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Cybernetic Revolutionaries

Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile

Eden Medina
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Cybernetic Revolutionaries
    Book Description:

    In Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was Chile's experiment with peaceful socialist change under Salvador Allende; the second was the simultaneous attempt to build a computer system that would manage Chile's economy. Neither vision was fully realized--Allende's government ended with a violent military coup; the system, known as Project Cybersyn, was never completely implemented--but they hold lessons for today about the relationship between technology and politics. Drawing on extensive archival material and interviews, Medina examines the cybernetic system envisioned by the Chilean government--which was to feature holistic system design, decentralized management, human-computer interaction, a national telex network, near real-time control of the growing industrial sector, and modeling the behavior of dynamic systems. She also describes, and documents with photographs, the network's Star Trek-like operations room, which featured swivel chairs with armrest control panels, a wall of screens displaying data, and flashing red lights to indicate economic emergencies. Studying project Cybersyn today helps us understand not only the technological ambitions of a government in the midst of political change but also the limitations of the Chilean revolution. This history further shows how human attempts to combine the political and the technological with the goal of creating a more just society can open new technological, intellectual, and political possibilities. Technologies, Medina writes, are historical texts; when we read them we are reading history.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29829-2
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Prologue
    (pp. 1-2)

    On 30 December 1972, Chilean president Salvador Allende visited a futuristic operations room that seemed more like a set for a Stanley Kubrick film than a command center for a South American government in the midst of economic war.

    The hexagonal room reflected the aesthetic of 1970s modernity. In it, seven white fiberglass swivel chairs with orange cushions sat atop a brown carpet. Wood paneling covered the walls. On one wall a series of screens displayed economic data from the nation’s factories. A simple control mechanism consisting of ten buttons on the armrest of each chair allowed occupants to bring...

  7. Introduction: Political and Technological Visions
    (pp. 3-14)

    This book tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was an attempt to implement socialist change peacefully and through existing democratic institutions. The second was an attempt to build a computer system for real-time economic control more than twenty years before the Internet became a feature of everyday life. Like all utopias, these visions were beautiful yet elusive. However, studying them brings to light how a South American government tried to take control of its destiny at the height of the cold war and how that same government made computer technology part...

  8. 1 Cybernetics and Socialism
    (pp. 15-42)

    In July 1971, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer received an unexpected letter from Chile. Its contents would dramatically change Beer’s life. The writer was a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores, who was working for the government of newly elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. Flores wrote that he was familiar with Beer’s work in management cybernetics and was “now in a position from which it is possible to implement on a national scale—at which cybernetic thinking becomes a necessity—scientific views on management and organization.”¹ Flores asked Beer for advice on how to apply cybernetics to the management of...

  9. 2 Cybernetics in the Battle for Production
    (pp. 43-68)

    Imagine receiving a request from a national government that wanted to use your ideas to help run a country and for a utopian project that you believed in. In Stafford Beer’s case this opportunity eclipsed the size, scope, and complexity of his previous projects, such as those he accomplished in the steel industry and in the world of publishing. It also gave him an opportunity to flesh out and test some of his newer cybernetic ideas, including the Viable System Model and the Liberty Machine, and make his “arguments for change” more than rhetoric.¹ Beer described quite clearly the intellectual...

  10. 3 Designing a Network
    (pp. 69-94)

    Stafford Beer, Fernando Flores, and the small Chilean team worked to exhaustion for eight solid days before Beer concluded his initial Chile trip and returned to London. At stake was the design of a computer system that would not only facilitate production in an economy in crisis but also instantiate the Chilean vision of socialist democracy. Because the technological solution they devised took into account Chile’s technological and financial limitations, Beer and the Chilean team were pushed to use these resources in innovative ways. The system they proposed was grounded in the logic of Beer’s cybernetic thinking and the beliefs...

  11. 4 Constructing the Liberty Machine
    (pp. 95-140)

    Constructing Cybersyn was a complex affair. In addition to building the actual system, members of the Cybersyn team needed to create a work culture, transfer expertise and technology from Britain to Chile, and gain the support of factory managers and production engineers. The Cybersyn team viewed their work as helping the Allende government improve its control of the economy and raise production levels. Some members of the team also saw technology as a way to build Chilean socialism. Indeed, the Allende government had made technology political. In addition to Project Cybersyn, it supported the creation of low-cost consumer goods for...

  12. 5 The October Strike
    (pp. 141-170)

    When Beer returned to Chile on 10 October 1972, he saw the fruits of almost a year’s worth of intensive labor. The display screens for the operations room had arrived from England. The industrial design team had drafted fourteen different production flow charts for display in the operations room. Seven operations room chairs were being completed. Raúl Espejo, the Cybersyn project director, had hired additional contractors to model the state-controlled enterprises, especially in the sectors of light industry and building materials. Flores continued to oversee many aspects of the project, and he and Beer remained in close contact. Beer arrived...

  13. 6 Cybersyn Goes Public
    (pp. 171-210)

    The Cybersyn team began 1973 on a high note. By this point, both the temporary and permanent suites were running and processing production indicators from select factories. The CHECO economic models remained simple, but the economic modeling team had also made significant strides and no longer needed guidance from Ron Anderton in London. And the operations room was a functioning prototype by 10 January.

    Flores was still a member of Allende’s cabinet, but around the first of the year he left his post as minister of economics, to which he had been appointed only two months earlier, to become minister...

  14. 7 Conclusion: Technology, Politics, History
    (pp. 211-222)

    The military stopped work on Project Cybersyn after the coup and either abandoned or destroyed the work the team had completed. In some instances Cybersyn’s destruction was brutal and complete. One member of the military took a knife and stabbed each slide the graphic designers had made to project in the operations room. Other military officials adopted a more inquisitional approach. They summoned members of the project team, as well as other Chilean computer experts who had not been involved in the project, and questioned them about the system. According to Isaquino Benadof, the ECOM computer scientist, the military failed...

  15. Epilogue: The Legacy of Cybersyn
    (pp. 223-234)

    The experience of working on Project Cybersyn transformed Stafford Beer and shaped the subsequent careers of core project participants. Documenting where the people and ideas of Project Cybersyn went after 1973 makes a fitting epilogue to this study of technology and politics. Chile’s shift from democracy to dictatorship forced core members of the project team into exile, and they took Beer’s ideas with them. These ideas were both mobile and mutable, and influenced the creation of management practices and technological systems in different national and political settings.

    I met Stafford Beer only once. It was 2001, and I was a...

  16. Appendix 1: The Structure of the State-Run Economy
    (pp. 235-236)
  17. Appendix 2: Timeline on Computing and the Chilean State (1927–1964)
    (pp. 237-240)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 241-300)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-308)
  20. Index
    (pp. 309-326)