Notes on the Antikythera mechanism and modernity

There is no need to present the Antikythera mechanism yet again. Enough has been published on the peculiarities of this remarkable wonder of Antiquity. In a few words, the mechanism, discovered by sponge fishermen in 1901 off the Antikythera island, was probably built, according to the most recent estimates, in 205 BC, probably in Corinth or in one of its colonies, Syracuse (home of the school of Archimedes) coming to mind. It sank along with the ship that transported it and a cargo of amphorae and bronze statues during a storm hypothetically en route to Rome. The mechanism was dubbed the “first computer of the Ancient world.” It was indeed a complex mechanism comprising 30 meshing bronze gears designed to predict lunar and solar eclipses (most likely using Babylonian astronomical predictions), all the while reproducing on a dial the movement of the planets and completed by a Corinthian-style calendar marking the four Panhellenic athletic events—all of this put into motion by spinning a single crank. So accurate was the mechanism that the engineers even took into consideration the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun. The fineness of the toothed gears observed on the mechanism was not to be seen again until the Renaissance. It is worth noting that mechanical astronomical clockworks such as the Antikythera mechanism were still produced into Late Antiquity: a model, albeit simpler, is known from the 6th century.[i]

This is not what will concern us here, however. The Antikyhtera mechanism has, as we have said above, been nicknamed the first computer of the world and it creates in us, people of the 21st century, a justified sense of wonder at ancient technological ability and, more generally, at human capabilities. We modern people fancy (once again rightly) how advanced the Ancients were, a thought that often (but this time wrongly, as we will see below) leads to this one: that we, people of modern times, have not invented anything, but simply continued and built upon the achievements of past ages. The comparison with a modern computer, while accurate (the mechanism is a calculating device just as much as a modern computer) creates a false sense of proximity and continuity between the ancient and the contemporary worlds. Quite the opposite. Because what is involved in such things, as with all material culture, is more than just about the machines themselves, but also, and perhaps more significantly, about the mindset and the philosophical outlook that produced them. A philosophical study of technology will reveal the differences between the ancient mechanism and its modern, electronic counterparts.

Let us observe the Antikythera mechanism. It is made up of interdependent gears activated by a hand crank and thereby calculates and predicts certain astronomical phenomena shown on circular dials by rotating pointers. The whole complexity of it is contained in a box. In other words, the mechanism is a closed, self-contained system.[ii] Unlike modern computers, it is not connected to another such system or to external flows of data. In fact, interconnectivity to external flows of data is the raison d’être of modern computers. A free-standing computer not connected to the larger and ever growing network has no purpose; it is an absurdity. Unlike the Antikythera mechanism, a modern electronic computer must not only be fed with external data sent by other, similar machines connected to it (the World Wide Web), it also needs to spit out its own data back into the wider world of data. Their Ancient Greek analog counterpart needed no such openness.

What this implies is at the core of our argument. The Antikythera mechanism with its self-contained and self-sufficient system is a reproduction, at the scale of a hand-held box, of the cosmos as the Ancients saw it. In fact, on seeing it operating, one is immediately reminded of Plato’s cosmography described in the Timaeus (32c-35b on the self-sufficient world and its circular movement; 35c-36d on the numbers). His is a closed cosmos, self-standing, self-contained, self-moving and self-sufficient, divided along arithmetic proportions and beauty. It is as if Archimedes had condensed Plato and Aristotle into a single mechanical device. The cyclical movement of both the physical cosmos and of the pointers of its hand-held reproduction, the rotation of the ecliptic always returning upon itself creates a world resting in stability and harmony. It is also quite worthy to note that this situation had a correspondence in the polis as well as in the individual man (cf. the Republic): the person was made of a body and soul. The latter’s movements, when healthy, were in tune with the rotations of the cosmos.

The modern computer, by contrast, is the representative of the new, man-made and technological world criss-crossed (or better said, flooded) by flows of information data from which each machine must feed itself continuously, and to which it must return its processed data if it wants to find a purpose to exist. Those fluxes never stop and, in fact, are ceaselessly expanding. Computer A, if it wants to be useful, must be connected to Computer B, both making up Network 1 which will itself be connected to Network B, etc. Such connectivity means that a glitch somewhere, a small defect in a single entity will potentially affect the entire network. This unstoppable horizontal expansion works in collaboration with another, just as unstoppable, but vertical expansion: innovation, the constant updating of individual entities and the production of newer, more performant ones. This is what lies beneath the concept of “progress.” Unlike the Antikythera mechanism, modern computers, and with them modern society, are defined by fluidity and limitlessness, by constant change and, ultimately, instability. So is the universe as we now see it: it is no longer a cosmos, but rather an ever-expanding, acentric and infinite universe (and even a pluriverse, as some hypothesize) into which we see always further and deeper. This is the “cosmology” of a society that has erased the boundary between the Earth and the energies of the universe (nuclear energy). Nothing is more foreign to the ancient conception of the world.

A second point of comparison, concerning the object itself, must be discussed. Each entity, because it depends on the constant input of liquid data from the wider technical world, would be meaningless outside of this world of data (someone who desires to have a computer must also have it connected to the Internet; it would be unthinkable to have a computer unable to fulfill this duty, and that person would without a doubt prefer not to get that computer at all). The individual computer is totally dependent on that “society of computers,” and it has no choice but to adapt to it. Adaption is operated through innovation; we call this process progress. Only the fittest are able to survive: Darwin has won. This situation is also reflected in society, where each unit (the individual) is no longer autonomous, but rather invisibly connected to others in what we call society, itself administered by a bureaucracy. We now have to rely solely on what that society gives us for our survival; the sum of individuals makes up society, and we are in turn its product. “Totally dependent on society’s structure, I am pretty much useless to it” (Michel Houellebecq). That judgment is just as true for computers as it is for us. The chilling consequence of such a situation is that a faulty entity can, and must, be discarded and replaced by a working one. Yet even that fit entity must eventually be replaced by a yet more efficient one. Mass production (and this is the third difference) is what allows for that substitution process and interchangeability to happen. Once again, and quite tragically, it is just as true for our machines as it is for us.

What made the Antikythera mechanism unique (its fine workmanship, the scientific knowledge contained in such a small space and, last but not least, its uniqueness itself) is what makes us look at it with wonder. No matter how efficient and advanced the technology hidden in a modern computer is, no one, not even unconsciously, will find himself at awe with it. Mass production has not only made wonder impossible and obsolete, it has made each thing (whether an object or a person) desperately unoriginal and, as a substitutable thing, useless in itself. If, twenty-two centuries later, we admire the Antikythera mechanism, we can only sigh at no longer being able to build such fine works and at how much we have by contrast been made insignificant by our own machines.


[i] That the 6th century model be simpler does not mean that scientific knowledge or technical skills had been lost. The Antikythera mechanism is a one-of-a-kind, outstanding, state-of-the-art model using technical skills that had by this point come to maturity (the advanced techniques used in this clockwork means that there had been earlier trials, though those have not been preserved or found). In all likelihood, it was not meant to be mass-produced, if such a term accurately applies to ancient modes of production. One may even wonder if it would have been very functional and actually used (the suggestion that the ship onboard which it was found was bound for Rome reinforces this hypothesis). Besides, eclipses could easily be predicted by simple calculations. It is probably more a window to the technological expertise of the Greek world in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, perhaps a gift to a Hellenistic king before being taken to Rome as a war spoil or trophy. It was not uncommon before the Modern world to acquire and display mechanical devices to impress and strike awe and therefore display power, such as, much later, the mechanical animals described by Liutprand of Cremona at the court of Constantinople would do. The simpler 6th century model may on the contrary be the representative of models produced for more practical use although one may, for the same reasons as above, speculate that such mechanisms were mostly built to satisfy the knowledge-thirsty scientists and scholarly noblemen of the Eastern Empire. The 6th century was indeed another high point of Ancient mathematics, best represented by Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, the famed architects of Hagia Sophia who, together with their peers, could have had a scholarly interest in and the need for such devices (interestingly, the latter also produced the first comprehensive compilation of Archimedes’ works). If anything, these ancient astronomical clocks are works of art, the mechanical reproduction on a small scale of the greatest work of art, the cosmos.

[ii] The expression closed system is a redundancy since a system is by definition closed and does not admit external disturbances. The struggle of modern thinkers such as Hegel and, in a way, Marx, to develop open systems, a contradiction in terms, is a testimony to the end of classical thought and concepts at the hand of modernity.