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Salvador Allende's Internet
March 21, 2010 12:01 AM   Subscribe

Cybersyn (or Synco, in Spanish) was computer network constructed in 1970 by an English/Chilean team headed by cyberneticist Stafford Beer (his papers). Cybersyn was an electronic nervous system for the Chilean economy, linking together mines, factories and so on, to better manage production and give workers a clear idea of what was in demand and where. The network was destroyed by the army after the 1973 coup. Later that year Stafford Beer drew upon the lessons of Cybersyn to write Fanfare for Effective Freedom, a eulogy for Allende and Cybersyn, and Designing Freedom, a series of six lectures he gave for CBC, outlining his ideas. Besides the first link in this post, the best place to start is this Guardian article from 2003. If you want to go more in-depth, read Eden Medina's Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile. And if nothing else, just take a look at the amazing Cybersyn control room.
posted by Kattullus (32 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
The network was the basis of an alternative history novel which came out in Chile in 2008, which is here reviewed by Raul Espejo, one of the managers of Cybersyn. Jorge Baradit, the author of the book, responds in a comment.
posted by Kattullus at 12:10 AM on March 21, 2010


Soy siempre sin palabras.
posted by electronslave at 12:14 AM on March 21, 2010


Always been fascinated by this. It reminds me of Infocom's Suspended, but maybe that's just because the game took place on the planet Contra.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 12:19 AM on March 21, 2010


that room is out of 2001.
allende was indeed ahead of his time =\
posted by liza at 1:38 AM on March 21, 2010


more like stafford beard, amirite???
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:58 AM on March 21, 2010


To me that ops room embodies the splendid optimism of the project, an enthusiasm about the future which was prevalent then but is now entirely lost.

And it must be admitted, a prevalent naivete too. I bet the buttons on those control panels didn't actually do anything much.

Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism

Yet somehow they failed?
posted by Phanx at 2:01 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The control room looks more like a showcase than a place where you'd spend much time controlling things.

As a set however, it is awesome.
posted by zippy at 2:33 AM on March 21, 2010


That control room reminds me of that early Simpsons where they go to family therapy, except this time it would be a family of seven Shatners.
posted by blueberry at 2:35 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


a family of seven Shatners.

Network Guy: I smell a winner! Get the creator of House of Cosbys on the line! (d/l mp4)

posted by zippy at 2:43 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


There's a bit more about the ops room here ... "It was designed in accordance with Gestalt principles, in order to give users a platform that would give them a chance to absorb information in a simple and comprehensive way."
posted by memebake at 2:46 AM on March 21, 2010


The post-WWII development of Cybernetics - the study of control and communication in the animal and machine - had a shining moment in Chile. There was an academic foundation for the belief that a better system of governance could be designed and implemented. Remodel governance on the principles of the human nervous system! They began a radical process of rethinking and re-implementing government.

The whole experiment lasted less than three years. On 9-11 (in 1973), according to the 1975 report by the Church Committee, the CIA overthrew a democratically elected leader (the CIA still denies involvement.)

If you read Beer, he was completely taken by surprise by the coup.

If there's a better way to do things, we should do it that way, right? Ah... but if it's a different way to do things...
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:12 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fascinating post - I'd seen that control room photo alongside a very brief article describing the system a few years back, and it's nagged me a couple of times since during conversation that I neither remebered the name of the project nor knew more than the most general details about it - so thank you very much!
posted by protorp at 3:25 AM on March 21, 2010


I had no idea. this type of post is why I read metafilter. Thanks
posted by moorooka at 3:35 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I might add, Cybersyn was replaced by a total asshole.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:53 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


To me that ops room embodies the splendid optimism of the project, an enthusiasm about the future which was prevalent then but is now entirely lost.

And it must be admitted, a prevalent naivete too.
(Phanx)

My thoughts too...that is something about the late 60's and early 70's that I miss, a sense of unfettered exploration - although that might be a combination of being very young/rose colored glasses. But I give you the Evoluon (1966), Fuller's US Pavilion (1967), Cousteau's Conshelf projects (1962-65), and the Aluminaut, in addition to the Cybersyn, for starters.

It's a control room like Cybersyn's that I imagined for myself when I built future cities in my room from Hot Wheels tracks, Legos and building blocks.

Who knows where that network would have gone had it not been destroyed in 1973?

Here's to splendid optimism!


And thanks for the post Kattullus; I never heard of this before
posted by foonly at 6:42 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Great post. Unfortunately, Beer's ideas weren't just ahead of their time, but ahead of their technology. The grandiose Cybersyn (comprising Cybernet, Cyberstride, Checo and Opsroom) wasn't precisely a digital Potemkin Village, but it wasn't even on the level of its contemporary, the US DoD's ARPANET. A lot of old-fashioned manpower was required to work the Star Trek-like cyber-centralized Opsroom, which relied on hand-sorting slides of reports gathered from Western Union telex machines. A further problem with the Opsroom was that it was designed only for the input of information and lacked output functions (command or communication) on a similar scale. For a jaundiced critique of Cybersyn, see Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein's video-essay Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science Fictions (from a paper delivered at the 2009 Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association Conference, so, you know, caveat lector/spector).
posted by Doktor Zed at 6:56 AM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


Very interesting post, thanks very much!
posted by Wolof at 7:11 AM on March 21, 2010


Wiki begins its description of the system with "There were 500 unused telex machines bought by the previous government." I'm amused by the thought that the genesis of the Cybersyn project might have been "What should we do with all these damned telexes?"
posted by rlk at 7:17 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It later expanded to other countries, was renamed "SkyNet" to avoid the unfortunate "cyber-sin" homonym, and later wiped out most of the human race. Aiding the coup was a difficult decision for the team sent back to destroy it; they could find no other way of stopping the Enemy, and three of the five killed themselves within the decade, wracked with guilt over this "lesser evil."
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you read Beer, he was completely taken by surprise by the coup.

Too much screen time, perhaps? Stand up and look around once in a while.

However dazzling the technology itself may be at the time, increased complexity provides more opportunities for failure (and more ways for evildoers to jack the system).

Considering the allegedly unforeseen events of 9/11 and our current Great Recession — both huge intelligence failures by the largest and most-wired economy on the planet — perhaps these government-sponsored Internets aren't all they're cracked up to be.
posted by cenoxo at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2010


Considering the allegedly unforeseen events of 9/11 and our current Great Recession — both huge intelligence failures by the largest and most-wired economy on the planet — perhaps these government-sponsored Internets aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Wait, you're blaming the internet for 9/11 and the Wall Street crash? Or just saying the internet should have somehow caught them? Either way, I don't see where you're coming from.

Actually, improved communications (not necessarily the internet per se, which really came after telecommunications were already pretty well developed) probably has allowed companies to improve resource allocation.
posted by Xezlec at 9:59 AM on March 21, 2010


One does wonder if a truly socialist economy could have worked given a central computer system to match supply and demand between the government -owned producers.
posted by miyabo at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2010


that room is out of 2001.

Or the breakfast nook in my grandparents' condo in Walnut Creek. Seriously, as futuristic as this looks, it was also retail-common for the early 1970s.

I had always wanted to find out more about Cybersyn. I see now it was less a computer network than a telex network, with significant manual sneakernet bottlenecks. I also always wondered why the incoming junta would dismantle it, but if it had been used to counter the strike, I can see their suspicions more clearly.

Knowing what I know of corporate info-flood management, I do wonder how pragmatically useful it was, in terms of keeping the facilities running or increasing their efficiency. There's a seductiveness to *cough* Powerpoint *cough* graphs and charts and top-level numbers that can obscure a great deal. (Hell, ask Koss.) The control room looked good, but the Prisoner imagery of someone sitting there watching the numbers come in doesn't mean that they were able to make it a two-way street, press a button, and fix something happening in a mine a thousand miles away. So this is both about the exuberant hopes and the concrete limitations of such a system.
posted by dhartung at 10:47 AM on March 21, 2010


Rollerball at 9 Central
posted by A189Nut at 11:56 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, you're blaming the internet for 9/11 and the Wall Street crash? Or just saying the internet should have somehow caught them?

I'm not blaming the Internet — here am I, after all. I'm just questioning the belief that we can solve highly complicated, long-standing human problems by throwing more technology and management techniques at them. Great amounts of information can and will be easily gathered now, but are we wise enough to do the right thing with it?

Governments and their ideologies change all the time, too. Perhaps we ought to be more careful about the command and control technologies we put in their hands.
posted by cenoxo at 11:57 AM on March 21, 2010


cenoxo; but what does any of that have to do with 9/11 or the wall street crash?
posted by odinsdream at 12:30 PM on March 21, 2010


In each case, with easy availability to massive amounts of military or financial information through vast communications and information gathering systems, the U.S. government claims they were caught by surprise. If true, was that the infrastructure's fault, the fault of the people who were supposed to be using it, or both?
posted by cenoxo at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2010


In each case, with easy availability to massive amounts of military or financial information through vast communications and information gathering systems, the U.S. government claims they were caught by surprise.

Easy availability? No, I don't think the 9/11 hijackers were broadcasting their plans on the internet. In fact, they tried to keep them secret. I don't understand what these "massive amounts of military information" are that you think could have helped. I've heard it argued that the Clinton administration warned the Bush administration that there might be an impending a threat from Bin Laden and that that warning was ignored, but I don't see the connection between that and this.

I agree that it might be possible to detect economic problems in advance, but again, I don't see what that has to do with this. Sure, as some people have argued, the SEC should have paid more attention to these bad financial instruments and regulated them better, but again, where do "massive amounts of financial information" via the internet come in? You could say these same things about lack of credit regulation and the crash in 1929.

I'm just questioning the belief that we can solve highly complicated, long-standing human problems by throwing more technology and management techniques at them.

That's actually what technology and management techniques are for. Sure, you could say "problems are too hard, let's not try to solve them," but what's wrong with trying? Technology and "management techniques" (such as different forms of government) really have solved or partially solved a lot of long-standing and highly complicated human problems throughout history. Unless you perceive some specific problem or downside of information networks, I still don't see the issue. I don't think Chile was wrong to try this.
posted by Xezlec at 1:53 PM on March 21, 2010


In these two prominent instances, largely computerized DOD intelligence gathering and private financial systems — which have taken decades and hundreds of billion$ to build — utterly failed to protect this country and our economy (and failed to prevent considerable global collateral damage).

To try and 'solve' these management errors and others like them, we'll undoubtedly throw even more money and technology at the problems, and encourage others to do so. However, we'll reach a point of diminishing returns on our technocratic investment (if we haven't already done so).

Increasing complexity increases the possibility of failure, and provides more opportunities for the bad guys who want to exploit them. We can't plug all the holes while we're actively creating new ones.

The promise of Joy through technology is always around the next bend, but we keep running in circles. We need to accept a level of risk and realize that more technology, regulations, and intrusive government control can't eliminate it.

If you want more specific examples, Risks Digest is a good place to start. Here's a recent one: USGov rescinds 'leave Internet alone' policy.
posted by cenoxo at 8:53 PM on March 21, 2010


People are comparing Cybersyn to intensive computerised information gathering under capitalism, making the argument that technocratic attempts to fix age-old problems are doomed to fail.

But this is different. This wasn't supposed to help administer a more flexible and responsive capitalist economy, or a more efficiently managed one. This was an attempt to use the latest technology to create a totally new form of human society, a democratic planned economy. It is much more important, exciting, and futuristic than any Wall Street supercomputer cluster. This wasn't an attempt to spawn a social revolution by inventing a new technology, but an attempt to put the latest technology in the service of a social revolution that already really existed in the streets - albeit in embryo - and which was soon to be terminated by force.

Excellent find.
posted by stammer at 9:48 PM on March 21, 2010


I am not finding much documentation of this online, but some other cyberneticists had a project called the BCL (biological computing laboratory) at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, where Manni Brün had the idea for a SBIP (Socially Benificial Information Processor), which was meant to be a more political version of AskMe: a computer network where people from around the world would post problems and desires and changes that they want to see, and others would reply with ideas, proposals, relevant experiences or concerns related to those problems. She made this proposal sometime in the mid '70s IIRC.
posted by idiopath at 3:45 PM on March 22, 2010


It bothers me when people diss my field, so I feel obliged to give a detailed response.

In these two prominent instances, largely computerized DOD intelligence gathering and private financial systems — which have taken decades and hundreds of billion$ to build — utterly failed to protect this country and our economy (and failed to prevent considerable global collateral damage).

I already basically said this, but I'll repeat it. I don't see why you would expect as a given that "computerized DOD intelligence gathering" would find out about 9/11, or some unspecified private "financial systems" would somehow stop the business cycle. Each of those systems has a purpose, which it accomplishes. Expecting any technology to solve all the problems of the world instead of just do what it's designed for is confusion.

The CIA, NSA, and FBI (I assume that's what you're talking about with the first thing) do actually stop a lot of people from doing bad things. That doesn't mean no bad things can ever slip past. It's still a heckuva lot better than no protection at all. Similarly, electronic devices for trade and commerce, in general, have proven very useful in business. Fancy computer models for market prediction are an unmitigated failure, but again, I fail to see what that says about communications networks or technology in general.

Increasing complexity increases the possibility of failure, and provides more opportunities for the bad guys who want to exploit them. We can't plug all the holes while we're actively creating new ones.

Typically, the way technology (and human action in general) works is through tradeoffs. You try to make choices that replace big problems with smaller ones. There is rarely a perfect solution to any problem. And I don't agree with you that increasing complexity necessarily increases failure rates. Much of technology exists for the opposite purpose. If the failure rate of my heart rhythm is high, adding a pacemaker increases complexity to reduce error. Similarly, error correction systems (like the one used for CDs) allow CDs to be a more reliable medium than they would be if they were simpler. And CDs are (in my experience, at least) more robust than vinyl records, which are much simpler. For that matter, I also have a harder time keeping record players working than CD players, though the latter are far more complex. The electric grid is quite complicated, and much more reliable than running my own generator. The internet, with its somewhat smart routing protocols, works better than a simpler kind of network, which in turn works better than passing information by word of mouth between people.

The best example, finally, is a life form: a phenomenally complicated machine with a system in place for every contingency. Over millennia of trial and error, each problem has been fixed by adding a new biological gadget. Today each life form is a robust survival machine, and if the environment changes, they can start changing their machinery again, and eventually evolve to a good solution for the new environment, one problem at a time.

And even technology that is more error-prone than simpler methods generally exists because its users consider that an acceptable tradeoff. For example, Wikipedia is more error-prone than a paper encyclopedia, but I like it anyway, because it's more extensive and more dynamic. I made a trade that pleases me. Similarly, cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but oddly enough, that doesn't seem to stop people from finding them useful. And they've become more reliable as the technology has become more complex.

Obviously, if you stay at the cutting edge, your technology will be unreliable. That's why it's sometimes called "the bleeding edge". If you stay a couple generations back, you'll have stuff that's more reliable but less powerful, but even then you can keep moving forward as the fancier stuff ages and becomes more mature.

The promise of Joy through technology is always around the next bend, but we keep running in circles.

Actually, it hasn't been in circles, but mostly in one direction. Things have been increasing in complexity for billions of years, including technology for the last few thousand. My technology brings me joy. If yours doesn't, I'm sorry. Maybe you're not using the right stuff for you. And anyway, if you really feel that way, maybe you should get off the internet and go outside.
posted by Xezlec at 8:33 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


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