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22 August 2018

Project Cybersyn: the afterlife of Chile’s socialist internet

Through an electronic “nervous system”, Salvador Allende’s left-wing government anticipated the era of big data.

By George Eaton

Almost 45 years have passed since Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown in an armed coup on 11 September 1973. The late Chilean president and Marxist has long been revered by the left for his democratic credentials – he was elected freely in 1970 – and his tragic martyrdom (he shot himself with an AK-47 after refusing to surrender to Augusto Pinochet’s forces).

Yet until recently, one of his administration’s most remarkable innovations had received little attention. In its efforts to forge a socialist economy, Allende’s government pioneered a technology that anticipated both the internet and the era
of “big data”.

Project Cybersyn, as it was known in English (a portmanteau of “cybernetics” and “synergy”), sought to avoid the waste and inefficiency that characterised the Soviet Union and other communist states, by connecting hundreds of firms to the government through an electronic “nervous system”. A national network of 500 telex machines collected real-time data from factories, such as production output, energy use and labour levels, and transmitted it to two mainframe computers in the Santiago-based control room.

Rather than empowering an overmighty state, the aim was to encourage the free exchange of information and worker participation in planning and management.

This largely forgotten model is now being heralded by a new generation of tech-savvy leftists. Next month The World Transformed, the festival held on the Labour conference fringe, will host a session on “cybernetic socialism” featuring Raúl Espejo, the original operations director of Project Cybersyn.

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The programme was the creation of Stafford Beer, a British consultant and the founder of “management cybernetics” (which he defined as “the science of effective organisation”). Beer, who argued with acute prescience that “information is a national resource” and coined the term “data highway”, was approached in 1971 by Fernando Flores, Chile’s production development co-ordinator, who later became finance minister. By the end of that year, Allende’s government had nationalised more than 150 companies, including 12 of the 20 largest Chilean firms. Flores recognised that to defy free-market critics – who warned of the fallacy of disregarding price mechanisms – the fledgling administration would need help.

Beer, an imposing, gregarious man (who in his later years cultivated a beard of Tolstoyan length), agreed to assist in exchange for a daily fee of $500 and a regular flow of wine, cigars and chocolate. “He was at the top of his capabilities,” Espejo recalled when we spoke on the phone.

“He had an extraordinary ability to work 20 hours a day and to produce reports for us at a speed that would take me a year. I was absolutely astounded.” (David Bowie would later include Beer’s Brain of the Firm on a list of his favourite books.)

As well as the telex network, Project Cybersyn also featured an economic simulator to model alternative policies. But its enduring face was the hexagonal, Star Trek-like operations room, which featured mounted screens and seven white fibreglass swivel chairs (regarded as optimal for creativity) with inbuilt push-buttons.

The programme was initially viewed with traditionalist scepticism by Allende’s Socialist Party. But Project Cybersyn’s hour arrived in October 1972 during a strike of 40,000 truck drivers led by the hard-right Confederación Nacional del Transporte. As Allende’s opponents sought to wreck the economy by preventing the transport of food and raw materials, Cybersyn was deployed to underwrite the resistance. Through the electronic network, the government was able to co-ordinate deliveries by active trucks and to evade blockades. “We felt that we were in the centre of the universe,” Espejo remarked.

After 24 days, the strike was defeated. Ministers then became “much more interested” in Cybersyn, Espejo told me. Allende even proposed transferring the operations room to La Moneda, the presidential palace.

On 10 September 1973, the government finally prepared to install an upgraded version of the system. But the following day, with the connivance of the CIA, Pinochet’s forces stormed the palace and bombed it from the air. In “Why Allende had to die”, a New Statesman essay published in March 1974, Gabriel García Márquez observed: “The most dramatic contradiction of [Allende’s] life was being at the same time the congenital foe of violence and a passionate revolutionary.”

The ascendance of Pinochet’s new military junta divided Cybersyn allies. Some urged the regime to maintain the system, while others feared the consequences of allowing it to be exploited. Yet the dilemma was swiftly resolved: Pinochet’s ultra-free-market government, inspired by the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, crudely dismantled the project.

Espejo, who was warned by military officials to leave Chile, fled to England two months after the coup, where he later became a professor of systems and cybernetics at the University of Lincoln.

Project Cybersyn was far from an unqualified success. It was hindered by Chile’s technological limitations (worsened by a US boycott) and was prone to delays. But in its ambition, and its noble ideals, it provided a glimpse of a daringly alternative order: one in which humans are the masters, rather than the slaves, of machines. 

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This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?