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Dead medium: Information Technology of Ancient Athens, Part Five
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.

(((bruces remarks: This is the fifth and last installment of Julian Dibbell's Homeric epic on Athenian political gizmos. Mr Dibell's most recent book is *My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World* (1998) ISBN 0-8050- 3626-1.)))

The Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy

By Julian Dibbell

Part Five: The Technology of Decree

In the final phase of the Athenian political circuit, the decisions reached by the citizenry were recorded and published. In this area of endeavor, the Athenians probably didn't break much new ground, for though the bottom-up nature of Athenian democracy was a political novelty, the top-down phenomenon of the government decree certainly was not. Autocracies of various sorts, I can only assume, had long before worked out most of the techniques the Athenians used to publicize official policies.

But I wouldn't rule out a uniquely Athenian twist here and there. The Athenian government seems to have published a *lot* of official proclamations and records, and this seems to have had as much to do with the citizens' distinctly democratic urge to keep an eye on the doings of the state as with the state's need to communicate its will to the citizens.

But if, in consequence of this distinction, there were any peculiarly Athenian innovations in the technology of decree, I'm not qualified to identify them. For that matter, I can't even say with confidence that all of the following media are entirely deceased. But they do give off a nice archaic aroma.

A. The Written Decree: Steles, Monumental Bulletin Boards, Axones

As far as I know, the stele (or, in Latin, stela) survives these days only in the form of the cemetery headstone. It is therefore close enough to death, in more ways than one, that it can very handily pass for dead.

In ancient times, however, and particularly it seems in democratic Athens, the stele was a medium much in demand, especially for official proclamations. As a big slab of rock, of course, the stele was well suited to this purpose. For being big, it was hard to ignore, especially when propped up in the middle of a well-trafficked space like the Agora. And being a slab of rock, it was not likely to blow away or otherwise succumb to the abuse of circumstance.

For these reasons, too, you might think that only proclamations of great and long-lasting import were published via stele. And indeed, a lot of the surviving steles record just that sort of text: treaties with other Greek states, fundamental laws, memorials to fallen soldiers. But just as many, it seems, are covered with administrative trivia: long lists of property confiscated by the state in legal actions, minute records of the works of public agencies, yearbook-style catalogs of the extracurricular activities of young military cohorts, published at the end of their service.

(Choice excerpt from one of the latter: "They made the voyage to Salamis for the games in honor of Aias.... They dedicated a cup worth 100 drachmas to the Mother of the Gods.... They kept harmony and friendship among themselves throughout the year." The local critics' response to such fascinating material does not survive, but we can easily imagine it: "A gripping read! I couldn't put it down! Then again... I couldn't pick it up!")

The stele, in short, was no big deal. It was simply what the government used for publishing, at least when it wanted its publication to last more than a couple weeks. For more ephemeral communications it had other means, a centrally located bulletin board being the most important of them. There, along the base of a set of statues honoring the 10 mythical founders of the Athenian tribes (called the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes), the government affixed wooden whiteboards displaying mobilization orders, drafts of new laws, and notices of lawsuits.

A more intriguing medium of proclamation == the axones == is mentioned in passing by the Agora Museum's literature, but its details are left maddeningly unexplained. On page 2 of the pamphlet "Life, Death, and Litigation in the Athenian Agora," a sketchy drawing is presented: A wooden frame stands upright, three square- sectioned dowels or beams installed within it, horizontally, with Greek script running along the four faces of each. The inscribed cross-beams appear to be attached to the frame by free-turning spindles, with the apparent implication that users could rotate the beams to access a desired section of text.

The caption: "Reconstruction of wooden *axones* on which the laws of Solon were recorded in the Stoa Basileios." That's it. Why the Solonic laws were displayed in this form is not discussed. Nor does the text even tell us how big the axones frame was. Taller than a person? Desktop size? If anybody out there knows more, please enlighten us.

Finally, let's consider the medium that suffuses all of the aforementioned: writing, which though hardly extinct these days, is not exactly the spring chicken it was in ancient Athens. The Greeks had after all been writing for only about 250 years by the time Athenian democracy was fully implemented, near the end of the 6th century B.C. And we who spend our leisure hours sorting live media from dead would do well to keep in mind that the distinction between young media and old can be just as interesting.

As for how writing among the Greeks may have differed from what it has become today, I won't go into such formal aspects as the absence of spaces between words, the general paucity of punctuation, and the snaking left-to- right-to-left direction of many ancient Greek inscriptions. Much has been written elsewhere on these topics.

But there is a subtler, more subjective type of difference to be discerned in the inscribed artifacts collected at the Agora, I think. I base my sense of it, somewhat tenuously, on a single recurring theme in the earliest of those inscriptions: the use of the first person to identify inanimate objects, as in, for example, "Of Tharrios I am the cup," written on the side of a cup. Or on the handle of a pitcher: "I am rightfully (the possession) of Andriskos." ("Graffiti in the Athenian Agora," figures 5 and 52)

That this was not just a jocular convention is indicated by the fact that it can also be found in an official decree of a sort == a stele placed at the Agora's political boundary that bears the inscription "I am a boundary marker of the Agora."

What then to make of this curious practice? Though I'm aware it may in fact mean very little, I suspect it actually implies a semiconscious notion among the Greeks that writing bore the voice not just of the writer but of the object written on. I suspect, further, that this notion was as much a belief as a conceit == as much magical as metaphorical.

And yet I don't mean to imply that the Greeks were therefore more primitive thinkers than we are. On the contrary, the nearest parallel to this phenomenon that I can think of is our own semiconscious, semimagical belief that computers speak in a voice of their own.

Computers, too, are merely a kind of inscribed object, after all. Yet look at all the computer programs that have been written as if it were they, and not their programmers, who were speaking to us through the interface. Look at all the automatic teller machines that refer to themselves in the first person, look at all the anthropo- and zoomorphized software agents coming out of comp sci labs, look at our insistent attribution of personae to "artificially intelligent" programs (Deep Blue, Eliza) that are in fact a very far cry short of HAL.

I'm not saying any of this is silly. I have in fact long sympathized with the view that thinking of computers as thinking beings (a habit the philosopher Daniel Dennett refers to approvingly as the intentional stance) is a sensible cultural response to the technology's complexity, and that it will only grow more sensible as the complexity increases.

But suddenly I find myself wondering. Are we, instead, simply in an early, passing stage of enchantment with our powerful new information technology, as the Greeks perhaps were with theirs? And will we look back someday on the symptoms of this enchantment and find them just as odd, and charming, as the talking cups and pitchers of the Athenians?

B. The Object as Decree: Tile Standard

Not all decrees can be made entirely through language. In the case of officially decreed weights and measures, for instance, some specific object must sometimes be constructed and pointed to as defining the metrological unit in question.

The Athenians, for example, evidently kept complete official sets of weights, made of bronze, in the government buildings of the Agora. They were made and overseen by the Controllers of Measures (or Metronomoi), who also kept on hand ceramic and bronze vessels that defined the official dry and liquid measures.

In this the Metronomoi were not that different from, say, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Weights and Measures, which, if I read their Web page right, keeps precision-shaped standard-setting objects on hand to calibrate measuring tools that go out for use in science and industry.

But when it comes to government requirements for specific products like wine bottles, say, or bedding, modern methods of standard-setting are much more abstract, usually involving precise, technically involved textual descriptions. NIST and other standards bodies do not, as far as I know, guard in their vaults an Official Wine Bottle or an Official Fire-Retardant Mattress, suitable for comparison with their commercial epigones.

In the case of at least one product, however, the Athenians appear to have done approximately that. Outside a civic building in the Agora, carved into the stone of a wall, were two official tiles, each defining the standard dimensions of a different type of roofing tile. This site, the museum literature observes, "must often have been the meeting place of irate buyers and makers of roof tiles so that an offending product could be compared with the standard."

Now, this is clearly as mundane a phenomenon as any I have discussed in these Notes. But let me point out nonetheless that when a tile ceases to be a tile, and becomes instead the definition of a tile, something strange and deeply human has happened. It is a moment not unlike that in which some culturally valued object == a head of cattle, or a pretty shell, or a lump of metal == ceases to be itself and becomes instead the definition of all things valued: becomes money.

Indeed, this weird alchemy, this transmutation of the specific object into the abstract notion, seems to be the defining feature of information technologies in general. Of media, if you will. For what, in the long run, has been the work of the Dead Media Project if not to catalog the endless variety of tangible physical phenomena == bones, knots, sound waves, fire, air, electricity, flowers == that humans have transformed into the abstract stuff of symbol and image?

And if the birth of Athenian democracy can also be thought of as a movement from the specific to the abstract == from the rule of a particular person or persons to the rule, in principle, of any and all citizens == then doesn't that imply a peculiarly resonant relationship between democracy and media? I think it does.

Abstractions, after all, are hard to believe in if you don't have some way of physically embodying them. Mathematics didn't really take off, for instance, until the Mesopotamians figured out how to squish numbers into the surfaces of clay tablets. And while it may be stretching things to say that democracy would never have taken off if the Athenians hadn't figured out a way to build its logic into the kleroterion, the allotment token, the juror ballot, the axones, and all the other physical mechanisms of its political culture, surely these tools were indispensable to democracy's robust development in the long run.

They didn't do it alone, of course. But along with the traditions, the conventions, and the citizens of Athens, they gave democracy its shape. They made it real.

Julian Dibbell (julian@mostly.com)