In 1971 Stafford Beer, a renowned British academic, proposed to make Chile the world’s first cybernetic country. In essence, this meant that Chile’s entire economy would be run by a centralized computer network; real time data from hundreds of public utilities, banks, and industrial manufacturers would be rendered into optimal allocations of electricity, automatically set lending rates, and the like. As a bonus, Beer offered to test household “happiness.” President Salvador Allende agreed to let Beer use Chile as a test case, “for the good of the people.”
This is the story of a cybernetic program, Allende’s government, and U.S. meddling in Chile, as told by Alan Bellows in “Nineteen Seventy Three,” found on damninteresting.com.
Chile was a thoroughly impoverished country at the time, and the most impressive computer network in existence consisted of a 15-computer mainframe run by the U.S. Department of Defense. No matter, Chile would hurdle into the developed world per Beer’s cybernetic plan.
But the United States interrupted. U.S. intelligence officials stoked distrust among opposition parties and managed to some degree to, as President Nixon instructed the CIA, “make the economy scream.”
Seeing their opportunity slip away the Cybersyn team, headed by Fernando Flores, hurried to link up the various clackers and equipment to a computer brain in the Chilean capital of Santiago. They did so just in time to respond to the October 1972 riots against Allende. Gathering information on the whereabouts of unused delivery trucks and routes not blocked by protestors, Cybersyn enabled the government to avert collapse, according to one senior government official.
Things went according to plan for the next few months, until the British Observer headlined the story, “Chile Run by Computer.” The Allende, Beer, Flores project then fell victim to accusations that mad scientists secretly ran the show in Chile. Soon thereafter came the September 11, 1973, coup in which General Augusto Pinochet deposed Allende.
Bellows succeeds in his primary task of recounting the fizzled out history of Cybersyn. But as a hook for understanding the tumult of Chilean politics in the early 1970s Bellows’s account is a bit clumsy. For example, he insists the United States is responsible for the “inflated inflation” Chile experienced during the Allende era, as if U.S. officials ran the printing presses for Allende. (They most certainly did not.) As for Pinochet, he represented, “Nixon and Kissinger’s political broken eggs [that] soon congealed into a colossal, appalling omelette with extra demagogue sauce.” (What?) So it’s a bit breezy on historical details, but this can be made up for with a gander at Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger or Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File.
The more significant problem is Bellows’s conclusion:
Thanks to dubiously motivated foreign interference, it is now impossible to say whether Cybersyn could have revolutionized the Chilean economy. Given its utopian ambitiousness, quite possibly not. But it is almost certain that President Allende, despite his un-American political affiliation, would have been preferable to the dictator most famous for his Caravan of Death program. As it is, Cybersyn stands as yet another interesting idea sacrificed in the volcano of human tribalism. At least we can take comfort in the fact that we have reasonable, rational humans in charge of our societies rather than those cold, calculating computers.
Rather, since returning to democracy in 1990 the Chilean government has been one of the most technocratic in the world. As a result, poverty has been greatly reduced over the past twenty years and inequality is decreasing. So, in some respect Allende’s hope for an economy run by impartial managers has been realized. Meanwhile, those arguing against the “cold computers” and, by extension, the wonks who stare at them, have a ready alternative. Last week Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, got the ear of the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America by preaching that, “beating poverty is a moral imperative, rather than a technical challenge.” Ecuador and Chile, now there’s a stark comparison.