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I recently heard on NPR about an interesting book, The Man of Numbers, by Keith Devlin. Here’s a passage from the article about the book that caught my attention:

“They recorded everything in good old Roman numerals and if they wanted calculations, they went down the street to someone who was adept at using a physical abacus,” Devlin tells NPR’s Scott Simon. “It was actually a board with lines on it on which you moved pebbles around; it was a crude and inefficient way of doing business.”

[…]

“Within a few decades of Liber Abaci [a book that established the basis of modern arithmetic] appearing you’ve got what may have been 1,000 or more different people writing practical arithmetic textbooks,” says Devlin. “Ordinary people who wanted to set up a business—and didn’t have a lot of money to pay people to do the accounting for them—could do it for themselves.”

What an improvement Arabic numerals must have been. Imagine having to do this math:  MMMMCML ÷ XXV = CXCVIII

Yuck!

What struck me is that there’s a clear parallel between the “democratizing” effect of the introduction of Arabic numerals and arithmetic and the introduction of tools for doing market research via social media.

Until recently, market research was an arcane task—like accounting in the 13th century— that you had to hire specialists to perform, and it would cost a lot and take a long time. But now, social media insight tools have democratized the discipline of market research by making it possible for ordinary people to quickly and affordably do what only specialists could do before. Maybe not as revolutionary a development as arithmetic, but a valuable and welcome one in the world of branding, advertising and marketing.

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