At the time of their civil war, many Americans lived on farms.
When they were conscripted, it was the first time they’d been away from home.
They were shoved into large groups and told to march.
“Left. Right. Left. Right.”
That’s when the drill sergeants first noticed a problem.
They couldn’t march, they were all over the place, treading on each other’s feet, bumping into each other.
They couldn’t march because they didn’t know their right from their left.
The sergeants couldn’t send them into battle like that.
They had to work out a way to turn this rabble into an army.
Just about the only thing these country boys did know was crops.
So the sergeants stuck a piece of hay into each farm boy’s left boot.
Then stuck a piece of straw in each one’s right boot.
They tried again “Hay foot. Straw foot. Hay foot. Straw foot.”
And all the country boys marched perfectly well together.
The sergeants had turned an abstract concept (left and right) into something simple and practical (hay and straw) and it worked.
Now they had an army.
But how come these boys were old enough to be considered men and serve in the army but didn’t know something as basic as their right and their left?
Well the answer is, they’d never needed to know.
All they needed to know was what happened on their farm.
How to raise livestock, how to grow crops, how to ride horses, butcher pigs, build fences, dig ditches.
They didn’t need any theoretical knowledge, just practical experience.
Because we take left and right for granted, that seems strange to us.
But if that seems so strange, consider zero.
A thousand years ago, no one outside a few scholars knew about zero, much less used it.
Ordinary people had no need for it.
You didn’t need to symbolise something that wasn’t there, only what was there.
Why would you need a number for a lack of something?
If you had a sheep that was one sheep, so that was where you started counting.
You didn’t need to start with a number for not having any sheep.
You only counted what you had, not what you didn’t have.
Because knowledge started out as practical, not theoretical.
People who have to work to survive only learn what they need to know to do their daily job.
But nowadays, we all think having the number zero for nothing is perfectly normal.
In fact we can’t imagine a world without it.
And that’s the way it is.
Until we know something, it doesn’t exist.
Once we know it, we can’t unlearn it.
We believe it’s always been that way and we can’t conceive of it any other way.
Ignorance is like that, you can’t imagine it, and once it’s gone, you can’t recapture it.
Which is why, whenever we first worked on a new account, we always made a complete list of everything we knew about it before we started finding out about it.
While our heads were still in the same place as the consumer.
Once we started to learn about it, it would be too late.
We couldn’t go back.
Follow Dave Trott on Twitter – He’s the Chairman of The Gate London
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