Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project



Giorgio Buccellati – April 2023

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The term Cybernetica Mesopotamica refers to three entities:

  1. this website;
  2. a system of websites of which this serves as the hub;
  3. a research project of which the websites are the outcome.

They all address the same issues, which may be summed up under three headings:

  1. theory;
  2. primary data;
  3. bibliography.

For more details see under II. Domains.

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1. Theory

A single website ( presents the website theory that undergirds all the other websites in the system. It deal with the notion of digital discourse, viewing the website as an epistemic system that articulates and communicates knowledge through an interplanar approach that is distinctive of critical thought and is brought to a higher level of expliciteness and complexity through the application of digital thought.

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2. Primary data

Narrowing in on very specific topics, we have three domains that deal with sites, seals and texts – currently for a total of eighteen websites. These are restricted corpora, restricted in terms of scope, not of size: each website addresses a very well defined body of data, relating to two archaeological sites (Terqa and especially Urkesh), two glyptic traditions (Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian), and two groups of cuneiform texts (Old Babylonian and Ebla). These websites engage in a highly differentiated analysis, resulting in a real confrontation with the big data issue.

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3. Bibliography

This domain, with seven websites, opens a window onto an important period in human history, the four millennia of Syro-Mesopotamian civilization, dealing as it does with the entire chronological period and geographical area. Focusing on the scholarship that has developed in the various pertinent disciplines, this domain develops various inquiry paths into specific topics. It thus opens a crack in time, in the sense that it addresses a well defined segment of history, but it has greater relevance than may appear at first: with the introduction of writing and urbanism this was a civilization that faced problems of a magnitude never seen before or after until our own times with the digital turn.

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Website structure

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Part One

Section I. THE PROJECT. One will find here a description of the operational aspects and of the history of the project.

Section II. A SYSTEM OF WEBSITES. This website serves as the main hub for a cluster of websites that are closely interrelated. Here one will find an overview of these websites and of the domains for which serve as the publication outlet.

Section III. THE GOALS. The project is a work in progress, and here one will find a description of the expected outcome during the current phase of the project.

The first three sections of this website are written as a linear text: they develop an argument which is meant to be read sequentially. These three sections are archived according to the ephemeris system.

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Part Two

Section IV. WORK IN PROGRESS. A chronicle and agenda of events, with full details on current activities relating to different aspects of the project.

Section V. RESULTS. A description, with links, of the major results as they are obtained.

The sections in Part Two are of the aggregative type: they serve as a container of information, available for consultation, and do not, as such, develop an argument. Sections four and five remain open, without archiving.

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Intended audiences

The Cybernetica Mesopotamica websites deal with very diverse topics and data, in some cases tied to data that are highly technical and specific and in others developing theoretical perspectives that are abstract and complex. The obvious audiences are those interested in Mesopotamian studies, archaeology or the digital turn.

But we may look further and distinguish, more finely, different types of audiences, depending on:

  1. what content they may be interested in;
  2. what degree of preparedness they bring to their "visit;"
  3. what mode of interaction they have with the website;
  4. how they are likely to perceive the website;
  5. audiences respond also to whether the site is anonymous or linked to authorship.

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1. Subject matter: data and theory

The subject matter is clearly laid out in the form of domains that deal with specific issues.

The data are strictly limited to the Mesopotamian world. This sets an obvious limit to the range of information one may expect, all the more so as the domains on sites, seals and texts are further narrowed in a very substantial way to very specific sectors, such as the site of Urkesh or Old Babylonian royal letters. The bibliographical domain, on the other hand, is more broadly conceived to include all aspects relating to Mesopotamian political institutions, literature, art and religion. Accordingly, the audience to which these websites are directed is expected to have an interest and some degree of competence in these areas.

With regard to theory, two distinct aspects are envisaged in the project. The major one is found in the domain devoted specifically to theory, which deals with the notion of digital discourse. The website deals specifically with the notion of archaeology and its epistemological implications.

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2. Level of interest: technical and introductory

Most of the content in the websites is technical by nature, and is thus addressed to an audience that is particularly prepared for a more complex level of understanding. One may refer for example to a page from the bibliography domain in a monograph about Kant or to a page in the sites domain that relates to an artifact found on the excavations.

There are, on the other hand, broad introductory sections that highlight the major points of interest, such as with the section Urkesh at a glance for the site devoted to the excavations at Urkesh as a whole or the introduction to an individual excavation unit, e.g. A16.

Some of these website introductory sections are more extensive than others, such as the one in the Digital Discourse website or the even longer one in the Critique of Archaeological Reason website. These define clearly the level of commitment with which the website has been written and the corresponding lebel of interest one would expect in a reader.

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3. Approach: consulting and reading

The mode of interaction a given audience has with a website is of particular interest within the framework of the website theory that I am proposing. Websites have generated a certain expectation which conditions a priori the way in which we approach them. The model I am proposing is at variance with this expectation, and this puts a preconditional limit on how audiences would approach the websites within the Cybernetica Mesopotamica system.

The current model views a website as a container: it is structured in such a way that “users” may quickly and easily find what they are looking for. It is largely a search for the known, with serendipitous navigation often leading to the unknown or unexpected. It is an approach similar to the one with a dictionary which one consults looking for information, or with an encyclopedia which one consults looking for limited arguments about well defined and specific topics. Just as one does not “read” a dictionary or an encyclopedia, so one does not “read” a website. The Cybernetica Mesopotamica websites do in fact serve as containers, and may be so consulted.

The Cybernetica Mesopotamica websites, on the other hand, aim to serve a different function as well. They propose a running argument which is meant to be “read,” and not just consulted. This poses an obstacle for an audience that would normally expect the website to serve only as a container: the instictive posture in front of a website page is to pick and skip, not to heed and delve. My intent is that the merit of this new approach may evoke sufficient attention to accept the more complex (“interplanar“) approach to a website and find accordingly what the website, so conceived, aims to offer.

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4. Perception: the whole and the fragments

When websites are seen as containers, the perception is entirely focused on the single pieces, which is all any current audience is expecting. There is no interest in the structure of the website as such; further, since there is no running argument, there is no interest in defining either the beginning or the end of a website. The website is simply open and thus any audience would not typically look beyond the fragments, or expect that there would be anything else.

There are standard mechanisms that serve, in the websites we are all accustomed to, to facilitate this perception, some tied to content, such as hyperlinks, and some tied to the aesthetics of the design, such as the role of images. (“Site maps” for websites are mechanisms that speak to the whole, but they are essentially of interest only to those who construct the website, much as an organizational plan of a supermarket would be of interest to those who stock the wares on the shelves and study the “visiting” preferences of customers.)

The Cybernetica Mesopotamica websites do serve as containers, in an aggregative mode, and to this extent any current audience can access them in the conventional way. But they also propose an alternative model, one that is argumentative in content and sequential in format, is “written” as a coherent, multi-level (or “interplanar”) whole, and expects to be “read” in the same manner. Certain aspects of the format are intended to facilitate the perception of this whole which is otherwise lost to the audience in current websites. This is a complex matter, that is developed in full in the Digital Discourse website; see also briefly below under websites structure.

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5. Authorship

The notion of website authorship is relevant with regard to an audience, because one reacts differently depending on whether the source is amorphous as to authorship or whether it has an identified author. Authorship entails responsibility, and readers feel they are confronting not just a blank something, but a someone with a personality and a history that open a specific perspective on what is being read.

Websites are not generally identified as to their author, because in effect they are generally not conceived as a single whole. Individual pages are attributed to a given author (e.g., in media outlets), but that does not extend beyond the limit of the page, which is then seen not properly in a digital sense, but as the equivalent of a printed text. As a result, websites are generally shrouded in anonymity.

There are significant alternatives, like blogs: here the personality of the main author and of the contributors comes openly across, often with explosive tones. But I am here thinking of websites that aim at developing a coherent and unified argument, as is otherwise normally found, in the scholarly tradition, in books and monographs.

The Cybernetica Mesopotamica websites are instead individually authored, with an explicit stress on the first person as an author. Each page also (in fact, each record in a segmented narrative) is explicitly linked to an author, and the text is regularly in the first person.

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Facing the metaverse

While the Cybernetica Mesopotamica project deals with some very specific and substantive aspects of Syro-Mesopotamian culture and with some equally substantive aspects of digital communication, it can also be seen as a model for how to deal with the much larger issue of the digital world, all the way to the question of artificial intelligence, and our interaction with it.

The concept of metaverse has come into common parlance to refer to the virtual reality world, but it can be used appropriately to refer to the digital world as a whole. When one is (literally) “turned to the beyond” (as the term “meta-verse” implies), one can lose the sense of unity and wholeness, with all the impact this can have on our psychological make-up. And we aim to offer a concrete alternative, with regard to the web and specifically the website as a prevalent current mode of communication.

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The labyrinth

The image of the labyrinth is an apt metaphor. A goal oriented search presupposes a directional trajectory, an itinerary that has a clearly stated end point. In a labyrinth there is a generic intent to reach a given goal (the Minotaur, in the original Labyrinth), and one knows that there is a way to it, but there is no sense of direction. One goes from one turn to the next, from one Y junction to the next, without any means to check the viability of the choice made in any given case. And if one gets to the end, there is no demonstrable way to get back to the beginning. One fact that is intrinsic to the very idea of the labyrinth is that there can and must not be any knowledge of its structure, so that anything that happens within it is happenstance – with the fascination of simply progressing, but with the ensuing anxiety of losing one’s bearings and of feeling lost.

The web tends to work this way: it leads one along a path with endless forks, fascinating for the immediacy it offers, and yet unable, or unwilling, to offer any sense of continuity. The goal is so generic and so unsupported by the structural layout that it amounts to a lack of goals.

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In the original myth, Theseus has a certain and specific goal, to kill the Minotaur, and a specific device intended to allow him to retrace his steps: the thread of Ariadne. This introduces a sense of direction at least for the return, but is a device independent of the structure itself. In other words, the labyrinth does not, as such, display how to control it.

Navigating a website, and from that website to the next, and the next, and the next, cresting on the hyperlinks as one surfs the wavelike disposition of the data – this is like navigating a labyrinth. Ariadne’s thread is, in this case, one’s own memory of the starting point, and that, too, may often fail or simply not even be invoked.

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The need for Daedalus

We need to go beyond relying on Ariadne’s thread, and to go back to the architect’s original design, getting Daedalus to integrate the plan with the structure. We may call a Palace “labyrinthine” when we are confused as to the sequence of rooms and feel lost as we go from one to the other. But the Palace declares its plan as one goes through it, and we develop a gradual perception of this structure as we walk it – with reference points along the way that serve as markers of what the structure is meant to be. That would never be so in a labyrinth, where there are no reference points, and each fork looks the same as the other.

My goal is to write a website with such a structure clearly articulated and just as clearly presented to the reader, and to offer means to develop a perception of the structure as a whole. The whole notion of digital discourse is meant to serve this purpose, and the websites within Cybernetica Mesopotamica are meant to serve as an appropriate exemplification.

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