When searching for information about the Byzantine Empire, one often comes across the word involved in computer programming. This may not be the case for much longer, as the Association for Computer Machinery is calling for the word not to be used when referring to problematic computer systems.
As Anthony Kaldellis explains in a recent episode of Byzantium & Friends, the word ‘Byzantine’ is often used “to refer to computer systems that are not only deviant but malicious – like have some deceitful intent destructive purpose.” The use of the ‘Byzantine’ in computer programming dates back to 1982 with the article “The Byzantine Generals Problem”, and since then many articles refer to ‘Byzantine fault’, ‘Byzantine agreement” and ‘Byzantine failure’ with the term coming up frequently when discussing issues related to blockchain and cryptocurrency.
Recently, the Association for Computer Machinery, an organization for academics and scholars involved in computer studies, came out with their ‘Words Matter’ initiative, which aims to replace offensive or exclusionary terminology in the computing field. Nearly twenty terms have already been found to fall into this category, including ‘sanity check’, ‘gender bender’ and ‘master slave’.
Although the initial petition for ‘Byzantine’ to be also added to this list was rejected by the Words Matter committee, a computer expert got in touch with Kaldellis, a Professor at the University of Chicago and a leading historian of the Byzantine world. He offered more details on why the word was being used in a problematic way.
On the podcast, he explains:
It’s not only the meaning of Byzantine as something excessively complicated or convoluted which is a meaning that has only really been in use for 80 years. This reaches back to medieval times when Western Europeans would call the Greeks treacherous and unreliable and deviant and effeminate.
In one of the submissions asking to remove the term ‘Byzantine’ it was noted that the word was being used in all sorts of derogatory ways, including as a synonym for ‘malicious’, ‘faulty’, ‘irrational’, ‘evil’, ‘dishonest’, and ‘terrorist’.
While Kaldellis has not received an official response to his request, the word has now appeared on the Words Matter list, explaining why it should be replaced and what terms would be more appropriate:
byzantine: used to describe a condition of a (distributed) computer system where components may fail and there is imperfect information on whether a component has failed. The term reflects a prejudice against and erasure of cultures associated with and drawing from Byzantine civilization and endorses an exclusionary and denigrating stereotype against people of such cultural background. Alternatives include interactive consistency failure and source incongruency.
While the Association for Computer Machinery is an influential organization, its statements are not binding on its members, and it may take years before the word ‘Byzantine’ is no longer used in the computing field.
The Byzantine Generals Problem
Several explanations have been given as to what the ‘Byzantine Generals Problem” is. In the original 1982 article, the three authors from SRI International (an American research institute) described it like this:
We imagine that several divisions of the Byzantine army are camped outside an enemy city, each division commanded by its own general. The generals can communicate with one another only by messenger. After observing the enemy, they must decide upon a common plan of action. However, some of the generals may be traitors, trying to prevent the loyal generals from reaching agreement.
The article goes on to offer possible explanations for this problem and how this can be applied to computers. In another piece, they wrote why they made use of the term ‘Byzantine’ for the analogy, which was originally called the ‘Chinese Generals Problem’:
I wanted to assign the generals a nationality that would not offend any readers. At the time, Albania was a completely closed society, and I felt it unlikely that there would be any Albanians around to object, so the original title of this paper was The Albanian Generals Problem. Jack Goldberg was smart enough to realize that there were Albanians in the world outside Albania, and Albania might not always be a black hole, so he suggested that I find another name. The obviously more appropriate Byzantine generals then occurred to me.
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