Brian Merchant: What a utopian experiment in government by computer can teach us about building a humane future

Brian Merchant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

This month marked 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."


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