Salvador Allende, Cyber-Visionary

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Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution gives us a glimpse into Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende's laughable attempts to simulate his cyber-control of his nation's economy in the early 1970s, complete with photos of Star Trek-esque "control rooms." Meet "Cyber-Syn," and remember, history isn't only queerer than we imagine; it's queerer than we can imagine….

Cybersyn was a project of the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973) and British cybernetic visionary Stafford Beer; its goal was to control the Chilean economy in real-time using computers and "cybernetic principles."….

Although some sources at the time said the Chilean economy was "run by computer," the project was in reality a bit of a joke, albeit a rather expensive one, and about the only thing about it that worked were the ordinary Western Union telex machines spread around the country. The two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines on that order).  These machines were no doubt very impressive to politicians and visionaries eager to use their technological might to control an economy (see picture at right.)  Today, our perspective will perhaps be somewhat different when we realize that these behemoths were far less powerful than an iPhone….

Indeed, you don't have to read far between the lines of Andy "socialist internet" Beckett's account to get a flavor of what was really going on:

Beer's original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists. There was constant friction between the two groups. Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism; testing his son's electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service; and even organising anchovy-fishing expeditions to earn the government some desperately needed foreign currency……

Recently, Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein have put together an excellent video essay (fyi, 25 minutes) which gets to the heart (perhaps head would be a better word) of Cybersyn by focusing on the legendary "control room," which they delightfully call the "inverted panopticon." 

It is no accident, say Axelrod and Borenstein, that the control room looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise because the whole purpose of the room was to exude a science-fiction fantasy of omniscience and omnipotence.  The fantasy naturally appealed to Allende who had the control room moved to the presidential palace just days before the coup. 

The control room is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in another respect–both are stage sets.  Nothing about the room is real, even the computer displays on the wall are simply hand drawn slides projected from the other side with Kodak carousels….

In other old Chilean history, see my December 2006 take on the real story behind libertarian economist Milton Friedman's connections with Allende's successor, military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

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16 responses to “Salvador Allende, Cyber-Visionary

  1. Beer’s original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists.

    Wait, so even if you start w/ a group of morally and intellectually superior Supermen, the offer of power over others attracts bad people to the group, so it isn’t just a case of finding The Right People and putting them in charge?

  2. Using the very, very same argument that the Left uses when justifying more government:

    The two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines on that order).

    “Well, if they had the RIGHT computer in charge, then things would have been different!”

    Maybe if they had VIC-20s… Things would have turned different for Mr. Allende.

    1. or at least more colorfully.

    2. Did the Tandy exist circa early 1970’s?

      1. No. The TRS-80 Model I was launched in 1978, the Model II probably 1979.

      2. My dad bought me one around 1982. 32K, bitches!

        1. Which one, the CoCo?

          1. I don’t remember, dude. I was just a little kid.

            1. If it was connected to the TV, it was a CoCo. If it had a built in green monitor, it wasn’t.

  3. The fantasy naturally appealed to Allende who had the control room moved to the presidential palace just days before the coup.

    Well, leftist nitwit are easily impressed with any semblance of control they get their hands on. If I had a penny for every fool I’ve heard say that you could run a country in the same manner you run Sim City, and still not fall into the Fatal Conceit, I would be a very rich copper broker.

  4. I’d rather play at being an angry God on Sims 3.

    1. Rather smack Sucubus tail in Dungeon Keeper.

  5. Allende really screwed the pooch by not incorporating some kind of space age monorail system into this. Everybody loves monorails.

  6. This episode has all manner of parallels in Soviet history, not least in the 1920s and ’30s, when architects were concerned, above all, to put up buildings that *looked* modernist – in order to impress and win support from their politician-patrons. Who, properly inspired by evidence of the success of the Soviet state’s modernizing enterprise, pressed ahead with it – and wrecked the Soviet economy in the process. More at http://litnow.litnow.com/?p=329

  7. Those Commies at Boing-Boing used to think this really worked:

    Posted by Cory Doctorow, May 8, 2006 2:14 AM | permalink…


    Anyway, the Chilean government called him up, and he built what he called “an electronic nervous system” connecting all parts of the country to the government.

    It all worked by telex, and there were 7 seats in the control rooms because that was known to be the most efficient. The swivel chairs encouraged creativity.

    These rooms would feed complaints, comments and statistics up and down to the government, and it meant a centrally planned economy actually worked, and the government could respond appropriately. Factories installed it on their floors, because they could tell the government what they needed, and it was liked centrally too because they had up-to-date stats the whole time. Feedback loops and cybernetics again!
    http://www.boingboing.net/2006…..eviouspost

  8. Axelrod and Borenstein did a bad piece of research on Stafford Beers Operations Room. Contrary to the film or the article above, it is precisely Beers theory that allows us today to build the most modern and best functioning Operations Rooms for companies in practice. If Beer had had the time to finish his project with Allende and the IT possibilities we have today … Most companies today have lots of IT without having an funtioning control concept underlying its usage and therefore always dramatically lack of relevant information. Most modern research on Decision Plattforms today is based on Stafford Beers works.

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