Merchant: Remembering Cybersyn, Chile’s attempt at tech utopia


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “other 9/11” — the military coup in Chile, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, that ended in the death of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende.

The milestone has spurred difficult retrospectives, commemorations and reexaminations of the ensuing decades of violent dictatorial rule, yet something else died that day too: A utopian experiment to use cutting-edge technology and the study of cybernetics to equitably — and efficiently — manage the nation’s entire economy.

It was called Project Cybersyn.

Forty years before big data or smart tech became buzzwords, and decades before the rise of the open internet, Chile’s engineers were building a complex information network out of spare parts and sheer will. At the time, it was a deeply futuristic idea: Factories and businesses would transmit real-time data to an operations room, or ops room, in the seat of Chile’s government, so that it could predict economic outcomes, head off problems before they occurred and coordinate the production and distribution of crucial goods.

“Project Cybersyn was conceptually much more advanced than the limited technical infrastructure available in Chile fifty years ago,” Gui Bonsiepe, one of the project’s designers, tells me. “It was an audacious experiment to reduce dependency,” he says, and to “increase autonomy, to get hold of your future, overcoming the claws of the market and international finance.”

Long relegated to a curio, in recent years, Cybersyn has attracted renewed attention. Eden Medina, now a professor at MIT, published “Cybernetic Revolutionaries,” a work of history that offers a deep exegesis of the project. More recently, she co-curated an exhibit, “How to Design a Revolution,’’ at the Centro Cultural La Moneda, in Santiago, that includes a life-size replica of the ops room. And a new project from veteran technology writer Evgeny Morozov, “The Santiago Boys,” renders the story as a dramatic and illuminating nine-part narrative podcast series. For a story about a half-century-old tech project, it makes for a surprisingly riveting listen.

And the time couldn’t be better for all the reappraisals.

After all, today, most of us largely think of technology in terms of new consumer products and services, of chatbots and iPhones. We think of Silicon Valley, a place that turned vast government investment in defense and internet infrastructure into one of the biggest corporate engines for the economy, giving rise to the tech giants that build products with the priority of maximizing profits — even when that means, say, promoting misinformation on their platforms or exploiting the workers toiling on their apps. We think of the government as hopelessly out of touch with technology, perpetually struggling to rein in its excesses.

Now imagine, for a second, if all of that was reversed. What if it was the government that was known for its high tech ways, that was keen on wiring together workers, consumers and the whole economy? Government, working on behalf of the people, that sought to deploy technology to empower laborers and streamline efficiencies — not for profit but for the betterment of society?

“Today, we have it all backwards, with venture capitalists funding technologies that are then imposed on societies,” Morozov tells me. “The tech solutions [Chile’s engineers] were seeking were not imposed by tech vendors needing to close a sale. Rather, their tech projects came from the acutely perceived needs of the national economy.”

In 1970, Allende won an election on an openly socialist platform, and was immediately beset by a series of potentially catastrophic challenges. The Cold War was on, the U.S. viewed his victory as dangerous Soviet influence creep, and Nixon vowed to strangle the nation’s economy. Meanwhile, Chile’s economy had long been tanking, Allende’s domestic political opponents were mobilizing and many of the nation’s most educated and skilled professionals were lured abroad.

So a cadre of radical engineers and technologists decided to tap the technologies of the day for help. They recruited an eccentric British management consultant named Stafford Beer who applied pioneering cybernetic theory — essentially, the study of dynamic systems, and how different inputs create feedback into those systems — to business operations. Together they set about building a system that would empower workers, coordinate production and identify pain points before they became debilitating.

Oversight of businesses and factories was reorganized into committees staffed by workers and government representatives. Then, factory floors and businesses were stocked with telex machines, which were used to send data up the supply chain. The information would ultimately be routed to the ops room in an office in downtown Santiago, where the data would be processed by a computer.

“These data were fed into statistical software programs designed to predict future factory performance,” Medina writes in “Revolutionaries.” “The system included a computerized economic simulator, which would give government policy makers an opportunity to test their economic ideas before implementation.”

The sleek, hexagonal ops room, with chairs outfitted with control panels, was designed by Bonsiepe to look cutting-edge too — it resembled the bridge of “Star Trek’s” Enterprise, perhaps, or the high-tech environs of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The idea was, as Medina puts it, that it would be a place where Allende and other “members of the government could convene, quickly grasp the state of the economy, and make rapid decisions informed by recent data.”

Remember, this was the early 1970s. Computers were clunky, enormous, and expensive — and Chile could only get its hands on one. (For one thing, the U.S. trade embargo imposed on the nation made it nearly impossible to purchase the ideal equipment. For another, Chile was broke.)

“In a sense, it was about building a primitive form of AI that would help address the managerial issue,” Morozov tells me, “by separating routine and random problems” — which could be ignored — ”from potentially existential ones.”

The telex machines, which could send text-based messages over established phone networks, were a smart workaround — the data from those messages would be processed by the central computer.

“Many of the American observers couldn’t believe that a relatively underdeveloped country like Chile could pull off something like this; some were even busy writing letters to the editor denouncing Cybersyn’s existence as what today we would call ‘fake news.’” Morozov tells me. “And yet it was real, it was ahead of its time, and it was an organic fit to the needs of the country’s economic development.”

And it worked. In one famous example, a strike organized by truck owners opposed to Allende sought to grind the economy to a halt, and Cybersyn helped feed the government data necessary to work around it — without resorting to crushing the strike. Allende’s vision for socialism was different from the Soviet strain; he wanted to preserve Chile’s democratic institutions, and transition to public-owned institutions peacefully. And he saw Cybersyn as a way to help achieve that.

In the end, Allende’s government was the one that was crushed. Backed by Nixon, Pinochet seized power, sending tanks and troops into Santiago. Salvador Allende took his own life, and thousands of his supporters were rounded up, imprisoned and killed. And Cybersyn, which had barely begun to operate — the ops room was still considered a prototype — was destroyed.

Soldiers and firefighters carry the body of Chilean President Salvador Allende out of the destroyed presidential palace after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that ended Allende’s three-year government.

(Associated Press)

But the hope for what it set out to achieve, with or without a socialist program, lives on. It is very much of this moment, in fact, as writers, actors, artists and workers protest the way studio bosses and corporations aim to use of AI against them, and as gig workers call on Uber and Lyft to stop using their proprietary algorithms to slash their wages and keep them in the dark about their status.

What if technologies were used with, not against working people?

Today’s AI enthusiasts often say that with enough progress, a benevolent general intelligence could take over and run our institutions and machinery more efficiently than we can — and that one day, it could be used to solve climate change, world hunger and inequality. It’s an idea that’s long on the optimism — and near-term Silicon Valley profits — and short on the details. Fifty years, ago, Chile’s proto-AI engineers tried to do it the other way around: getting into the trenches, wiring the economy with data-transmitting machines, aiming to expand the role of workers in the equation, and cutting down on inefficiencies and waste in the process. Whether or not this utopian plan could have worked, or ever lived up to its ideals, is impossible to say — but it was a plan.

“Allende’s radical techies were not poring over texts about singularity or existential risk of AI,” Morozov tells me, “they were busy reading about the unequal nature of the global economy.” And they were trying to harness technological power to fix it. “I’d like us to imagine that such a world is still possible even today,” Morozov says.

Me too.


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