Project Cybersyn

Cybersyn was a project of the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973) and British cybernetic visionary Stafford Beer; its goal was to control the Chilean economy in real-time using computers and "cybernetic principles."  The military regime that overthrew Allende dropped the project and probably for this reason when the project is periodically rediscovered it is often written about in a romantic tone as a revolutionary "socialist internet," decades ahead of its time that was "destroyed" by the military because it was "too egalitarian" or because they didn't understand it.

Although some sources at the time said the Chilean economy was "run by computer," the project was in reality a bit of a joke especially in retrospect, albeit a rather expensive one, and about the only thing about it that worked were the ordinary Western Union telex machines spread around the country. TheIBM 360 two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines on that order).  These machines were no doubt very impressive to politicians and visionaries eager to use their technological might to control an economy (see picture at right.)  Today, our perspective will perhaps be somewhat different when we realize that these behemoths were far less powerful than an iPhone.  Run an economy with an iPhone?  Sorry, there is no app for that. 

Indeed, you don't have to read far between the lines of Andy "socialist internet" Beckett's account to get a flavor of what was really going on:

Beer's original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists. There was constant friction between the two groups. Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism; testing his son's electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service; and even organising anchovy-fishing expeditions to earn the government some desperately needed foreign currency.

(Note the classic, 'the visionary failed because others lacked idealism' storyMeanwhile the visionary is off on an anchovy-fishing expedition.)

Recently, Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein have put together an excellent video essay (fyi, 25 minutes) which gets to the heart (perhaps head would be a better word) of Cybersyn by focusing on the legendary "control room," which they delightfully call the "inverted panopticon." 


It is no accident, say Axelrod and Borenstein, that the control room looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise because the whole purpose of the room was to exude a science-fiction fantasy of omniscience and omnipotence.  The fantasy naturally appealed to Allende who had the control room moved to the presidential palace just days before the coup. 

The control room is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in another respect–both are stage sets.  Nothing about the room is real, even the computer displays on the wall are simply hand drawn slides projected from the other side with Kodak carousels.

Ironically, when rumors of the project began to circulate, the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that Beer had created, the same illusion that so appealed to Allende and that had funded Beer's visions and experiments, this illusion caused fear that an all-knowing big brother was on the way–and such fear may even have encouraged the coup.

After the coup, rather than destroying the project because of its "egalitarian" nature, the military regime was more likely to have been disillusioned and disappointed to discover project Cybersyn's impotence.

Hat tip to Boing Boing.


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