David Runciman

  • Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens by Josiah Ober
    Princeton, 342 pp, £17.95, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13347 8

The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few. We-think: the power of mass creativity. Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge. Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything. These are the titles of just a few of the books published in recent years on one of the hot topics of the moment: knowledge aggregation, or how lots of different people knowing many small things can result in a very big deal for everyone. The obvious impetus behind this publishing trend is the internet, which has generated astonishing new ways of finding out all the different things that people know and bringing that knowledge together. If you look for these books in bookshops (itself rather a quaint idea given that you’re supposed to be buying them online), you’ll discover them in the business or management sections, where their lessons about openness, flexibility, innovation and the importance of listening to what your customers are telling you have their most immediate applications. But the authors are usually more ambitious than this and want to apply their notions beyond the confines of management studies – and in social policy. If businesses can use the wisdom of crowds to predict what people really want, to innovate new ways of providing it, and to test whether it actually works, why can’t politicians?

The pooling of knowledge is an idea that many fashionable writers think could be applied to politics in new and interesting ways. But what’s odd about this is that almost no one wants to admit that the pooling of knowledge is also one of the oldest political ideas of all: it’s the basic idea of democracy, where you ask as many people as possible what they think, then use that information to decide what to do. Why won’t anyone acknowledge that the new new thing is really an old, old story? I think there are three reasons. First, people are still embarrassed by some of the ridiculous claims made on behalf of e-democracy in the early days of the internet. In the first innocent bloom of the new technology it seemed that politics was destined to become much more democratic, and that politicians were going to be put directly in touch with the preferences of voters, and required to hold online referendums on all sorts of issues. But of course it didn’t, and they weren’t. Second, this isn’t what we mean by democracy anyway. Our democracies are not direct but representative, which makes them top-down, leader-oriented popularity contests, not exercises in knowledge aggregation. Third, even if we are aware that there was once another way of doing democracy – the direct way, with citizens pooling their resources, sharing out offices and trying to act together – it happened so long ago as to seem absurdly distant from our present-day concerns. Take ancient Athens, routinely described as the birthplace of democracy, but hardly an obvious model for information-sharing in the age of the internet. Athens had many things going for it – philosophy, oratory, drama, magnificent buildings – but it was also a violent, faction-ridden, capricious, war-mongering, slave-owning society, clinging precariously to its privileged position, and regularly picking fights it couldn’t win. It doesn’t exactly sound like the Google (company motto: ‘Don’t be evil’) of the ancient world.

However, Josiah Ober is here to tell us that we have this last point completely wrong. We think of Athens like this only because we have been misled by the best-known ancient sources (from Plato on), which tended to talk up the failings of Athenian democracy and either overlooked or deliberately downplayed its strengths, including its adaptability and its durability. Modern-day ancient historians like Ober now believe they have enough direct evidence of how Athens worked in practice to bypass these prejudicial accounts and see Athenian democracy as it really was: an open, flexible, dynamic and remarkably successful political society, able to marshal its resources and hence outperform its rivals. In significant ways, Ober believes, Athens was the Google of the ancient world. And if this is true, then we may need to reconsider our other reservations about the democratic nature of the wisdom of crowds as well. Perhaps we are wrong to assume that democracy in the modern world can’t be much more than a popularity contest. And if so, perhaps we should also stop being embarrassed about the radical democratic potential of the internet.

So a lot depends on whether Ober is right about Athens. Essentially, his argument has two parts. First, he needs to show that Athens did indeed outperform all its rivals to become the most successful polity of the age. Second, he needs to show that this advantage was a direct result of its being a democracy, because as a democracy it was able to acquire, aggregate and codify knowledge in ways that its non-democratic rivals couldn’t match. To prove that Athens was top polis, Ober has drawn on a vast database of evidence that compares hundreds of Greek city-states and ranks them according to various criteria, including size, fame, international activity and public building, as well as the prevalence of their currencies in the coin hoards of the time (on the reasonable assumption that if people wanted to hold its coins, your state must have had a pretty solid reputation).

On all counts, democratic Athens comes out top, and by some distance. It significantly outperforms its two main rivals, the intermittently autocratic Syracuse and the austerely oligarchic Sparta. The chapter in which Ober spells this out sometimes reads like a parody of modern social science research: Athens’ fame is determined in part by what he calls a ‘citation ranking’, meaning a measure of the number of times it crops up in surviving literary texts. It turns out that Athens crops up an awful lot, though as Ober concedes, the reason may be that a great deal of the surviving literature was produced in Athens by Athenian citizens (Thucydides, Plato, Demosthenes) or long-term residents (Aristotle, Lysias). But what does the fact that so many of the best-known authors came from Athens tell us? That it was a thriving cultural centre able to dominate in this field as well. Chalk up another victory for those clever Athenians.

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[*] Cambridge, 352 pp., £16.99, November 2008, 978 0 521 73075 4.

[†] The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty (Imprint Academic, 112 pp., £25, August 2008, 978 1 84540 139 9).