James Bridle: How can we break the Brexit deadlock? Ask ancient Athens
In the central marketplace of ancient Athens, around 350BC, there stood a machine called the kleroterion. This was a six-foot-high slab of stone that had a series of slots on the front, and a long tube bored down from the top to the base. Those up for selection for the various offices of state would insert metal ID tags, called pinakia, into the slots, and a functionary would pour a bucket of coloured balls, suitably shaken, into the top of the tube. The order in which the balls emerged would determine who took which role, some for the day, some for a year.
Today the kleroterion survives, in fragments, in Athens' Museum of the Ancient Agora, alongside other pieces of democratic technology such as the clepsydra, a water clock used to time orators' speeches and the fragments of pottery, called ostraka, on which they scratched the names of the too-powerful politicans they wished to see banished from the city, and from which we derive the modern word "ostracism".
The method of governance embodied in the kleroterion, which dates back to the very establishment of democracy, is called sortition, meaning selection by lot, as opposed to election by vote. The Athenians believed that the principle of sortition was critical to democracy. Aristotle declared that: "It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election." But along the way, sortition – and the even more exciting possibility of actual banishment – has fallen out of most democracies' toolkits.