Project Cybersyn: Chile’s Socialist Internet
The emergence of a new revolutionary technology
Photo by Nasa (Unsplash)
by Tomás Pizarro-Escuti
Let’s do an exercise of counter-history. Imagine the technological revolution of Silicon Valley never happened in the States. On the contrary, it took place down South; in fact, in the extreme South. It happened in the long and narrow Republic of Chile.
It was 1970, the first socialist President in the world was democratically elected; Salvador Allende had won the highest office with the promise to build a new society. His political program would make Chile a democratic socialist state, with respect for the country’s constitution and individual freedoms. In the context of Chile’s peaceful road to socialism, the country was experiencing a process of nationalisation of several natural industries. However, the lack of qualified personnel to administer more than one hundred and fifty companies led to a real logistical nightmare.
In this context, a new revolutionary technology emerged. The problem of how to manage the newly nationalised companies led a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores to contact the renown British cybernetician, Stafford Beer. Beer was a visionary and together with Flores formed a team of Chilean and British engineers and developed a plan for a new technological system that would improve the government’s capacity to coordinate the Chilean economy. Beer named the system Cybersyn in recognition of cybernetics, the scientific paradigm guiding its development and synergy, the idea that the whole of the system was more than the sum of its technological parts. The system would provide daily and regular access to factory production data and set of computer-based tools that the government could use to predict future economic behaviour. Indeed, this advanced procedure similar to how internet works led the Chilean writer Jorge Baradit to call Cybersyn: Allende’s internet. And if that is not enough, the system also included a futuristic, minimalistic operation room.
The buttons on the chairs were connected to wires on the floor which were linked to slide carousels that displayed pre-made slides. It can be argued that Cybersyn seemed to anticipate a future that had not arrived yet. However, before Cybersyn was fully operating, bad luck fell upon Chile.
Allende’s peaceful road to socialism represented a challenge for the United States during the midst of the Cold War. Three years after Chile’s democratic election came September 11th, 1973: a coup d’état that was developed by Chilean fascists supported by the CIA. The nation’s democracy was stained with thousands of innocents murdered. The presidential palace, La Moneda, was bombed by a military junta. Inside was the President with a couple of loyal supporters. Allende died fighting, and in his final radio address to the country, he said: “Long live Chile, long live the people, long live the workers!”. Right after the military junta took control of Chile, Cybersyn was dismantled, and many of those who supported the project died.
Project Cybersyn holds valuable lessons for today. It shows us that governments can play a major role in technological development, generating innovation and benefiting society. Cybersyn can also be seen as the answer to a utopian problematic: how to design a society that integrates all levels of the national productive matrix through a technological platform capable of managing information as quickly as possible and thus increase productivity and efficiency of the system. For sure, we will never know what the outcome of Cybersyn would have been without the coup d’état of September 11th; perhaps it would have turned Chile into a successful technological nation, another phenomenon like Silicon Valley. Surely, thousands of young innocents would still be alive, walking on Santiago’s “Alameda”.