Salvador Allende after casting his vote in the 1970 Chilean presidential election.Bettmann/Getty Images
In mid-1971, a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores approached the British father of cybernetics, Stafford Beer, for help managing the economy in Salvador Allende’s People’s Unity Government (1970–1973). Inflation was around 45% and Flores, the technical director of Corfo, the state development agency responsible for nationalizing key industries, believed the English scientist would send one of his students to advise his team. But the revolutionary idea of combining science and technology at the mercy of socialism so seduced Beer that he left his prosperous life in London and by November of that year was already in Santiago to design the project.
“Please believe me that I would put all my current commitments on hold if given the opportunity to work on it. “I believe your country will really make it,” the tech visionary wrote to Flores. During his first of many visits to the Chilean capital, Beer Allende, a surgeon by trade, explained his model and equated it with how the human body works.
The aim of the Cybersyn project – a compound word in English of “cybernetics” and “synergy” – was for workers in factories, state enterprises and branch committees to use the telex or telex system to send consumption and production figures to software in Corfo’s offices. The central computer would process the information and allow the Allende government to have immediate knowledge of the state of the economy and be extremely flexible in its actions. Essentially, it would be a network connecting workers across Chile. That is why the project is also called “the socialist Internet”.
Digital rendering of the project’s operating room. Wikipedia
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“There are many myths surrounding Cybersyn, many believe it really worked,” says technology essayist Evgeny Mozorov. Two months after the 50th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the Allende government, the Belarusian researcher yesterday launched a podcast (which he says he produced over two years with more than 200 interviews) in which he tells the hidden history of the cybernetic experiment through the voices of several of its protagonists. He called them the Santiago Boys, in reference to the socialist engineers close to Allende and in contrast to the Chicago Boys, the economists who implemented the neoliberal model during the Pinochet dictatorship.
One of the myths Mozorov delves into is the role Cybersyn played in the massive protest of 40,000 truck drivers that paralyzed Chile in October 1972. For 26 days, neither food nor fuel was transported. “This is not a trucker protest, this is an attempted coup,” Flores said while reliving the podcast. Alfredo Sepúlveda, author of La Unidad Popular: The Thousand Days of Salvador Allende (2020), reiterates in the recordings that the truckers and the middle class were opposed to the socialist’s management: “They did not share his vision. They didn’t want collectivism.”
At the time of the great strike, the five pillars of the Corfo-funded cybernetic project were not yet in full swing. Yes, the telexes had been placed in the nationalized companies that were able to regularly exchange information with the headquarters in Santiago. The network made it possible to give guidelines to the Allende government’s 200 loyal trucks across the country. “Flores set up a temporary office in La Moneda where there were no phones. They tried with their team to solve the strike using the Beer method. They implemented their concepts of power-sharing between corporations and local governments,” says Mozorov.
What didn’t exist back then was the opsroom. It was the decision-making room designed by German Gui Bonsiepe with futuristic inspiration. It was a 10×10 hexagonal room with no desks, machines and screens lining the walls, and seven ergonomic chairs positioned to face the center of the room. It is the most iconic image of the project and according to Mozorov’s research it was completed in November 1972 and was never installed at La Moneda as originally planned. “No important decision was made in this room. In Corfo there was another room where the teletypewriters were connected to the network companies. After the coup, that’s what the military worried about, not Opsroom,” the author affirms.
After Cybersyn’s good results during the truckers’ strike, Allende appointed Flores as his Minister of Economy, then Minister of Finance and finally General Secretariat of Government until the coup d’état on September 11, 1973. The project staff had lost their key link with La Moneda, affecting their momentum and raising a number of doubts within the team. “They say I left them, but that’s not the reality. “The President has appointed me Minister,” explains Flores, who has lived in the United States for years, where one of his main activities is teaching courses on cultural change caused by technological advances.
“Santiago Boys” is a story with two readings, explains the researcher. One is about a group of utopian thinkers who are ahead of their time, and the other is about how these utopian ideas can collide when they don’t understand geopolitics. “Cybersyn’s legacy is a testament to the ingenuity,” says Mozorov, alluding to the promoters’ having “underestimated their enemies.”
The opponents to which he refers are not only the offensive of the Nixon White House, the CIA and the British Information Research Department (IRD). Also the technology giant ITT, which controlled about 70% of the Chilean telephone company. Faced with Allende’s promise of an independent economy and its own technology, the US multinational acted in cooperation with the secret service to boycott the socialist’s victory and later destabilize his mandate. In September 1971, the telephone company’s assets were expropriated.
External pressures, social unrest due to high inflation and product shortages, and the Cybersyn team’s own doubts weakened the project. One of the questions that remained was what would have happened to this experiment in controlling the economy using telex and computers. Mozorov has a theory: “The coup saved them. The project had an uncertain future. If they had been three years older, they probably would have died. It would have been forgotten.
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