- Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile by Eden Medina
Socio-Technical Engineering, Socialism, Cybernetics, History of Technology, Management, Technopolitics, Utopia, Chile, Fernando Flores, Stafford Beer, Salvador Allende
Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries is an extraordinary first book. It is a model of thorough and ambitious research, and clear, effective presentation. It deals with one of the least known aspects of the efforts of the Allende government (1970–73) to organize Chilean society according to the ideals of democratic socialism. At the center of the book are the human stories and the political and technological history of project Cybersyn (cybernetics and synergy) or Synco (Sistema de información y control), which the Allende government created to help it increase, regulate, and inform Chilean economic production.
The book is organized into six chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue. The first chapter introduces us to the figures of Stafford Beer, a British consultant specialized in management cybernetics, and Fernando Flores, a Chilean engineering academic and technical expert who, in July 1971, wrote Beer to ask him for advice on how to incorporate his ideas on scientific management into the administration of the Chilean economy, and more specifically of its nationalized sectors. At the time, Flores was the general technical manager of the State Development Corporation (CORFO) but would soon rise to become, at the age of twenty-nine, minister of finance. From this moment on, a potential alternative story to give shape to this book emerges—the contrasting story of Beer and Flores’s trajectories during and especially after 1973. According to Medina’s Epilogue to the book, both Flores and Beer came to understand how the political context affected the possibilities of successfully implementing project Cybersyn. However, while Flores came to doubt the centrality of Cybersyn to the success of the Unidad Popular regime, Beer came to see the potential for an even deeper integration of politics and cybernetics. Additionally, after the coup, Flores’s trajectory went from concentration camp imprisonment to a Ph.D. at Berkeley and a very lucrative California-based business career in human systems organizations, [End Page 104] followed by a gradual move to the political right. Flores’s conservative shift culminated, now back in Chile as a wealthy senator in congress, in his support of the right wing candidate in the 2010 presidential elections. Beer, on the other hand, remained an international consultant, did significant work trying to help his Cybersyn Chilean colleagues after the coup d’état, came to question his own lifestyle in a capitalist society, and ended up living like a hermit in Wales, in a cottage without running water. This fascinating alternative story—so capable of encompassing both the practical social and individual economic possibilities of cybernetic management, as well as the hopes and frustrations of the 1960s social transformation projects and their actors—never takes center stage in this book. Instead, Medina’s real interest is the history of project Cybersyn in the context of an equally fascinating set of broader disciplinary questions: “This book is an attempt to understand: (1) how governments have envisioned using computers and communications technology to bring about structural change in society; (2) the ways technologies have tried to embed political values in the design of technical systems; (3) the challenge associated with such efforts; and (4) how studying technology can enhance our understanding of a historical moment” (7).
Clarifying her focus, Medina adds: “Here I use the history of a technical system, project Cybersyn, to illustrate the diversity of opinions present in Chile’s socialist experiment and to show how technologies, government officials, factory managers, and workers struggled to define a course of action. I use the history of a technical system to open this black box of politics, just as I use politics to open this black box of technology.” While it may be natural for a project of this nature to favor some voices (technologists, consultants, and government officials) over others (factory managers and workers), Medina does manage to shed light on the broader issues at the intersection of...