As EDC ’17 moves towards close, here are ancient ‘cybernauts’ to lead us onwards: + #mscedc

Various of the set readings from the cyber-culture block adverted to the etymology of cybernetics, in ancient Greek term for the helmsman on a ship. (I don’t know why, but I don’t think any pointed to the etymological roots of ‘algorithm’, including its Arabic traces, but that’s another story.) Here, as the EDC course draws towards closure, I’ve gone in search of the ancient kybernetes, literally ‘steerer’.

I’ve uncovered a couple of great online images, but they’re under copyright so I won’t produce them here. The links in the above Tweet are to here and here.

The first is carved in stone, a wall relief, from the Isola Sacra necropolis in Ostia, Italy. When I found the image online, I didn’t know anything about its original position, or function, but – looking here it gains some context- there’s a glimpse of its setting (with a wider view here). For the setting within a necropolis, see here. Certainly the ship – with three rowers as well as its kybernetes – is befitting the necropolis’s cosmopolitan harbour context. The ancient kybernetes was skilled at crossing boundaries.

The second image is on a coin, from Syria, in 239-240AD. Eight oarsmen on this one, and a soldier, as well as the kybernetes. Context wise, ancient coins escape me – I don’t know anything about this image, beyond the description.

I’ve also dipped online, via Google Books, in Lionel Casson’s Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995). Apparently, on a simple ship in Homer’s day, the kybernetes was one among three officers, along with the keleustes, (literally, the ‘orderer’) who provided the beat for the oarsmen’s tempo, and the prorates (literally, the ‘fore-looker’) who, in the bows stood watch – “an all-important station in an age that knew neither charts nor navigational aids” (p.300).

The role of the ancient kybernetes was not static through time. Networks, and roles within them changed as technologies advanced. This early network of personnel evolved into five officers, aboard the trireme ship of the fifth century BC, but the kybernetes might still be given overall command as “executive officer where the trierarch had the experience and desire to take command himself, and commanding officer when he did not. Underway, the kybernetes took the captain’ traditional station on the poop. In emergences he might handle the tiller himself, but normally he used quartermasters” (p.302). Then and now, technologies, and roles in their use, evolve.

Why dig out these images, and these observations? Simply because I wanted to explore and learn, and because – thanks to digital resources – I could. Now, at least, Ostia is more than a name. I’ve never been to Ostia, and I can rarely remember handling a Roman coin, but the world of the internet brings distant, ancient worlds that bit closer.

And, in whatever world we inhabit, there’s that need for a steerer, for someone to work the course of navigation for the ship. As Pliny noted in Epist. 9.26.4 (quoted by Casson, p.239) the true testing of a kybernetes arises when “the rigging sings in the wind and the mast bends”, whereas, as Apuleius (in Florida 23) observes, a “well-hung tiller, stout ropes, [and] lofty mast” cannot prevent a bad kybernetes destroying a beautiful ship. In digital cultures, these principles endure in different forms today and in times, places and oceans yet to come.