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Dead medium: Athenian Political Technology (Revisited)
Source(s): Author's research
From: Julian Dibbell
Date: Tue, 16 Jan 2001 18:39:26 -0500

A couple months ago I sent in a column I'd written for FEED ( cannibalizing and fleshing out an old Dead Media submission of mine, on the Winky Dink interactive TV show. Here's another one, this time revisiting my Dead Media magnum opus, Working Note 38.6 and ff., on the information technology of ancient Athenian democracy. The focus here is on the kleroterion (the majestic lotto machine Athenians used to select their legislators) and the possibility that it could have been put to good use in Florida last November. Bonus: a plump mention of this very mailing list toward the end, to add to the "Dead Media in the Media" files.

LUCK OF THE DRAW What if the purpose of voting machines wasn't to get an accurate count, but to randomly choose a victor? JULIAN DIBBELL looks at the technology of electoral chance, from ancient Greece to Palm Beach.


ARGUE WHAT YOU will about states' rights, equal protection, partisan courts, mob violence, Ralph Nader, Katherine Harris, and/or the sacred will of the American people. In your heart of hearts you know it was really, in the end, all about a gadget: the Votomatic, that four-decade-old punch-card system without whose impressive failure rate we would never have known the poetry of chads or the agony of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney v. Albert Gore, Jr., et al.

You also know, of course, that the Votomatic's pivotal role could have been played just as well by a roulette wheel. Connoisseur of polling data that you and all good postmodern Americans are, you understand that whichever way the counts and recounts might have gone, the margin of error in the Florida presidential vote was wider than any possible margin of victory. Whichever side you were on, therefore, whatever democratic principles you claimed to stand for as you shouted at the television screen, you will never quite be able to explain away the simple, Heisenbergian fact that haunted the election from November 7 on: No tally of the Floridian ballots -- not the first and not the hundredth -- will ever determine the people's choice more authentically than a coin toss would have. The Votomatic's error-ridden output thus served not so much to muddy the truth as to wrest some serviceable facsimile of it from the jaws of chaos -- the way the randomizing mechanism in any game of chance will do.

And, naturally, you're sickened that it came to this. For haven't you been taught that political choice is a matter far too weighty to be left to chance? Or to the design of a piece of technology? Don't you believe, as you 've been taught, that the essence of democracy has nothing to do with machinery, much less the machinery of casinos?

Of course you do. But what if you've been taught wrong?

IT'S CUSTOMARY, when seeking out the essence of democracy, to begin with a visit to ancient Athens. So let's. Nowadays, you can't get any closer to the birthplace of Western democratic theory and practice than the well-tended ruins of the Agora, the ancient marketplace where Socrates discoursed and citizens gathered to (among other public duties) vote him dead. A fine museum stands there now, and in it, as you might expect, visitors find themselves surrounded by artifacts of Athenian antiquity's busy political culture. You might also expect that these artifacts would include high-minded stuff like statues representing the gods and goddesses of civic life, or stone tablets recording the timeless precepts at the heart of classical democracy, and you'd be right: a few such things remain. For the most part, though, when you stand in the Agora Museum, you are standing in the midst of a different sort of object altogether. You are standing in the midst of gadgets.

This is a curious fact, and one whose significance remains curiously under-recognized. These days, it seems, no discussion of Athenian democracy is complete without some shuffling apology for the Athenians' less-than-democratic treatment of women and slaves, all of whom were shut out of the political process altogether. The point, evidently, is not that Athenian democracy was inferior to ours (the women-and-slaves thing was kind of an issue for most of U.S. history, too, if you'll recall) but that it was never as pure as our cultural nostalgia for it might lead us to imagine. Why, then, I wonder, is so little mention ever made of the one other aspect of Athenian democracy that so plainly distinguished it from the fantasized ideal -- namely, its dependence on an elaborate and at times almost Rube Goldbergian technological infrastructure?

Wander the halls of the Agora Museum and you won't mistake it. Here are elegantly designed bronze juror ballots, cunningly crafted official identification cards, precision water clocks for timing public speeches, and several other sorts of political paraphernalia. Their workings were often ingenious, and I could easily spend this essay describing them all. Instead, though, I'd like to focus on a single piece of ancient political gadgetry, the main attraction of the museum and, arguably, the technological linchpin of Athenian democracy. It is called the allotment machine, or kleroterion. It was the Votomatic of the ancient world.

EVEN CONSIDERED PURELY as an aesthetic object, the kleroterion was a formidable thing. The museum contains just a fragment of one of the original devices -- a roughly two-by-three-foot slab of rock with a curious grid of dashes gouged into it. The complete machine was typically a tall rectangular stone about as tall and wide as a grown person, and about half a foot thick. Covering the face of the stone was a rectangular matrix of what looked like short horizontal lines and were in fact deep slots carved into the rock. The slots were arranged neatly in rows and columns, usually fifty rows down and typically five or in some cases eleven columns across. Along the left side of the grid a tube was attached to the stone, running from the top to near the bottom of the slab. At the top of the tube was a funnel, and at the bottom was a small crank-driven device.

The form, as I said, was something to behold, but what remains most striking is the function: The kleroterion was quite literally a slot machine.

Say, for instance, that a jury needed to be put together for a trial. Athenian juries had anywhere from two hundred members to a couple thousand, and each jury was to be composed of equal numbers of members from the city-state's ten political subunits, or tribes. Volunteers would assemble at their tribal kleroteria and submit bronze identity tickets to the officiating tribe member, who would slot these into the face of the machine, filling as many rows as he could. The officiant would then pour a mix of black and white bronze balls into the funnel at the top of the kleroterion -- as many balls as he had rows of tickets and as many white ones as he needed rows selected. One by one, he let the balls out at the bottom of the machine, flipping the little crank at the mouth of the tube like a bingo caller. If the first ball was white, then bingo -- the first row of volunteers marched off to the courthouse. If the ball was black, that row went home. And so on, till the tribe's quota of jurors was filled.

Of course, if the kleroterion had been used only for shaping up juries, it would remain no more than a curio -- a cleverly Flintstonian tool for a job still widespread but not exactly central to the life of modern democracies. In ancient Athens, however, selection by lot was anything but peripheral. Politically speaking, in fact, the lottery was just about the only game in town. Aside from generals, who were chosen by election, all public officers from high to low were selected by random drawing. Sometimes a jar filled with white and black beans served the purpose. But often as not -- and especially when members of all tribes were needed to fill the powerful ten-man committees that oversaw the treasury, granaries, ports, and other key public resources -- only the sophisticated mechanisms of the kleroterion would do.

Nor was the preference for lottery simply a primitive first step toward electoral democracy, the superstitious crotchet of a civilization not quite ready to give up petitioning for divine intervention in the affairs of men. There was solid, well-thought-out political theory behind the choice. By combining random selection with a large supply of offices, a vast pool of candidates, and stringent term limits (few positions could be held more than once or longer than a year), the Athenian system assured widespread political participation with greatly minimized risks of corruption, power-grabbing, and factionalism. In short, the lottery -- and the great Iron Age pachinko machine that was its finest expression and most powerful tool -- made the first democracy what it was. Together, the system and its technology enabled Athenians not just to recognize but to live what Aristotle, in his Politics, considered one of democracy's defining principles: "ruling and being ruled in turn."

I FIRST WROTE ABOUT the kleroterion two years ago, after I returned besotted with it from a Greek vacation and a visit to the Agora. I posted my notes on it to the Dead Media mailing list, an online catalogue of extinct information technologies maintained at the time by science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling. From the venue you'll deduce that I did not think of the kleroterion as anything but the relic of a very ancient regime. I admired it as one admires a pressed and dessicated flower. And I certainly never thought I'd see its like come into bloom again.

But then, a few weeks after my Dead Media contribution hit the Web, I got an excited email from one Conall Boyle, a lecturer in statistics at Britain's University of Central England. "Searching on 'kleroterion' I came across your fascinating page," Boyle began. "Like you I am impressed by the wisdom of the ancients."

"But does your interest go further?" he inquired. Did I agree "that the use of the lot and rotation of offices is a form of democracy that we could aspire to? That the much-vaunted electoral democracy, which produces oligarchy and lays itself open to manipulation by the power of corporations, is NOT the last word in democracy? Do you agree that we should advocate true Athenian democracy with the lot and rotation?

"If the answer to this is 'yes,'" he asked finally, "have you tried to advance the cause?"

I hadn't suspected the cause existed, of course, let alone tried to advance it. I wrote Boyle back requesting further information, and I confess I half expected him to send me a two-hundred-page attachment detailing the League of Women Voters' attempts to flood his brain with microwave transmissions. But Boyle was no nut, as it turned out. Not exactly. The movement he described to me was an eccentric one, to be sure, a good stone's throw from the mainstream of political thought. And it seemed to include its share of impassioned oddballs, like the idealistic anti-electoral Italians of the Movimento Internazionale per i Diritti dei Cittadini, whose Web site Boyle referred me to (their motto: "Even citizens, in their own little way, can get pissed off. So now what?").

But Boyle didn't just point me to home pages. He gave me the names of scholarly books and articles as well, and as I tracked them down I began to understand that kleroterion-inspired notions had been percolating in the margins of modern political theory for some years now. There was Yale constitutionalist Akhil Reed Amar's 1984 proposal for what he called lottery voting, a scheme -- aimed at curbing the "overweening majoritarianism" of U.S. electoral politics -- wherein all voters would write the name of their candidate on a ballot and then a single, deciding ballot would be drawn at random, with the candidates most voted-for having the best chances of being selected but none having no chance at all. There was Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips's 1985 book A Citizen Legislature, suggesting replacement of the U.S. House of Representatives with a 435-member Representative House, chosen by lot from a cross-section of the American population. There was Australian philosopher John Burnheim's more radical plan to replace the democratic state with something he called demarchy, a highly decentralized, ultra-Athenian network of administrative and deliberative agencies staffed by short-term, randomly selected officeholders.

Many of these schemes had a bashful air about them, presenting themselves more as thought experiments or "modest proposals" than as actual plans. But none were truly frivolous. All took seriously the proposition that lotteries represented not an abdication but an amplification of democratic choice -- a way of redistributing political agency toward individuals and constituencies too long denied their fair share of it. Some argued that the reduction in campaign costs alone would open the way for a more representative politics. Others emphasized the active citizen participation upon which lottery-based systems depended. Still others simply noted the statistical definition of random selection: equal chances for all.

I gave the arguments a skim. I found them on the whole to be compelling in their critiques of electoral democracy, and moving in their faith in the average citizen's capacity to govern. I also found them, given the powerful interests and inertia behind the electoral status quo, to be almost entirely utopian.

And then I forgot all about them.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, I remember them now. And now that the appalling spectacle of the last five weeks seems to have thrown the electoral status quo into a moment of radical question, I've decided that it's time for me to take up Conall Boyle's challenge after all, and do what I can to advance the cause.

It isn't merely that an Athenian-style lottery would never result in the kind of limbo that the Votomatic just put us through. After all, the instant run-off voting systems used in countries like Ireland and Australia would no doubt have spared us that misery just as effectively, at least in this election. Nor is it that the lottery's democratizing effects are unparalleled among possible alternatives to the existing U.S. election process. The proportional representation systems used in almost all modern democracies but ours, for instance, might go just as far toward easing the electoral tyranny of majorities.

What makes it crucial to make the case for political lotteries just now is not, finally, that they blow the doors off all the other schemes that might replace the status quo. It's that the lottery is the scheme most likely to excite and exercise our technical imagination -- which right now desperately needs the workout. As a country, we have grown peculiarly unaccustomed to applying that imagination to our mechanisms of political choice. Once the most radical experiment in democracy on the planet, we have become the democracy least willing to tinker with the machinery, conceptual and otherwise, that that experiment bequeathed us. It seems somehow to embarrass us even to acknowledge that there's anything to tinker with. How else to explain the distinctly bipartisan discomfort that lurked beneath the hostilities throughout the electoral ordeal of 2000? With its butterfly ballots, dimpled chads, safe harbors, and endless gamesmanship, the saga rubbed our noses in the technologies and technicalities upon which, to our chagrin, the functioning of our democracy relies.

Well, we've done enough squirming about it -- it's time to tinker. The Athenians certainly wouldn't have wasted any time getting down to it. They of all people knew that successful democratic rule was as much a matter of technical craft as of political will. Indeed, if there is any one conclusion to be drawn from the startling sophistication of their political gadgetry, it's that they figured out early what we seem only just now to be learning: that democracy, the most fragile of all forms of government, is the one that most depends on elegant design.

And elegant design, of course, is almost always the product of a great deal of inelegant revision. So let's revise, and let's not be dainty about it. The one mandate to have emerged from this election is a mandate to fix the election system, and even if we scotch the Electoral College and upgrade every voting machine in the land, there will remain much that is broken. Politics will still be the province of a professional elite. Corporations will still have undue influence on decision-makers. Minority interests will still be throwing away their vote every election day. Only the boldest reforms of the electoral system can address these problems, and we owe it to our highest political ideals to give those reforms a chance.

That's not to say we have to end up running the country by lottery. But like I said, I now intend to do everything within my meager power to see that we do. I'm ready to advance the cause, and for my first contribution I'd like to give the cause a name. I will have to run this by my confederates, of course, but I propose for now that you call us Kleroterians. It's got a nice whiff of mystery and exoticism to it, I think, but, more to the point, it honors a truth that every American should take to heart and any visitor to the Agora Museum can confirm: seek out the essence of democracy, and sooner or later you come face to face with its machines.

Julian Dibbell is the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World