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Dead medium: Information Technology of Ancient Athens, Part Four
From: julian@mostly.com (Julian Dibbell)

Source(s): Exhibits and literature of the Agora Museum in Athens, Greece, including the pamphlets "The Athenian Citizen" (revised 1987); "Life, Death and Litigation in the Athenian Agora" (1994); "Graffiti in the Athenian Agora" (revised 1988); and "Socrates in the Agora" (1978), published and sold as Picture Books No. 4, 23, 14, and 17 by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, c/o Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.

The Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy

By Julian Dibbell

Part Four: The Technology of Deliberation and Decision

Once the citizen was in his allotted place in the system, he got to work. There was a variety of jobs to do in the Athenian political sector, but they all essentially came down to one task: generating information.

You argued. You heard arguments. You drew up legislation. You presented legislation. You reached your verdict. You cast your vote. You were the source, along with all your fellow citizens, of a flood of words and rulings and decisions.

This flood needed managing, and mostly it was the institutions of the state that managed it, chiefly through their structure and conventions. But inevitably they had a little help from the gadgetry; for where there are voluminous information flows, as we postmoderns know only too well, there are technologies built to channel them. Here are a few that helped channel the flow of deliberation and decision in ancient Athens.

A. The Klepsydra

The water clock, called klepsydra by the Greeks (and in English usually spelled "clepsydra"), timed oral presentations in both the courts and the Council House. In trials, the plaintiff and defendant were granted equal time to make their cases, and the klepsydra was well- designed to assure all in attendance that the time was truly equal.

It was a pretty simple machine: a large clay vessel with a small bronze tube at its base and a small hole just below the rim. A plug was inserted in the tube, and the pot was filled with water, the overflow hole at the top providing a precise == and plainly visible == governor of the amount.

When it was time for one of the litigants to start speaking, a slave pulled the plug and let the water start flowing into another vessel. The speaker spoke for as long as the water flowed, and if he was smart he kept an eye on the angle of the flow in order to gauge how much time he had left.

The klepsydra on display in the Agora Museum has a capacity of two "choes," or about six quarts. This, according to the literature, translates into approximately six minutes' speaking time and was the amount permitted for the rebuttal speech in cases involving less than 500 drachmas.

The rigor of the klepsydra's pacemaking put pressure on litigants to make their speeches tight and lucid, which in turn led to the rise of a profession that could rightly be considered the ancestor of the lawyer's: speech-writing for hire. Many of the speechwriters' compositions survive, and in one, by the accomplished Isokrates, the klepsydra is artfully referenced:

"Now about the other men he has plotted against," Isokrates has his client say of the opposing litigant, "and the suits he has brought and the charges he has made, and the men with whom he has conspired and those against whom he has sworn falsely, not twice the amount of water would be sufficient to describe these." ("The Athenian Citizen," page 23)

My Columbia Encyclopedia says the water clock first appeared around 2000 B.C., in Egypt, whence it was much later imported to Greece. But I wonder if the invention wasn't largely a novelty until Athens put it to use in its court rooms and committee chambers. In the ancient world, I suspect, the rhythms of agriculture, commerce, warfare, and even science were still too slack to have much use for the klepsydra's precise replication of particular units of time. But in a society where the abstract notion of equality before the law was a cornerstone == and where litigation was almost as common as pederasty == the demand for a meticulous technological embodiment of that equality must have been bottomless.

B. Bronze juror ballots

The Athenians didn't invent voting, of course, but they surely did more of it than any other civilized society before them had. Most of it was done by hand, but as in modern democracies, certain kinds of votes required a degree of anonymity that normal hand or voice votes didn't provide. Hence the invention of, among other devices, the bronze juror ballot.

The juror ballot was a flat bronze disk about the diameter of the palm of a juror's hand, with a short bronze rod intersecting the disk at its center, like the hub of a wheel. Each juror carried two of these ballots with him from deliberations: one with the hub hollowed out from end to end, tubelike, and the other with a solid hub. The hollow ballot represented a vote for condemnation, the solid one was for acquittal, and the juro dropped the one that reflected his decision into a closed receptacle on his way out of the court room. The other he dropped into a box reserved for discards.

They are curious objects, the ballots == almost whimsical-looking, to those of us accustomed to the plain- paper or complex mechanical ballots of latter days. But in fact there seems to be little about the Athenian juror ballot that wasn't shaped by years of utilitarian redesign.

The generous size and shape of the disk, for example, would have made the ballots easy to hold in the hand. The slight dimensions of the hub, more importantly, would have allowed the jurors to comfortably conceal their decision by holding the rod lightly between a thumb and finger, thus covering the tell-tale ends as they went to vote. And because the hub and disk were of a piece, and cast in durable bronze, the ballots would have been well suited for the rigors of the Athenian justice system's high- volume information flow.

Perhaps it's also worth noting the binary nature of the information conveyed by this particular medium. Certainly, between the massively parallel 1-bit computations of jury balloting and the 50-bit capacity of the kleroterion, the Athenians were doing what was, by the standards of antiquity, an extraordinary amount of systematic binary data processing.

Not quite as much, maybe, or in nearly so sophisticated a form as the Chinese, who had long before invented the remarkable 6-bit binary fortune-telling medium known as the I Ching == which is known, as well, to have inspired Gottfried Leibniz many centuries later to work out the theoretical foundations of binary mathematics.

But it's not impossible that the binary workings of Athens's technopolitical infrastructure had a similar long-term effect on the history of computing. Perhaps, for instance, they had some detectable influence on Aristotle's rudimentary formulation of what would later be formalized as Boolean logic, and hardwired into the Von Neumann machines we use today.

Or not. I leave it to credentialed historians to connect whatever dots can be connected here.

C. Ostraka

The Ancient Greek word for a potsherd (which is a piece of broken ceramic) was "ostrakon," and from it is derived the modern English word "ostracism." This is not an obvious derivation, obviously, but it has its logic. What's more, it has the unique charm, for the likes of us, of preserving in the amber of everyday vocabulary a medium that lived and died more than two thousand years ago. Read on for the details.

In the Agora Museum's ample collection of engraved ostraka there is a large subset consisting of potsherds with the names of leading Athenian politicians carved into them. These were ballots, used in a special kind of vote called ostracism, the purpose of which was to curb the power of men whose strength and influence had grown so great that their dominance verged on tyranny and could not be checked by normal means.

The museum's literature describes the practice thus:

"Each year the Assembly decided whether a vote of ostracism should be held. If a majority of the quorum of 6000 citizens voted affirmatively, the day was set and at that time a large open area of the Agora was fenced off. In the enclosure were ten entrances, one for each of the ten tribes. By these the citizens entered each with a potsherd on which he had scratched the name of the man who seemed to him most dangerous to the state.

"Officials at the entrance collected the sherds and kept the citizens inside the enclosure until all had voted. The sherds were then tabulated; if more than 6000 votes were cast, the man whose name appeared on the greatest number was sent into exile for ten years. Such was ostracism, introduced as a safeguard against tyranny, later used as a weapon by rival statesmen, and finally abandoned in the late 5th century [B.C.] when it deteriorated into a political game.

"The potsherds, or ostraka, after being counted, were treated like so much waste paper. They were shovelled up and carried out to fill potholes in the roads leading out from the Agora." ("The Athenian Citizen," pp. 25-26)

The virtues of the ostrakon as a medium for this sort of decision process are easy to see. Raised hands wouldn't do, since many citizens would probably not have wanted the targets of their ostracism vote to know that they had cast it. The anonymous technologies of jury voting, on the other hand, weren't open-ended enough to handle what was quintessentially a write-in vote. Additionally, many citizens seemed to enjoy the opportunity to scratch in a punctuating sentiment ("Out with him!" or "Traitor" or even occasionally a few lines of satirizing doggerel) beneath the name of their public enemy No. 1.

Finally, let's not forget that it couldn't have been a simple matter otherwise to collect in one place 6000 potsherds suitable for patching the highways of Attica. I can well imagine the Athenian DOT letting the potholes build up in the months preceding an ostracism vote, smug in the knowledge that the citizens would soon be coming together to spare them the expense of gathering the necessary roadfill.

I can imagine, too, an Athenian child playing by the roadside some late afternoon, just after the transit workers have finally come and done their job. Intrigued by the patch of fresh gravel on the road, the child digs for "buried treasure" == and finds it! A cache of broken pottery bits, all curiously inscribed. He takes one home and adds it to his small collection of strange found objects (a hawk's feather, a piece of amber, a bronze kleroterion ball), and as he grows into his citizenship he comes at last to understand the meaning of the ostrakon. But by then the ostracism vote has been abolished, and as this object is the closest he will have come to taking part in that tradition, he saves it, dusts it off now and then over the years, and near the end of his life takes it out to show to his grandchildren, pointing out the now legendary name carved into its surface, trying to bring to life for them a time they will nonetheless persist in thinking of as almost mythical.

No, there's nothing in the literature to support this scenario, but I've found nothing there that would rule it out either. For who's to say there weren't dead-media enthusiasts even in the ancient world?

Julian Dibbell (julian@mostly.com)