Object as Decree

The Info Tech of Ancient Athenian Democracy (1)

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.


(1) Part 5 of notes by Julian Dibbell on 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), American School of Classical Studies at Athens, c/o Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.

Posted to the 'Dead Media' mailing list, 8 Sep 98

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