, educators, managers, organisers and […] accountants (George, 2015). According to George (2015), the word “curator” was first used in the context of overseer, manager or guardian in the mid-fourteenth century. The word originating from the Latin verb curare meaning “to take care of”. Through the act of curare, curators take care of collectable works of art, preserving the cultural and artistic understanding and integrity of communities. This is not dissimilar to the stewardship role of accountants, stewarding organisational resources to ensure they are preserved over time and their activities are clearly communicated to their users. This incorporates a moral dimension, a sense of custodianship, involving trust, empathy and human consideration beyond itself (Bhaskar, 2016).
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw that life can only be understood backwards, but needs to be lived forwards. Accounting draws parallels here, where businesses can only truly understand their performance and/or position, if they know what has gone before, that is, if there is something in which to compare current performance to. Yet there is a need for business to vision through future-orientation the creation of value. Curators, working in symbiotic relationships with artists, challenge perceptions and investigate what future culture may be and what it could look like (George, 2015). If we adopt an artistic perspective to accounting, then curation may assist an accountant to be more forward-thinking, progressive and work in a symbiotic relationship with users to instigate more future-oriented forms of value creation.
Curators often stand at the junction of a diverse range of disciplines allowing for the possibility of transdisciplinarity. Ole Worm, a Danish naturalist and antiquary born in 1588, represents perhaps the most famous example. He is best known for his Wunderkammer, where he systematically catalogued, studied and arranged his collected objects. Worm through the creation of his Wunderkammer spans disciplines as varied as anthropology, ethnography, biology, taxonomy, museology, archeology, medicine, anatomy, classics and linguistics (Bhaskar, 2016). Wunderkammer in the time of the Renaissance represented a connection between the new world of scientific learning, cataloguing to make sense of things, and an old world of mysticisim and hoarding. Wunderkammer allowed for juxtaposition where the values of old disciplines could antagonise those of new, pushing them until they transposed and became something new. As Bhaskar (2016) argues:
They allowed people to focus on finding new and interesting things and then to compare them, study them. This helped them find analogies, discover order in the chaos of the natural world and parallels in the messy world of human culture. (p. 299)
The curatorial process exhibited in the Wunderkammer was intertwined with the development of a modern futuristic world view. It helped to make sense of the world. What could a Wunderkammer of “accounts” allow for accounting? What would it look like? Could it embrace a diversity of accounts? Could housing a “collection” of accounting, arts, design, science and technology allow us to distil new forms of order in the chaos between our natural and social worlds?
Curators act as a catalyst of ideas, offering a focus on a particular subject and bringing it to the attention of the public at a specific point in time. O'Brian (2005), Director and Curator of Simon Fraser University Art Galleries, Vancouver, describes this act through a comparative analysis with the role of literary editor:
The language of curating is comparable to that of editing. The shared activities of selecting, assembling, arranging and overseeing ideas bring the two roles into close alignment. As editors of ideas, curators bring forward art and cultural practices to make the ideas available to audiences not only through exhibitions, but publications, websites, forums and other events.
In so doing, curators are able to generate a trialogue between the audience, the artist and the institution. If we deconstruct accounting, then applying a creative and interpretative curatorial lens could open up the potentially disruptive properties that have lain dormant in accounting for so long.
Morgan (1988, p. 484) refers to this as a form of double-view accounting where the “accountant must recognize the tension that exists between “the world as viewed by the accountant” and “the world in a wider sense”. If an accountant begins to appreciate this tension, a freeing up occurs allowing for a more fluid way of understanding and, therefore, representation of account(s). Future-oriented trialogues could be created that playfully bring the public, the accountant and the organisation into conversation. Accountants operating in more open-ended interpretative modes also act as conduits where “their ultimate aim should be to develop the art of ‘reading’ and probing situations to create intelligent, actionable insights, rather than to produce rigid technical statements as ends in themselves. In the process, they will be able to develop an approach to accounting that is able to address many of the problems and tensions that characterize relations between accounting, organisations and society.”
In a world where communication and data pattern recognition are increasingly becoming the domain of machines, the curatorial process in accounting enables a humane approach to sense making. By embracing curatorial perspectives, accounting can use selection and arrangement, refining, reducing, displaying, simplifying, presenting and explaining to add value to the organisation in more creative and dynamic ways.
5. Accounting as performance
The way accounting interacts with its public is highly connected to its performance. Whereas accounting is often perceived as a back office service operation and accountants have limited human contact, the reality is that accounting is intrinsically a performance (Willmott and Sikka, 1997; Hanlon, 1994). Accounting reports create a fictitious reality directed to a large audience of stakeholders. This has been explored through literary theory in relation to aspects of professional identity (Daly and Schuler, 1998) and through the use of performance theory to analyse Annual General Meetings, press conferences and analyst meetings using the visual rhetoric of scenography, lighting and clothing to show the elaborate construction of theatrical productions that can influence audiences (Biehl‐Missal, 2011). In this sense, accountants act as scriptwriters of narratives.
Morrison (2018) depicts how a sustainability report can be read through the creative lens of a fairy tale narrative. That is, the author of the sustainability report, the organisation, narrates to the audience, the stakeholders, their own story. The critical reading of the sustainability report/fairy tale makes the unmasking of the organisations’ narratives which implicitly reinforce the corporate story possible.
This in turn enables a contrasting of accounting with information from alternative sources known as shadow accounts, for example, media, environmental organisations, think-tank reports and academic research (Tregidga, 2017). Shadow accounts allow for the authorship of accounting from “outside” the organisation because they are created by “others” and with the ability to corroborate (or not) the organisation’s stories.
Corporate disclosure is beginning to move from a communication monologue between companies and the public, towards today’s virtual reality of social media and an interconnected web. Users can engage in real-time discussions on organisational narratives and even directly with the organisations themselves. This hints at the possible performativity aspects of accounting(s) to engage in stimulating radical new imag(in)ings (Preston et al., 1996; Davison and Warren, 2009).
Accounting as a performance is also concerned with the way the narratives are delivered. Whereas the annual reports are often complex, dense, text-rich documents, what organisations aim to convey are understandable key messages to their target audience, that is, analysts and investors. In such contexts, personal characteristics play a fundamental role in influencing audiences’ perceptions (Daly and Schuler, 1998). For instance, the way CEOs and CFOs present the financial results to corporate analysts during conference calls can be compared to a theatrical performance. Despite the importance of having a good theatrical piece to interpret, “satisfactory” financial and non-financial results, the CEO’s and CFO’s interpretation on stage may have a substantial influence on the audiences’ perceptions of organisational results (Biehl‐Missal, 2011).
Artistic performances have also extensively been used in the social representation of accounting. Karen From Finance, an Australian-based drag queen, uses accounting and finance as a way in which to craft performance. Her persona uses “technical” accounting terms, “tax time, office-based bonding activities and invoice archiving”, not only to entertain but also to challenge the corporate world of accounting. A popular game like Monopoly, often experienced early on as children, constantly requires an assessment and update of personal financial accounts. Another recent example is The Money, a performative game that requires the audience to play an active role in unanimously deciding how to spend the entrance money they paid for the performance. This artistic performance highlights through performativity the limits of accounting solely for money, especially in the presence of a democratic process. The frustrations associated with the democratic process unfold and the need to reconcile financial accounts to multiple social objectives highlights the limits of our current accounting processes.
Overall, accounting as performance would benefit from a constant dialogue between the performers and the audience to enhance the understanding of both parties’ needs. Is it possible to observe a situation similar to experimental theatre where the audiences are not seen as passive observers, but rather they become co-creators of the performance breaking down the invisible “fourth wall”. Considering that the boundaries between organisations and publics are becoming increasingly blurred, multiple accounts and associated narratives could result in a co-performance by actors internal and external to organisations.
6. Accounting as disruptive
A key function of traditional accounting in the capitalist model is to provide support to investors in valuing companies (Ball and Brown, 1968; Feltham and Ohlson, 1995; Bernard and Thomas, 1989). However, we are at a point in time in which it appears that accounting numbers have lost their ability to predict future companies’ performance and investors appear to use them to a limited extent (CIMA, PwC and Company T.S, 2011; Deloitte, 2011). Barth et al. (2018) show earnings value relevance constantly declining over the past decade and they document that this effect is even stronger for “New Economy firms”, such as high-technology firms using on non-traditional business models. Similarly, Lev (2018) talk about the decline of financial reporting and they argue that intangibles now represent the majority of firms’ assets. High-tech companies, such as Google or Facebook, present quite limited tangible assets and their competitive advantage is mostly in their capacity to innovate. Such contemporary organisations are dependent on their intellectual capital to create products and services (Petty and Guthrie, 2000; Guthrie et al., 2012). Nonetheless, their financial reports remain almost the same as the large global manufacturers such as Ford or General Motors, prepared in the 1970s. In addition, the growing need for hybrid organisations and non-for-profit entities to measure their value creation requires a radical disruption to the way we conceptualise measurement and valuation in accounting (ACCA, 2012; AICPA, 2014; IMA and ACCA, 2015).
An intensely networked interdisciplinary world, self-organising social networks, distributed peer technologies, knowledge-sharing platforms and algorithmic market oversight provide new possibilities for accounting to challenge and embrace changes taking place in the environment. We observe growing stakeholder concerns relating to social and environmental matters. Social media protests against companies exploiting their employees or using child labour, consumer boycotts and collective shareholder activism are examples of demands to disrupt the current financial-based accounting systems. This has occurred whilst the role of companies in the society has been substantially increasing, often in some cases substituting the State for many activities (Djelic and Etchanchu, 2017). The growing awareness of companies’ impact has led to differently assessing companies’ role within the society. In particular, it is possible to observe a raise in expectations towards organisations’ commitments to the common good, which needs to balance with their financial sustainability. Indeed, today, companies need to be accountable to a multitude of stakeholders.
Such increasing scrutiny by actors external to the company fosters the need for a more dialogic accounting (Brown and Dillard, 2015; Brown, 2009). Over the past decades, there has been a growing effort to include social and environment elements into companies’ reporting. Examples, among others, include triple bottom line reporting and the integrated reporting conceptual framework developed by the International Integrated Reporting Council (De Villiers et al., 2014; Norman and MacDonald, 2004). These accounting representations include elements besides the financial capital, such as manufacturing, intellectual, human, social and relationship and natural capitals. These six capitals are considered to be both the inputs to and outcomes of a company’s valuation creation process, where they constantly interact with the external environment. The presence of multiple capitals into reporting necessarily requires companies to think and act holistically, disrupting the way many traditional companies operate (De Villiers et al., 2017).
Accounting is powerful in not only developing and maintaining but also disrupting economic, social and cultural systems. Accountants use a numerical metaphor to represent the complex and dynamic reality of organisations and their actions, socially constructing entities through a technocratic objective practice that often exclude them from the wider outside world. Clearly, through the use of such metaphor, only a partial and incomplete view is represented, which currently emphasises the economic and numerical value in viewing “reality” and, as a result, dominates accounting practice (Morgan, 1988; Hines, 1988; Hines, 1991). If accounting is socially constructed, then it begs the question whether the current accounting system is the only way.
New technologies could intensify accounting’s ability to embrace the diversity of the society in which it lives and operates, disrupting the single form of metaphorical narrative. Through the development of multiple forms of accounts, accounting would be pushed to provide narratives which may better reflect and incorporate a multifaceted society. An intensely networked interdisciplinary world that embraces diversity in accounting could allow organisations, including the revolutionary “New Economy firms”, to engage in open dialogue, relevant to their diverse stakeholders.
The adoption of an artistic perspective would also have the ability to change the view so that it may be possible to interpret the numbers differently or even change the numbers themselves. If we look to art, then we start to see a number of non-financial narratives created. One of the earliest reports of accounting in popular fiction can be found in Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe in the early 1700s used accounting’s logic and process to describe the human condition:
I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing […] and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered.
This particular example provides a strong “account” for where accounting sits in our everyday. Defoe, through artistic expression, has created a type of personal “account” narrative. A secondary example can be found in the period in which American settlers introduced Ledger Books to Native American Plains Indians in the 1800s. The first reaction of the Plains Indians was to transform the ledgers into an artistic “account” (Figure 2). Ledger drawings included images of love, battles and other events of daily life to record personal histories and traditions previously recorded through oral histories.
There is, therefore, disruptive potential for accounting to move from being a static supporter of neoliberal capitalist principles to becoming an active Trojan horse to bring about needed integration and change, offering up holistic possibilities that through multiple forms of account equally incorporate economic, sociological and ecological decision-making. For a long time, the difficulties and the costs associated with having diverse forms of “account” have been the main motivation for focusing only on financial capital. New decentralised technologies, such as the blockchain managed by its network and not by any one central authority, may therefore assist in deconstructing accounting, opening up and providing multiple narratives which would disrupt the current financial-centre economic and reporting system.
Traditionally accounting has focused on developing a narrow, singular narrative. A narrative that has allowed financial capital to dominate its construction. This article provides a critical reflection on how new technologies can enable an awakening of accounting’s disruptive capabilities extending accounting to encompass different and multiple narratives. The transformative power of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, crypto-currency and blockchain, big data and visualisation, virtual and augmented reality, social media, network systems technologies, simulation and gaming, lies not so much in the technologies themselves, but rather in their ability to extend the possibilities of accounting into the artistic spaces of visualisation, curation, performance and disruption. These new technologies present a unique ability to open up the latent disruptive potential of accounting itself, pushing accounting in new directions.
This disruptive potential has the ability to overcome a singular financial-based representation. Moving accountants away from traditional accounting assumptions, such as monetary unit, economic entity and time period, leading organisations more towards holistic views of their relations with the society. Such an approach would allow humanity to overcome the incredulity around incomprehensible accounting decisions, as Hines (1988) emphasises:
Now, you see all these trees? The land on which they stand, belongs to the government, but the organization is able to take trees from this forest for its paper manufacturing. That's a curly one, isn't it? How would you account for that?”
Well, I suppose the land is not an asset of the organization, not part of it, so as to speak, but the trees are, for as long as the organization is allowed to take them […] But it doesn't make sense to exclude the land and include the trees – the trees are part of the land […]? (p. 254)
Extending accounting into more artistic spaces, where accountants begin to adopt more playful perspectives, might enable accounting’s disruptive potential. New technologies may represent an opportunity to rethink, rediscover and redesign the way accounting shapes and is shaped by the society. The automation of the more mundane technical aspects of accounting will enable humanistic aspects to re-enter accounting. As in the legend of Golem, the embedding of a humanistic component into a disruptive and transformative technological revolution may avoid generating an unstable situation difficult to control by humans. In this light, Brock et al. (2014) argue that “professionals, through their distinct cognitive, normative and regulative capabilities, play [an] active role as ‘lords of the dance’ who help choreograph the broad restructuring of contemporary political-economic systems.” (p. 9) As such, professional accounting requires a shift towards more humanistic notions, such as creativity, innovation, holistic thinking, complex-decision making and sense-making. The enabling technology in this case is, therefore, psychological as opposed to mechanical.
Increasingly new technologies will enable accountants to think in more creative, diverse and integrated ways, questioning “what is meant by value and measurement?”, “what world will future accountants be accounting for?” and “how do accountants embrace new forms of humanistic behaviour that can contribute to new ways of organising and governing?” Accounting has and will continue to develop approaches to the measurement of value, provide accountability for that created value and act as the means through which value is mediated. What is important to question, however, is how accounting can do this in a way that maintains a humanistic perspective?
Where accountants of the past acted as a mediator between the organisation and the public, a direct access between organisational sources and users can now be found through decentralised social networked technologies, virtual and augmented realities, gaming and simulation. In accountants loosing this “mediating” space – “who will end up creating organisational ‘accounts’?” “Where does the authorship of reports lie?” and “will society loose accountability or instead gain more pluralistic forms of accountability?” Perhaps the solution(s) lies in the new technologies ability to disrupt the potential antithetical relationship of art and accounting, bringing these two concepts in conversation, therefore activating the latent disruptive potential of accounting itself.
The authors encourage accounting practitioners and researchers to embrace disruptive innovations with a humanistic approach. Future studies could document such experiences and represent the starting point for understanding the role that the visual and performance arts plays in accounting. We suggest thought-provoking activities, events, exhibitions and instillations could create trigger points that reflect societal views of accounting and conversely highlight the role accounting plays in the creative arts.
Available at: www.ianmilliss.com/text/textindex.htm (accessed 6 April 2019).
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The number of active Instagram (images-based)/Facebook (text- and images-based)/Twitter (text-based) users increased by 669 per cent/100 per cent/39 per cent between 2013 and 2018. Available at: www.statista.com/topics/1164/social-networks/ (accessed 14 April 2019).
From the German, meaning wonder rooms. Rooms created as cabinets of curiosities used to display collected objects, natural and geological specimens, carvings, decorative objects and art.
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