by Melania Parzonka & Scott Wagner
The process of metamorphosis—the fundamental changing of life—often starts with the smallest ounce of pressure.
A 3.75% increase in public transit fares in Santiago has awoken slumbering giants of populism and progressivism in Chile. Student protests that began in 2019 led to a national plebiscite in October 2020, in which Chile voted overwhelmingly to rewrite a constitution that has stubbornly persisted since the 1973-1990 military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.
The transformation would not have been possible without social media. Early protesters publicized their cause with the hashtag “#EvasiónMasiva” (mass evasion). As Chilean President Sebastián Piñera deployed carabineros to quell the unrest, demonstrators communicated with each other through virtual networks. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought social life to a shuddering halt, protesters went online to keep the movement alive and share videos and photos promoting the cause.
For Camila Galaz, those networks and the communities they fostered felt strikingly familiar. A visual artist based in Los Angeles, Galaz saw similarities between the networks of resistance in the Chilean protests of 2019 and the short-lived cybernetic network known as “Project Cybersyn” installed by the Salvador Allende administration in 1971. In Redes (networks), an interactive visual exhibition, Galaz demonstrates how Chileans past and present have envisioned a future in which the networks of community are built for the people, and by the people.
In 1971, Salvador Allende became the first democratically elected socialist leader of Chile. He immediately embarked on an ambitious plan to nationalize the Chilean economy and accelerate much-needed land reforms, but the task of managing the rapidly growing public industry sector proved increasingly difficult.
To evade the traps of Soviet-style central planning guided by direct orders and five-year plans, Allende wanted to draw from the newest technologies. The decentralization of the socialist economy and empowerment of the workers would be delivered by means of cybernetics—a revolutionary science of communication, feedback, and control mechanisms.
To help set up the network, Allende turned to Stafford Beer. Beer was the epitome of a Western bourgeois, raking in lucrative contracts as a consultant in the nascent field of management cybernetics. Remarkably, he was sympathetic to Allende’s socialist ideas. When offered the chance to test his ideas on a national scale, Beer agreed to come to Chile to spearhead a new cybernetic approach to realize Allende’s socialist vision.
Beer’s idea was called “Cybersyn”—a combination of “cybernetics” and “synergy.” The Cybersyn network consisted of data gathered from factories and workers integrated within the public industries, including historical and statistical information on production and output. That data would be fed to an economic simulator known as “Cyberstride” to assess the potential consequences of economic decisions. The heart of the Cybersyn network was a futuristic operations room in Santiago, echoing something out of a Star Trek film. In the hexagonal room of dubious functionality, decision-makers would sit on seven chairs with built-in keyboards and operate data screens.
The implementation of Cybersyn was all the more impressive given the sparse technology at Beer’s disposal. The entire network was run through a system of Telex machines that previously laid abandoned in one of the state-owned enterprises. The incoming data from factories and enterprises was analyzed using one IBM 360/50 computer, which had less storage capacity than a modern-day USB stick.
Despite its limitations, the Cybersyn network was beneficial to Allende’s government. In 1972, when lorry drivers and retailers went on strike, Cybersyn was used to manage supply lines directly between connected enterprises without the need for hierarchical supervision, keeping the economy afloat. By 1973, some 60% of public industry was connected to Cybersyn.
While Cybersyn was largely focused on public industries, Beer had grandiose plans to include everyday citizens in the policymaking process by installing nodes of communication in private homes, allowing the Chilean people to give immediate feedback on government policies. Project Cyberfolk, as it was known, was never installed, though the presence of government machinery in private homes brings to mind the dystopian futures of Philip K. Dick and George Orwell.
Fears of government overreach, both real and imagined, dogged Allende’s administration until the very end. On September 11, 1973, right-wing cohorts in the Chilean military backed covertly by the CIA launched a coup on the Allende government, claiming that they were saving Chile from communist influence. The prototype ops room in Santiago was destroyed, and Project Cybersyn along with it.
Dreaming of a Better Future
When Stafford Beer first introduced his plan for Project Cybersyn to Allende, he compared the cybernetic network to the human body. He hoped that Allende, who was a medical student before entering politics, would appreciate the comparison. Each of the nodes of information would act as the network’s nervous system; the ops room in Santiago would function as the brain. When he began explaining the operations center, Beer claims, “I was going to say: ‘This, compañero Presidente, is you.’”
“Before I could say it,” Beer recalls, Allende “suddenly smiled very broadly and he said: ‘Ah, at last, the people.’”
The people were central to Allende’s vision for a socialist Chile. Project Cybersyn was a vehicle for workers themselves to contribute to the country’s economic decision-making. Their views and opinions would serve as the primary input in the data-driven, centrally-planned economy.
Successive Chilean governments have not shared that vision. The military dictatorship under Pinochet cared more about silencing dissent than responding to the popular will. Even after Pinochet’s downfall and subsequent arrest, the constitution drafted by the military junta remained in effect. With no government willing to facilitate community networks, progressive Chileans made their own.
Those networks, and their desire to be heard, are the focus of Galaz’s project. In her exhibition, she includes audio and visual messages from journalists like Naomi Larsson and activist groups like 18.10Informa (now renamed 18.10Aprueba), allowing them to tell the story of the protests in their own words. Like Allende and Beer before them, this new generation of Chileans used the technologies at their disposal to mobilize a network of like-minded activists.
Today’s innovations have far surpassed Telex machines and hexagonal furniture, but fears of overreach and violations of privacy remain. Personal data has become the currency of the future—a currency controlled and monopolized by social media giants and big tech companies.
“What’s happening on social media is grassroots, but it’s on a network that is a corporation,” Galaz told us. “Social [media] networks are really good at getting the word out. But ultimately they’re run by corporations.”
Whether filtered through government officials or social media activists, whether on Telex or Twitter, there is one thing that unites the past with the present, Galaz argues.
“It’s people protesting for a better future,” she says. “It’s young people protesting for the benefits of their grandparents. It’s for the community.”
Melania Parzonka is the co-founder of INTERZINE.
Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.