By Tomás Pizarro-Escuti-
Imagine the technological revolution of Silicon Valley never happened in the United States. Imagine instead that it took place further south; in the long and narrow Republic of Chile. Although this may sound strange, it was close to being true.
In 1970, one of the world's first socialist presidents was democratically elected; Salvador Allende entered the highest office in Chile with the promise to build a new society. His political program would make the country a democratic socialist state, which respected the constitution and individual freedoms. Importantly, Allende’s government also set about a process of nationalising several industries. However, the lack of qualified personnel to administer more than one hundred and fifty companies led to a real logistical nightmare.
In this context, a new revolutionary technology emerged. The problem of how to manage the newly nationalised companies led a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores to contact the renowned British cybernetician and visionary, Stafford Beer. Together, Beer and Flores set up a team of Chilean and British engineers and developed a plan for a new technological system that would improve the government’s capacity to coordinate the Chilean economy. Beer named the system Cybersyn in recognition of cybernetics, the scientific paradigm guiding its development and synergy, reflecting the idea that the whole of the system was more than the sum of its technological parts.
The system would provide regular access to factory production data and a set of computer-based tools that the government could use to predict future economic behaviour. Indeed, this advanced system, which, to a degree, functioned similarly to the modern internet, led the Chilean writer Jorge Baradit to later call Cybersyn “Allende’s internet”. And if that is not enough, the system also included a futuristic, minimalistic operation room: the buttons on the chairs were connected to wires on the floor which were linked to carousels that displayed pre-made slides. Arguably Cybersyn was anticipating a future that had not arrived yet. However, before Cybersyn was fully operating, Chile underwent a drastic political change.
Allende’s peaceful road to socialism represented a challenge for the United States during the midst of the Cold War. Three years after Chile’s democratic election came September 11th, 1973: a coup d’état that was masterminded by Chilean fascists and supported by the CIA. The nation’s democracy was stained and thousands of innocents were murdered. The presidential palace, La Moneda, was bombed by a military junta. Inside was the President with a couple of loyal supporters. Allende died fighting, and in his final radio address to the country, he said: “Long live Chile, long live the people, long live the workers!” Right after the military junta took control of Chile, Cybersyn was dismantled, and many of those who supported the project died.
Project Cybersyn holds valuable lessons for today. It shows us that governments can play a major role in technological development, generating innovation that benefits society. Cybersyn can also be seen as the answer to a utopian conundrum: how to design a society that integrates all levels of the national productive matrix through a technological platform capable of managing information as quickly as possible and thus increasing productivity and efficiency of the system.
We will never know what the outcome of Cybersyn would have been, were it not for the coup d’état of September 11th; perhaps it would have turned Chile into a more prosperous technological nation, another phenomenon like Silicon Valley.
Baradit, Jorge. “La Internet de Allende.” In Historia secreta de Chile. Penguin Random House Chile, 2015.
Medina, Eden. “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 3 (2006): 571–606.