Why this Internet and not another? Popular histories of technology tend to be of inevitable teleological fates that led – magically, naturally – to present conditions.
Of course, the story itself is more complicated. The Internet as we know it was founded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in the late 1960s. ARPANET used packet switching and implemented the communication protocols TCP/IP now common. One of the main motivations for its construction was to decentralize communication in preparation for a nuclear war in which command and control centers would have been targeted. The bones of the World Wide Web are therefore American – publicly funded by the US government as a Cold War weapon.
But what about other possible internets? Why didn’t the British, who emerged from World War II with the best computer science in the world, lead the way? What if the Soviet Union’s OGAS project, a major computer networking effort that began in 1959, had indeed been successful?
And then there was Chile. In the early 1970s, the government of Salvador Allende partnered with a renowned British cybernetician to network the national economy on socialist principles. Academic Eden Medina looks at the Cybersyn project (a mix of “cybernetics” and “synergy”), also known as Synco in Spanish.
According to Medina, the project planned to “network all companies in the expanding nationalized sector of the economy in a central computer in Santiago, allowing the government to quickly grasp the state of production and respond to economic crises in time. real”.
Salvador Allende was the first Marxist elected to lead the Americas. His 1970 election was narrow, and his administration would be plagued by extreme internal and external opposition. Henry Kissinger, for his part, is supposed to have said that there was no reason for the United States to sit still and let a country become communist “because of the irresponsibility of its own people”.
The nationalization of key industries was a major part of Allende’s plan to remake the Chilean economy. And, by linking the state, business leaders and factory workers, Cybersyn was designed to be a “new technological system capable of regulating Chile’s economic transition in a way that is consistent with [Allende’s] socialist principles.
The Chileans brought in Stafford Beer, the “father of managerial cybernetics,” who had once worked as chief cybernetician at United Steel. As a self-proclaimed “old-fashioned leftist,” Beer believed in the possibilities of technology and “cybernetic principles to bring about social change.” This fit well with the Allende government’s desire for cutting-edge technology to help transition the economy and society.
In 1968, Chile had less than fifty computers, all manufactured and sold by American companies. Cybersyn ended up using the existing telex network instead of computer terminals. The resulting system of communication weaves a country of extraordinary length, stretching some three thousand miles from north to south, thirty-nine degrees of latitude.
Like all technology projects, it was a product of its time and place. As Medina describes, “The tensions surrounding the design and construction of Cybersyn reflected the struggle between centralization and decentralization that plagued Allende’s dream of democratic socialism.”
The system was designed “to facilitate the maximum extraction of information by an individual with minimal scientific training”, revealing both the expected level of technological expertise and gender assumptions. For example, the seven-seat command center in Santiago, which looks a bit like the deck of the Starship Company, lacked keyboards. Beer argued that a “girl” or secretary, that is, someone with typing skills, would only get in the way of the male operators’ direct connection to the machines. (Men, in short, couldn’t type, but they could “punch” to make a point.)
This operations room was only a prototype. Yet even as inflation, strikes and political chaos enveloped the country, 26.7% of nationalized industries, responsible for 50% of the sector’s revenue, were incorporated “to some extent into the system” by May. 1973. But, backed by the United States, Chilean opponents of Allende overthrew the government in September. Cybersyn barely stood a chance. Pinochet’s military dictatorship, which lasted sixteen years, had no use for a vision of a collective computer network.
Medina expanded its account by Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.
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