Would Beethoven Have Given a Rat’s Ass about Business Analytics?

This posting started off as a comment to Gary Cokins’ SAS blog article, Could Beethoven have implemented business analytics? I decided to share my thoughts more widely however, really reflections about where we in the analytics world came from, and how we’re seen.

I offer observations and a bit of analytics history in response to Gary’s question, “Could the great classical music composer Ludwig Beethoven successfully implement business analytics in an organization?,” followed by my answer. Oh, in case you’re wondering: Business analytics is a collection of techniques and tools that model and extract insight from data, applied for business purposes.

Beethoven (1770-1826) was a near contemporary of the founder of analytics, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). Gauss invented key methods that underlie analytics although of course he didn’t write software or design business solutions. Gauss’s work, nonetheless, had contemporaneous applications. Foremost of them was gambling, but his larger mathematical legacy comprises the longest of long tails.

Check out text I found, searching on the two, on Beethoven and Gauss, from a blurb describing a 1970 biography of Gauss by Tord Hall:

“Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) is generally ranked with Archimedes and Newton as one of the three greatest mathematicians that ever lived. His work, in terms of its all-pervasive importance, its painstaking attention to detail, and its completely developed beauty, somehow reminds one of the work of Beethoven, his contemporary and compatriot.”

Gauss himself built on mathematical methods created, before Beethoven’s birth, by figures such as the Bernoullis (Johann, Jakob, and Daniel) and Leonhard Euler. Society in Beethoven’s time was, in a sense, their heritor, just as we are today. If you do any form of (social-)network analysis, you owe Euler. Take a look at slide 11 of my presentation Text, Content, and Social Analytics: BI for the New World. I illustrate analytical modeling with Euler’s famous Bridges of Konigsberg problem. Daniel Bernoulli’s Fluid Equation, in its elegant simplicity, is as monumental as Beethoven’s tortured Grosse Fuge, but unlike a Beethoven string quartet, it’ll keep you in the air next time you fly the friendly skies.

Beethoven’s life also overlapped those of Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813) and Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840), who each invented techniques that are of central importance in aspects of analytics. I would be stunned to learn that Beethoven gave more than a moment’s passing thought to any of these towering figures, to Lagrange or Poisson, to Euler, the Bernoullis, or Gauss, whose stature in mathematics equals Beethoven’s in music.

So, while I like Gary’s thinking and his ability to see something bigger in the work we do every day, I believe his invocation of Beethoven is fundamentally off track. Beethoven admired revolutionaries, but his admiration was that of a Romantic, for the political and literary. He was not an Analyticist (sorry for that word). I see only the faintest ghost of his compositional methods in business analytics processes.

Beethoven’s affinity for the liberator Napoleon, and for literary figures such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller (author of the “Ode to Joy,” set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony), is telling. So happens that I read Goethe’s Young Werther just a couple of months ago. It was truly hard for analytically-minded me to identify with Goethe’s emotionally overwrought Sturm und Drang hero, to see any redeeming quality in the character’s self-absorbed obsession. Yet Young Werther and similar works were the rage of Beethoven’s age, even while the Analyticists were creating tools that rationalized the world, enabling the Industrial Revolution and modern business methods.

Simply put —

Beethoven lived in analytics’ seminal period, but he wouldn’t have cared a rat’s ass about business analytics. There is very, very little I see in today’s business-analytics world, or that Beethoven would have seen, that truly fits the Romantic’s conception of revolution or of himself.

By contrast —

Occupy Analytics!

Turn business analytics to public good. It can be done. That would be the movement for Ludwig van Beethoven. Dance like a spinning top.

3 thoughts on “Would Beethoven Have Given a Rat’s Ass about Business Analytics?

  1. Well I certainly agree with your conclusion! In fact, I wonder what drove Gary Cokins to ask the question in the first place. Beethoven did plenty, after all.

    Your title makes me think about the present day, and how we who are deeply interested in analytics should recall that we’re a minority. Walk down the street, pick out any person from the crowd, even any business person from the crowd, and ask yourself, “Does this person give a rat’s ass about business analytics?” The answer is sure to be no!

  2. What a delightfully written response, Seth. You have to know that there’s not much mass-market crossover interest in Beethoven’s compositional philosophies and the work of Gauss, Euler, et al. And yet, the delightful thing about the internet is that there is room for even the narrowest of tails gaining an audience and stimulating discussion. I enjoyed reading your post even without a burning need to delve into Business Analytics. It reminds me of the fun I had the first time I read Godel, Escher, Bach with its dizzying marriage of formal logic, popular culture, and historical framing.

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