(2015-04-30) The Cybersyn Revolution

Eden Medina: The Cybersyn Revolution. Five lessons from a socialist computing project in Salvador Allende’s Chile.

Giving the state control of Chile’s most important industries constituted a central plank of Allende’s platform, but created management difficulties.

led a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores to contact a British cybernetician named Stafford Beer and ask for advice. Flores worked for the government agency charged with the nationalization effort; Beer was an international business consultant

The system would provide daily access to factory production data and a set of computer-based tools that the government could use to predict future economic behavior

1 The state and its priorities shape how technology is designed and used.

can push for the design of systems that benefit ordinary people. It can also have the opposite effect. Indeed, the history of computing in the US context has been tightly linked to government command, control, and automation efforts

Allende made raising employment central both to his economic plan and his overall strategy to help Chileans.

In 1972, he published a report for the Chilean government that proposed giving Chilean workers, not managers or government technocrats, control of Project Cybersyn.

Beer’s idea for democratic participation had its flaws: for example, he didn’t consider how coding worker knowledge into the software of a computer system might result in the eventual disempowerment of workers, especially if the political context changed.

In 1972, a national strike that grew to include forty thousand truck drivers threw the country into a state of emergency and disrupted the distribution of food, fuel, and raw materials for factory production. The government used the telex network created for Project Cybersyn to determine which roads were open, coordinate the distribution of key resources, and maintain factory production. (is that Strike breaking?)

Project Cybersyn also demonstrates that more can be done with less. The Chilean project did not try to copy the Soviets’ form of economic cybernetics, which collected a wealth of factory data and sent it to a centralized hierarchy of computer centers for further processing. It accomplished the same task by transmitting only ten to twelve indexes of production daily from each factory and having factory modelers spend more time thoughtfully identifying which indexes were most important.

4 Privacy protection can mean the difference between an abusive system and a system that protects and promotes human freedom

Project Cybersyn did not function as a form of abusive centralized control because it included mechanisms to protect and preserve factory autonomy.

the Allende government was cut short by a military coup that resulted in the death of President Allende and ended Chilean democracy for the next seventeen years

For advocates of economic liberalism, it made no sense to have a computer system that helped the state regulate industrial production.

5 We need to think big, because technology alone will not create a better world.

systems rather than technological quick fixes.

technological determinism doesn’t offer a holistic understanding of how such technologies might negatively impact critical aspects of city life.

Beer was interested in understanding the system of Chilean economic management and how government institutions might be changed to improve coordination processes.

Edited:    |       |    Search Twitter for discussion