Our Friend the Computer

Project Cybersyn (Pre-Internet Networks)

February 01, 2022 Our Friend the Computer Season 1 Episode 1
Our Friend the Computer
Project Cybersyn (Pre-Internet Networks)
Show Notes Transcript

Camila and Ana explore Project Cybersyn – an early 70s socialist cybernetics project connecting factories in Allende's Chile. This is the first episode of our first season which will be focusing on pre-internet networks!

We're on Instagram!
And Twitter!

Main research for the episode was done by Camila. Ana with the audio editing.
Music by Nelson Guay (SoundCloud: fluxlinkages)
Camila's project 'REDES: bread and justice, peaches and bananas' can be found  at https://externalpages.org/#camila-galaz

- Beckett, Andy. 'Santiago Dreaming'. The Guardian 8 September 2003
- Eaton, George. 'Project Cybersyn: the afterlife of Chile’s socialist internet'. New Statesman August 2018
- Evgeny, Morozov. 'The Planning Machine'. The New Yorker Vol. 90, Iss. 31 (October 2014)
- Fablab Santiago ed. ‘The Counterculture Room’. Pavilion of Chile at the London Design Biennale 2016
- Loeber, Katherina. 'Big Data, Algorithmic Regulation, and the History of the Cybersyn Project in Chile, 1971-1973'. Social Sciences 7, no.4:65 (April 2018)
- Medina, Eden. 'Computer Memory, Collective Memory: Recovering History through Chilean Computing'. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing October-December 2005
- Medina, Eden. 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile'. MIT Press, 2011
- Medina, Eden. 'Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile '. Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 38 Iss. 3 (August 2006)

Hello. Welcome to our friend the computer. We are a I don't know Ana, what are we a tech history podcast. We wrote Alternative computing histories, but. But also social histories. Social histories. We're looking at stories. Stories from tech history, from computing history that maybe not the normal stories that get told. The sort of non US centric stories about the development of computers and the internet. I am Carmilla. I am a research based visual artist, writer, filmmaker, things of that ilk. And I'm Ana. I work in online education and I'm a web developer and net art curator, but it's a mouthful. So I wanted to say that I just make websites but Camila told me not to. You do so much more. I'm not like officially any of those things, but I've employed myself to do them. So I guess. You are officially a net curator and I know this because you curated some net art of mine. That is true. Yeah. You're the validator Ana runs external pages which how do you how do you explain external pages? External pages is an online exhibition space which hosts new net art. So it's basically just like an online gallery and it's got a bunch of net art on it. And there's a new exhibition coming out usually every two months, and I help produce that and code it and everything else, anything that the artist needs help with, I'm there for it. So yeah, it's been fun. And then Camila made one of the most more recent art exhibitions about Project Cybersyn, which is what we're going to talk about today. Come on, we want to chat about that. Yeah. So I yeah, I worked on this project with, with Ana and external pages Called Redes, bread and justice, peaches and bananas. And when did we launch it. March, February, March 2021. Yeah. Definitely Lockdown times. Yeah. And it was, it was a project. So my family background is like my dad is Chilean and I have a strong connection with Chile and I'm Australian, as you probably tell by my accent, and I learn quite a few of my artworks. I sort of explore the second generation exiled Chilean post dictatorship sort of idea, and this project was looking at sort of socialist uses of networks, computer networks before and after the days of the Pinochet dictatorship. So it was sort of looking at the 2019 social uprising in Chile and the use of Instagram to document, to witness, to archive, to form collectives and to organize. But I was looking at it kind of in the context of this sort of proto internet from before the dictatorship called Project Cybersyn or Proyecto Cinco. And what we ended up doing was sort of creating through some of Ana's coding expertise a digital space that you could go into that reflected the design of projects I've chosen. But in in the sort of TV screens and the monitors and things you saw in sort of Instagram like current day images and video, and it was also an archive of like an oral history of a sort of grassroots Instagram account that was, yeah, documenting what was happening on the ground in the protests. So yeah, it was kind of this like community project as well, which was really cool how that kind of community incentives never really sort of went away in terms of how it, how the people on the ground like we're using the Internet, how that never kind of like escaped the like feelings of the nation and then also the ops room was like a huge influence of like how the user experience was designed. And that's kind of like the very famous images of projects I was in was the Upstream, which was only part of the project, but it was very kind of the esthetic of the seventies, where you had the kind of tulip chairs which were also like an inspiration to a lot of Trek Trekkie stuff, and you had big recliners, sort of armchairs that were part of the mechanisms of the ops room. And then you had screens on the walls and these chairs could kind of swivel around and perform all sorts of things which were just to enable conversation, but also to operate the distributed economy. Yeah, the project had a lot of lofty goals, which I guess we'll go into, which also, you know, stacks of utopian ideas, ideals. And so my project, I felt that similar. There was a similar sense of kind of wanting to create a, a better future through networks that happened in 2019, 2020 as well. But with set projects, I was saying they were ultimately never really able to fully test test the system or like bring it to fruition because the project was cut really short by the coup d'état in 1973. So and that ran through 1990. So we're going to talk a little bit about this today. In this podcast, we're kind of going to switch out our main researcher for each episode and also for the first few episodes, we're focusing on these sort of pre-Internet networks. So today, because this is based on my project, I am the I am the researcher. So yes, I will get into it. I guess so, yeah. And as you said, if people know kind of peripherally about Project Cybersyn, it's through the aesthetics of this main operations room. So Cybersyn had several elements to it, but a core part was the operations room. So it's a kind of like a, like a war room five, and it's called ops room, and so is this hexagon, a room with monitors and information on the walls. There was also, I think, a like a rose, a pin board or like a one of those felt boards where you could move around elements of diagrams and things. So I sort of enjoy that. It's like a like a toddlers playground something. Yeah. And then the storming material. Yes. That really appeals to me is not is like all the stairs like boards. Just get anything down. Any thoughts. Yeah. And then in the center there was this sort of circle of these fiberglass chairs and it was circular. So that was a hierarchical. And it's also this like iconic design, seventies design. It was like orange wood paneling. The tulip chairs. Yeah. Like the ones that they used on Star Trek. But actually, I don't know, Star Trek came. I mean, Star Trek was before this, but I don't think there was actually much connection between them. It might have just been the seventies. Yeah, the design of the seventies. So on these chairs. So yeah, they also had like ashtrays, right? Built into the arms of the chairs. So they would have on outside, they would have like sort of keyboards as part of the arm and then the other side, the other arm would be an ashtray, which was unbelievable and so significant. And the seventies sort of that attitude. Yeah. I mean, I, I still find it weird when I say ashtrays that I built into things. I was I was catching a little fly. I think I was in like grease a few years ago. So I was like on one of those little airplanes. And there wasn't one like an ashtray in the armrest of the airplane. So yeah, yeah. With the little metal top that you can, like, push down to open and close it, they would have it. So yeah, the same, that same style. Back in the day. Back in the day. So yeah, these chairs on the other side of the armrest had buttons that could control the information that came up on the screens of the room. And these screens were called data feed screens. They look like TV monitors, but they were actually just like displaying slide projections and graphs with information that I think had been sort of brought in so people could go in and like look through it more easily. And the big buttons were sort of in different shapes, squares, circles, diamonds, and everything in the room was controlled by these buttons. And so you could click individual buttons, but there was also sequences that you could use because there weren't enough buttons, I guess. So, yeah. There was another screen in the room that had the kind of code, you know, the key to how to how to use the buttons to control everything. And the main sort of research and academic that has done work on projects I was in is Adan Medina and she has a book that's called Cybernetic Revolutionaries Technology and Politics In. And there's Chile and it's very good. And she points out that there was a conscious design design decision to not use an actual keyboard like text based keyboard, because in the early seventies, typing on a keyboard was considered a specialized skill that mostly women had, like trained secretaries. And even though this was a space that was trying to be so egalitarian, there was this bias, this presumption of who would be using the room. It wouldn't be the secretaries, it would be these like men, people in power who didn't have this, like menial skill of typing. And there was also kind of a design element where that was sort of based on the idea of this like gentlemen's club, which is I guess also the the ashtray situation and kind of the casualness of the chairs and Medina nights. This is a quote that the design of the operations room illustrates that even futuristic visions of modernity carry assumptions about gender and class. Yeah. Which is yeah, it's interesting that that this wasn't an art like, critiqued or analyzed so much. It was just kind of an assumption about about who would be using the space. Yeah. And also it's really interesting to see how there was such a intentional decision to make the design so different to what is like a switchboard operator room. So there was actually like hardware decision choices to make it look different and act differently to it being just like a switchboard because that's what women used and that's what women use during the war. And it's a totally different fight that they were playing. It was more of like an intellectual race of building technology and distributing the economy rather than like, we're at war and we only have these people left to handle these technologies. That's something that's a lot more a lot higher in terms of labor. Yeah, and I suppose we'll go into this later. But I mean, it was sort of a nonhierarchical system and everybody was meant to have kind of input, but it was still sort of managerial decisions happening based on this information that was put into input into the network. So yeah, I'm not sure in that sense, like how much was actually being changed. MM From kind of the hierarchy that the preexisting hierarchy. So Cybersyn was originally formed using a few computers that, that Chile had and a preexisting telex network that they then expanded upon. Now telex is sort of, I don't know, I was trying to think about how to explain it. It's kind of almost like a fax machine. So each machine has a number that you call to establish a connection, but in this case of the telex, you type out the message on a keyboard in the machine, and then that message gets printed out by the machine at the other end. But it also like there has to be an operator at both ends to kind of make the call and send the message and then pick up the call and receive the message. So the main purpose in this early stage of Cybersyn was to connect factories throughout Chile and so they could see what's going on at all times and using computer technology to make predictions and simulations based on data so that everything runs effectively. And while interior design was quite important to the project, probably the most important part was actually the design and purpose of the network itself. So Cybersyn was an island administration project. The Allende government was a democratically elected socialist government. If their popular unity party in Chile, which came to power in 1970, they were looking for ways to reconstruct elements of the country, the way that things worked in a socialist way to nationalize industries while including worker participation. And this economic shift was incredibly ambitious and they felt like they had time to get it done, which unfortunately, spoiler alert wasn't the case that in 1971, Fernando Flores, who was a minister in the state development agency, had been starting to get interested in cybernetics as a possible method of achieving these sort of socialist goals. So we contacted Stafford BIA in the UK, whose very famous cybernetics and management consulting, and he had been theorizing about how cybernetics could possibly be used in this way. But here for him, Chile was really a project where he could see his theories through to a practical, real world implementation. So they have like a couple of letters back and forth and he ends up coming to Chile to oversee this grand cybernetics project alongside Flores and a senior advisor named Role as well, and also a small team And staff would be like, Normally I am really expensive, but for you I'll make an exception. You can just pay me $500 a day and then as much chocolate wine and cigars as I need. And then it turned out that the wine and the cigars and the chocolate actually was costing so much money because they've got like food shortages and embargoes against those things. So that was it. I'm not sure how good of a deal. So suddenly winning. Yeah, I'm going to put that in like all my future work contracts. So he starts creating this like cybernetic scaffold that will eventually become the outline of how project Cybersyn will work. So we need to talk about cybernetics to understand this. I guess pull me up on things, Ana if it's confusing or wrong course. So these theories on cybernetics work on a viable system model, which is a system that is complex, adaptive and dynamic, where information is fed back into itself, which initiates further actions and cybernetics really is about communication and control, looking at sort of automatic systems within animals and machines, but also to businesses, as in the case of management cybernetics, which sort of crosses engineering and biology. And in many ways the normal hierarchies of networks disrupted here. And there's quite a famous quote of staff be aware his describing presenting this cybernetic graph this outline to a day and he's going through all the levels and sections and then he gets to sort of the top and he's about to announce to Allende that this is where his position is in the system and Allende stops them and he says, Oh, finally, the people. This is you know, this project was about joining cybernetics and socialism and theory and politics. They were trying to create something really unique. And and a step would be I was really impressed that Allende saw this position not as like a position of control that he held, but something that, you know, everybody in the country could be could be involved in. And because of input into this computer network. Mm hmm. But something that we have to remember in the background of all of this is that during this time, the government is putting up against international attempts to undermine and overturn the democratically elected government. By 1973, this obviously escalated to a backing of the coup that ended the anti government and also in this life. But these attempts to undermine the government were happening on slightly less devastating scales throughout this period of time, which included economic blockades. And in the 18 months before the coup, the CIA were secretly providing initiatives for anti and they strike actions, particularly a conservative nationwide truck driver strike in October 1972 that lasted 26 days, causing labor and supply issues throughout the country. And because Project Sebastian was concerned with connecting factories, Allende turned to Fernanda Flores and the team to see if Project Cybersyn could be utilized to prevent total devastation from this strike. Cybersyn at this point wasn't really operational and the system and the upstream were essentially a prototype. But because the the telex network between the factories was already established, they were able to use this real time communication to find personnel of it. Bottlenecks, pinpoint where supplies were needed and send things there and keep the country functioning, essentially, at least on a basic level. And Allende was incredibly impressed by this. And over the following months, there was a massive growth in the projects. This growth caused issues in its own ways. With so many new people involved, it was getting harder to keep the core ideals and aims of the project intact. And Stafford himself was getting very excited about seeing his theories in practice and he started developing way more far reaching projects that would have basically cybernetic sides, the whole country and every element of it. There was various of early idea code projects, cyber folk which would have put a machine in every household that tracked happiness levels, which I'm not sure. I guess if it's not actually monitoring you and your, you have control over like what you're inputting. Yeah, it's not so bad, but like, like from, from decades later, I think we can totally see where the issues come in. Something like a I mean, it's a cute it's a cute incentive. It's a cute incentive. But practically, I think I would hate to have my house tell me that I'm sad. Now. You would be telling your house that, you know. So yeah. And then that's like back to you because it's trying to make you happy somehow. I guess that would be like the end outcome. Maybe. Yeah, I guess so. It's like, yeah, it's like some weird app that you check in every day and you say it would be terrifying emotion. And then it gives you a reading at the end of each month. And like, I was more sad than happy this month. That's, that's fun. Yeah. And then the whole government knows as well. Yeah, it would have to be anonymous, but that's incredible. I mean, the fact that Cybersyn was able to provide that infrastructure where people could like, yeah, like you said, pinpoint where supplies were needed and find stuff that they needed and bottlenecks and things like that. I think that is basically what a distributed economy is. That's how it's supposed to function and that's how it's supposed to function with, with the rise of technology at the time, because that's also what a few other projects around the world, cybernetic projects around the world, were trying to achieve, socialist ones. So it's it's pretty amazing that it even did that on a basic level. Yeah. And I mean, the telex stuff, a lot of that was already established. It just wasn't being used in this way. So yeah. And it was this kind of, I guess it's the socialist element of the construction of this network where they were really encouraging managers of each of the individual factories to have a say and have input into how their factories connected to the whole network of factories in China. So I guess when people feel like they have a stake or they have, you know, that their opinion is being listened to, then they're more likely to want to use, want to use the system and be involved. And then the system goes, yeah, yeah. Because that's that's I don't know if you've read Oh my God, what is it? The Walmart book about the distributed economy of Wal-Mart. Now and how the digital operation of the resources in Wal-Mart is working in a completely socialist way where they do exactly this, where they put in their data of what every store has, and then when there's missing, when when they're low on some in some regions, then they can get that transported from a different Walmart or like a different store. And it distributes resources, but it also moves things from one department to another in a very efficient way. And they're able to kind of like save money, but then also have like a very regulated way of all of the kind of income that's coming into the different stores. And so they're working in this very kind of like cybernetic socialist way that, yeah, that early cyber geneticists were kind of fantasizing about. And I think there's like a famous quote that says that Walmart has the same GDP as Sweden, I think. And so if you're trying to imagine Wal-Mart as a country, the way that it's running its economy, it has a lot of kind of potential for like socialistic economies to actually be executed. But I guess they probably wouldn't approve of like unionization and. Yeah, yeah, I mean, I guess there's these ideas are all happening in late sixties seventies and did have a lot of influence on things later on. It just wasn't necessarily seen as like cybernetics. But yeah it's interesting to think about the way that this stuff has kind of bled into areas that we wouldn't expect. But yeah, the idea is like cyber fire can even, you know, the progression of, of Cybersyn didn't have a chance to continue and see, see where they would grow because in 1973 and September 10th, one day before the impending coup, that would take his life sensing maybe unrest or further instability. And they asked for the Cybersyn upstream to be moved to the presidential palace because that would allow him more access to the technology that he saw as sort of integral to his government's success. But the following day, the military took over in a violent coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the CIA. And as we now discovering quite a few other countries leading to Allende's death and dropping the country into a dictatorship that would last until 1990. And as the presidential palace was being bombed and overtaken royalists, Becker and others raced to the office to save as many files and as much information as they could about Project Sebastian. Because they really believed in this project. It wasn't just like a work project for them, and they escaped under sort of incredible amounts of danger because Project Sebastian was a largely so secret project to this point. When the military found and sort of invaded the upstream, they had no idea what it was and couldn't grasp its importance or how it could be useful for them in any way. And they smashed it. They smashed it apart, they slashed the computer screens, it was destroyed. And at the time staff of beer was in the UK in a meeting and he received a message that the coup had occurred and that Allende, his friend, had died. And the project, his his project. This project was over and many of his friends and coworkers were murdered or in very unsafe situations. At this point, I think that Flores was in prison and later Asperger ended up in the UK and continued his study and work in management, cybernetics and Flores, after being released from prison via an Amnesty International campaign in 1976, ended up studying in California and became a business consultant, later returned to Chile and was a senator for a period of time and stuff would be his son. Mentions that the fire most likely had immense survivor's guilt going into the project in 1971. He was this like management consultant coming out of it, and in the following years he became this sort of eccentric hippie hermit. He lived in a cottage in Wales with no running water, grew this really long beard. But, you know, his experience with Project Cybersyn was hugely influential on his future concepts and sort of a general understanding of cybernetics, and it really played a huge role in shaping that field. So, you know, it's sad to think of what could have been on so many levels for Chile itself and and for cybernetics. But I think it's important to see this not as a sort of a full stop, but as an element of a really strong unit, creative, forward thinking tech history in Chile. And it wasn't a case of this kind of UK team or person coming in and kind of taking over. But it was really a true collaboration between, you know, government designers, people in tech in Chile, just getting a little bit of massive expertise on this one specific aspect, the cybernetics aspect. But they had they had all the other stuff. You know, it's like it was this true collaboration. And I think that the failure of the projects in this case wasn't like a proven failure of the tech, but it came about through international intervention and geopolitics. So I don't think we can look at it and be like, well, it didn't work out. I mean, same with like the socialist experiment or whatever, but you can't look at it and say, This is proof that this is this would never work. We tried it. It doesn't work because there's no way to know. It was completely like it was destroyed for sort of geopolitical reasons, and it could have turned into who knows what it could have turned into. Yeah, for our future. It's so inspiring what happened, because also it was one of the only early socialist cybernetic projects where you had people at the top that were really motivated and actually really cared, especially when you had that moment of Allende. Looking at the image that Stafford Behar was drawing about the kind of symbiote nature of like the servers, right. And the screens and there was this this arrow that would that kept going back and forth of the what's it called, the circular model or recursive model working on models. And then he pointed to that relationship and said, oh, the people as in like the people, the people's relationship to the government is this symbiotic thing. And you had this network that represented that in this moment. I think that really spoke true to how he felt about this project and how inspirational it was to him. And that's really special. You don't really usually have people at the top that really care. Yeah. And I think that the other special thing about it was that Allende was a doctor. And this model is really based on like the human body and how things move throughout, how systems and networks move throughout the body. And that in that sort of just that initial discussion with Stafford Behar and Allende, he was impressed that Allende could really understand that the way that this recursive model works, because he had a really a real understanding of of how the human body works. That's beautiful. So we'll have some links in the show notes to my research and some further information to check out if you're interested. My project is on external pages dot com, though it's quite artistic and speculative. And if you want more information, Peter Medina's book is really Good Cybernetic Revolutionaries, and there's also a Chilean research project called the Counterculture Room, and they do a lot of work to document and capture this history through interviews in Spanish. Some of them are on YouTube and they did a recreation of the Upstream as well. Yeah, I also just looked up the Walmart reference and it's called the People's Republic of Wal-Mart. Yeah, it's on Verso. If people want to check that out. It looks pretty interesting. Yes. Okay. Well, we hope you enjoyed this episode. It's been fun to have an excuse to delve into this research. Again, next episode, What what is our topic? And next, we're talking about the Soviet distributed network called OG, which was also being developed in the seventies around the same time a little bit later. But yeah, we'll also look at the trials and tribulations of that, the failures and the successes, more general failures, successes. Some some things came out of it anyway, and I'm excited about that one a lot. Great. And looking forward to it. Well, thank you everyone for listening where we're excited to start this journey, this research journey. And yeah, I can't believe we're doing this. This is our first episode that's so exciting. I feel like we should have a little cake or something. I would like some cake if you wish to. What do you say your podcast like and subscribe? Write a writer review. That would be excellent. Email us. Email us our friend the computer at gmail dot com exac we one word Yes, it's a long name. All right. We will. We'll be back with you soon. Yes. Thank you for listening. Right.