Athenian agora

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Filtering, Synthesis, and the Athenian Assembly*

Yochai Benkler invokes the framework of the idealized Athenian agora1 to emphasize ideal, abstract “design characteristics of a communications platform for a liberal public platform or a liberal public sphere.”2 Perhaps a better analogy, however, would be to an idealized Athenian Assembly and accompanying regulations.3

The current problems of filtering for potential political relevance and accreditation, as well as synthesis of public opinion,4 are not unique to the present-day. The radical democracy of classical Athens also confronted such issues. This assignment will compare the way in which regulation of the Assembly sought to encourage the same “design characteristics” that Benkler suggests are fostered by the structure of a networked environment, with particular emphasis on the characteristics of synthesis, filtering, and accreditation.

Benkler expresses concern over how to enable proper synthesis of “clusters of individual opinion that are sufficiently close and articulated to form something more than private opinions.”5 Benkler discusses two criticisms of commercial mass media's (in)ability to filter and synthesize information appropriately: (1) commercial mass media might “give the owners too much power – which they either employ themselves or sell to the highest bidder – over what is said and how it is evaluated,” and (2) “advertising-supported media needs to attract large audiences, leading programming away from the genuinely politically important.”6

Benkler outlines a number of theories of democracy that influence ideal structure, focusing on those of civic republicans, Jurgen Habermas, Bruce Ackerman, and John Rawls. The first two, the theories of civic republicans focusing on “open deliberation among people who see their role as deliberating about the common good” and Habermas' focus “on deliberating under conditions that assure the absence of coercion,”7 are ideals that are reflected in Athenian law.

Athenian regulation

Generally, any citizen was allowed to speak in the Assembly, to voice concerns, opinions and vote (Benkler's idealized universal intake). However, in practice, there existed limits on which individuals could speak (dokimasia ton rhetoron) and what those individuals would say (graphe paranomon and audience shouting), reflecting the same concerns with commercial dominance and proper motivation expressed by Benkler.

While citizens had a right to speak in the Assembly, there was no absolute right of protected speech. After a citizen had proposed a decree, another citizen could bring a public charge called a graphe paranomon against the citizen who had proposed the decree, claiming that it was illegal because it either contravened an existing law or was damaging to the Assembly and Athens. The chilling effect of such a procedural charge was deemed subordinate to the state's interest in utilizing a mechanism which aligns a speaker's incentives with the needs of the state. Therefore, proposals regarding political/communal matters were not given by an individual in a private capacity but rather in a political capacity of representing what would be best for, and most amenable to, the democracy and community, reflecting the civic republican view Benkler referenced. If a speaker strayed from this model or said anything the audience disagreed with, the audience could shout him down.

A second limit on speech in the Assembly involved who could speak, and reflects the civic republican and Habermas' conception outlined by Benkler. Dokimasia ton rhetoron was a charge that involved a scrutiny of public speakers. If an individual wanted to be an orator, he could not have been a prostitute, have failed to protect his parents, squandered his inheritance, or evaded military service. Each of these restrictions directly implicates the ability to be a “proper” citizen. The requirement that a prospective speaker not have prostituted himself has been subject to a fair amount of scholarly analysis. One dominant theory is that male homosexuality, by itself, was not morally condemned.8 Instead, it was the commercial element that was problematic for a citizen-speaker.

In particular, the motivations for prostituting oneself were thought to be economic necessity and greed, both of which suggest that one's “autonomy [is] for sale.”9 A prostitute presented a danger to the city as a collective entity because, through that person, the city was vulnerable “to penetration by foreign influence or to corruption by private enterprise.”10 The man's words might not be his own, or his interests might not coincide with those of Athens, and instead result from the servility and greed evidenced by his willingness to prostitute his body.11

Benkler's networked public sphere

The problem of commercial interests dominating public discourse, then, is present both in Athenian regulation and Benkler's critique of existing mass media structure. Unlike Athens, which tried to enforce, through (legal) regulation, an ideal that individuals be politically active with an eye toward the public good and free from undue third-party influence, Benkler views the structure and nature of the networked media environment itself as encouraging appropriate filtering and synthesis. This can be seen in two interrelated areas: (1) a shift in how citizens view themselves in the new media world and (2) the role of small communities in filtering and synthesizing.

First, the emergence of the networked public sphere, to Benkler, will result in a “qualitative change” in “the self-perception of the individuals in society and the culture of participation they can adopt,”12 Athens, similarly, viewed the citizen's conception of himself as paramount to a democratic society. Halperin, for example, argues that disenfranchisement of male prostitutes was part of a “single democratizing initiative in classical Athens intended to shore up the masculine dignity of the poorer citizens... and to promote a new collective image of the citizen body as masculine and assertive.”13

Second, Benkler believes filtering, accreditation, synthesis, and salience will be created

through a system of peer review by information affinity groups, topical or

interest based. These groups filter the observations and opinions of an

enormous range of people and transmit those that pass local peer review

to broader groups and ultimately to the polity more broadly, without

recurrence to market-based points of control over the information flow.

Intense interest and engagement by small groups that share common

concerns, rather than lowest-common-denominator interest in wide groups

that are largely alienated from each other, is what draws attention to

statements and makes them more visible.


[Reliance] on clustering of communities of interest and association and

highlighting of certain sites, but offer[ing] tremendous redundancy of

paths for expression and accreditation[,] leave[s] no single point of failure

of discourse: no single point where observations can be squelched or

attention commanded – by fiat or with the application of money.14

The natural creation of “topical and social/organizational clusters,”15 and small-scale “communities of interest,”16 leads to the emergence of highly connected and visible points that are not dominated by a single commercial interest as in the commercial mass media model, where such filtering was left to “the few professional journalists” acting on their own incentives.17 The communities' motivation, by virtue of their structure and being driven and monitored by similarly-interested individuals, remains (largely) inviolate to commercial encroachment, somewhat similar to the motivations underlying the Athenian legal procedures described above to keep common interest, discourse, and benefit central, to the exclusion of undue commercial influence, and a local element ensuring checks and peer review (graphe paranomon and the audience's ability to shout down a speaker).

  • General understanding of Athenian legal procedures comes from the law school class Topics in Ancient Legal Thought.

1. The agora was the Athenian marketplace, and served an information-distributing function. Surviving law speeches suggest that one way to research precedents in anticipation of litigation was by talking with people in the agora about past cases and situations. Indictments were written up and posted in the agora until a case was heard, after which they were moved to a public archive.

2. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks 180 (2006).

3. See generally “Pnyx,”;” Ecclesia,” (last visited 23 April 2006).

4. Benkler, supra note 2, at 183-4.

5. Id. at 184.

6. Id. at 197.

7. Id.

8. In fact, male homosexuality was the basis for the traditional institution of pederasty and often elevated to mythic status.

9. David M. Halperin, The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in Classical Athens, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love 88, 97 (1990).

10. Id. at 97-98 (emphasis added).

11. See also James Davidson, Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex, 170 Past and Present 3, 27, 20 (2001) (Distinction between good and bad does not rely on disapproval of homosexual acts; instead, it relies on the existence of a commercial element. Support for this formulation is found in the law speech Against Timarchus, involving such a prosecution, which does not focus on sexual acts but instead focuses on defendant's “readiness to sell his body, his patrimony and the state”: “Corrupt politicians were often described as 'selling themselves'....”).

12. Benkler, supra note 2, at 213. This is in contrast with the anonymous “exhibitionism and voyeurism” found in call-in shows in which individuals acted in a manner quite unlike a “well-socialized adult.” Id. at 210.

13. Halperin, supra note 9, at 102-103.

14. Benkler, supra note 2, at 242, 271 (emphasis added). This idea was touched on by Jonathan Zittrain, in his inaugural lecture as the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, where he spoke about vesting identity into artifact, and that the environment that makes people want to behave appropriately are smaller groups, such as Wikipedia communities surrounding a single entry.

15. Id. at 248.

16. Id. at 255.

17. See id. at 257, 272. Benkler notes that an increased engagement by the citizenry is, in part, a result of “the varied modes of participation in small-, medium-, and large-scale conversations.” Id. at 259. See also id. at 255 (Slashdot). Precisely because engagement begins at a local level, engagement begins with “what irks you, the contributing peer, individually, the most,” increasing the value of the citizen in participating and checking abuses. Id. at 259, 260 (“What do I care about most now?”).