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In Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was Chile's experiment with peaceful socialist change under Salvador Allende; the second was the simultaneous attempt to build a computer system that would manage Chile's economy. Neither vision was fully realized--Allende's gover In Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was Chile's experiment with peaceful socialist change under Salvador Allende; the second was the simultaneous attempt to build a computer system that would manage Chile's economy. Neither vision was fully realized--Allende's government ended with a violent military coup; the system, known as Project Cybersyn, was never completely implemented--but they hold lessons for today about the relationship between technology and politics. Drawing on extensive archival material and interviews, Medina examines the cybernetic system envisioned by the Chilean government--which was to feature holistic system design, decentralized management, human-computer interaction, a national telex network, near real-time control of the growing industrial sector, and modeling the behavior of dynamic systems. She also describes, and documents with photographs, the network's Star Trek-like operations room, which featured swivel chairs with armrest control panels, a wall of screens displaying data, and flashing red lights to indicate economic emergencies. Studying project Cybersyn today helps us understand not only the technological ambitions of a government in the midst of political change but also the limitations of the Chilean revolution. This history further shows how human attempts to combine the political and the technological with the goal of creating a more just society can open new technological, intellectual, and political possibilities. Technologies, Medina writes, are historical texts; when we read them we are reading history.


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In Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was Chile's experiment with peaceful socialist change under Salvador Allende; the second was the simultaneous attempt to build a computer system that would manage Chile's economy. Neither vision was fully realized--Allende's gover In Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was Chile's experiment with peaceful socialist change under Salvador Allende; the second was the simultaneous attempt to build a computer system that would manage Chile's economy. Neither vision was fully realized--Allende's government ended with a violent military coup; the system, known as Project Cybersyn, was never completely implemented--but they hold lessons for today about the relationship between technology and politics. Drawing on extensive archival material and interviews, Medina examines the cybernetic system envisioned by the Chilean government--which was to feature holistic system design, decentralized management, human-computer interaction, a national telex network, near real-time control of the growing industrial sector, and modeling the behavior of dynamic systems. She also describes, and documents with photographs, the network's Star Trek-like operations room, which featured swivel chairs with armrest control panels, a wall of screens displaying data, and flashing red lights to indicate economic emergencies. Studying project Cybersyn today helps us understand not only the technological ambitions of a government in the midst of political change but also the limitations of the Chilean revolution. This history further shows how human attempts to combine the political and the technological with the goal of creating a more just society can open new technological, intellectual, and political possibilities. Technologies, Medina writes, are historical texts; when we read them we are reading history.

30 review for Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile

  1. 4 out of 5

    George

    I found out about project Cybersyn from the 99% invisible podcast and thankfully they recommended this book at the end of the episode. OK, now what was Cybersyn (Cybernetics - Synergy)? Put simply it was an attempt of Allende's government to manage newly nationalized factories using Cybernetics (computers, teletype machines, mathematics and new management techniques). I have to compliment the author for the thoroughness and quality of research on this topic. She managed to beautifully cover the I found out about project Cybersyn from the 99% invisible podcast and thankfully they recommended this book at the end of the episode. OK, now what was Cybersyn (Cybernetics - Synergy)? Put simply it was an attempt of Allende's government to manage newly nationalized factories using Cybernetics (computers, teletype machines, mathematics and new management techniques). I have to compliment the author for the thoroughness and quality of research on this topic. She managed to beautifully cover the people, technology and politics that surrounded this project (she did repeat herself quite a bit, but I managed). You have to be fascinated by the cold war period, the simultaneous joy and hope for the future and absolute terror of disaster made people try everything and anything. Just imagine the present if it worked long enough (it did reach something of an alpha version). What would really happen to the workers, would it accomplish it's goals or become the same brutal and efficient overseer of today (be kind to your Uber driver, his manager is literally an AI), we will never know, but it it's interesting to speculate.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gautam Bhatia

    Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries is a wonderful social and political history of one of the most ambitious efforts to embed democracy and democratic decision-making into technological design: Chile's Project Cybersyn. Medina shows how the project's architect - the British cybernetician Stafford Beer - attempted to locate Project Cybersyn within Salvador Allende's philosophy of democratic socialism, eschewing top-down control and technocracy for decentralised and relatively autonomous uses Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries is a wonderful social and political history of one of the most ambitious efforts to embed democracy and democratic decision-making into technological design: Chile's Project Cybersyn. Medina shows how the project's architect - the British cybernetician Stafford Beer - attempted to locate Project Cybersyn within Salvador Allende's philosophy of democratic socialism, eschewing top-down control and technocracy for decentralised and relatively autonomous uses of technology, at the shop-floor level; and she also shows how the political and social conditions prevailing in Chile at the time ultimately made the project borderline utopian and - in its fullest scope - unimplementable, before it was aborted in the violent coup that overthrew Allende. The book presents fascinating insights about the relationships between technology, politics and society, the limits to which democracy can be "coded" as part of technological design, and of course, about Chile during the Allende years - most notably, the extent to which the USA tried to have Allende overthrown by engaging in economic warfare. A particularly enraging section was a description of an article written in the Observer newspaper in the UK, that grossly mischaracterised Project Cybersyn, and turned international public opinion against it - a familiar story. Through the book, Stafford Beer emerges as an absolutely fascinating character - complex, visionary, and flawed - and it's a mystery to me why he doesn't feature more prominently in intellectual histories of the 20th century. Thoroughly recommended.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Malini Sridharan

    The story and research here is fascinating and right up my alley-- cybernetics, management, mainframe computers!!! Flowcharts!!! I am very glad that I read this book. However, the analysis was not particularly interesting. Rather than either letting events speak for themselves (which they easily could have done) or going deep into the ideas around the project, the author makes statements that, to be honest, reminded me of everything that is wrong with grade school research essays-- statements tha The story and research here is fascinating and right up my alley-- cybernetics, management, mainframe computers!!! Flowcharts!!! I am very glad that I read this book. However, the analysis was not particularly interesting. Rather than either letting events speak for themselves (which they easily could have done) or going deep into the ideas around the project, the author makes statements that, to be honest, reminded me of everything that is wrong with grade school research essays-- statements that just summarized what the data had already made clear without adding any value whatsoever. For example, she talks about how Beer told different people different things about the project and then ends the section with something like, 'this shows that he presented the project differently to different audiences.' This happens over and over. It is like there is a list of ways technology can be interpreted or interacted with and she is just rolling down the list. There were many missed opportunities to go deeper into the philosophy and culture behind the project-- I would have loved to see a deeper reading of cybernetics vs. allende style socialism at the beginning, for instance.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Thompson

    I loved this! It's a neat mix of history, applied mathematics, and leftist politics. Allende, after running on a platform that called for a peaceful and constitutional transition to socialism, was elected president of Chile in 1970. In order to manage the newly nationalized sectors of the economy, the Allende government brought in Stafford Beer, the founder of “management cybernetics.” Cybernetics is a branch of applied math concerned with the control and regulation of complex systems, and is oft I loved this! It's a neat mix of history, applied mathematics, and leftist politics. Allende, after running on a platform that called for a peaceful and constitutional transition to socialism, was elected president of Chile in 1970. In order to manage the newly nationalized sectors of the economy, the Allende government brought in Stafford Beer, the founder of “management cybernetics.” Cybernetics is a branch of applied math concerned with the control and regulation of complex systems, and is often associated with a top-down way of looking at things. But Stafford Beer was attempting to mix his anti-authoritarian political views with cybernetics in order to build decentralized systems of management. (Beer's work was influenced by biology, in which systems regulate themselves by means of feedback loops between networks of more-or-less autonomous parts, instead of being subject to any form of centralized control.) Working with a team of Chilean scientists and engineers, Beer designed a technological network and computer system (called Cybersyn) that was supposed to link together the different parts of the economy in a way that increased worker participation in management decisions, while steering the economy as a whole toward meeting social goals (like full employment). Because of the coup in 1973, we will never know how Cybersyn would have worked in practice. And it should be emphasized that the powerful forces working to undermine the project from the outside were not the only reason it failed to get off the ground. The project had conflicting goals, and its designers seemed to be naive about certain things. Stafford Beer himself had some odd opinions (and there are a few cringe-inducing passages of the book describing Beer's ideas concerning Marx and social class). Given all this, I suspect that it would have taken many years of trial and error, as well as lots of fundamental changes, in order to get Cybersyn working effectively. But I do think the project would have been a success if it had been allowed to continue. The transnational corporations which make up global capitalism today are themselves planned economies, which in some cases are bigger (both in terms of annual output and in terms of the geographic scope of their operations) than Chile's economy. Many of these corporations are run using cybernetic principles. (My advisor in grad school actually did work in that area, modeling production networks using control theory.) Also, some of these companies (e.g. in Germany) rely on substantial input from workers in order to make decisions. So I don't think the Cybersyn project was totally unrealistic, at least from a purely technical perspective. Somebody should write a book about the modern planning practices and cybernetic theory utilized by modern corporations, with an eye to how the concepts might be repurposed in order to build a more rational economic system.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ro

    This was a fascinating look at the intersection of technology and politics in early 1970s Chile, and the intellectual evolution and work of the great British technologist Stafford Beer. The book does a great job of revealing the political and social influences of Project Cybersyn, and how this might apply to engineering and technological development processes in general. The narrative and analysis was a bit simplistic and repetitive at times (I'm guessing the target audience was engineers and pr This was a fascinating look at the intersection of technology and politics in early 1970s Chile, and the intellectual evolution and work of the great British technologist Stafford Beer. The book does a great job of revealing the political and social influences of Project Cybersyn, and how this might apply to engineering and technological development processes in general. The narrative and analysis was a bit simplistic and repetitive at times (I'm guessing the target audience was engineers and programmers who have little to no background in subjects like sociology or philosophy or history), and I would have liked to see a lot more analysis on the ways that the cybernetic network was actually on a day-to-day basis, and how it interacted with the industries and factories it was connected with.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nico

    En serio: Este libro debería ser al menos en parte, de lectura o conocimiento obligatorio en las escuelas de ingeniería, sobre todo porque es un estudio de un caso chileno de cómo la ciencia y la tecnología no son neutrales ni apolíticas, de cómo se puede hacer innovación (de la de verdad, no ese mamarracho que se vende en todos lados ahora) con baja tecnología, y cómo la inclusión de la tecnología afecta a un grupo social, ya sea alterando o reforzando las relaciones que existen.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ray

    Good history; interesting look at the relationship between mathematical cyberneticism, economics, and government.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I really enjoyed this book — it's a great mix of socialist thought, Latin American politics, applied mathematics, economic theory and cybernetics. Medina does a great job of teasing out the connections between systems organization and socialist thought from a wide variety of primary sources. The included images and diagrams also all really added to the text. The narrative and analysis portion of this book was not particularly in depth or political. I read this book with a reading group, so the p I really enjoyed this book — it's a great mix of socialist thought, Latin American politics, applied mathematics, economic theory and cybernetics. Medina does a great job of teasing out the connections between systems organization and socialist thought from a wide variety of primary sources. The included images and diagrams also all really added to the text. The narrative and analysis portion of this book was not particularly in depth or political. I read this book with a reading group, so the process of discussing it with others more than made up for the simple analysis, in my personal reading experience. If I had read it alone, and was relying solely on the author to make interesting analytical links or do in depth theoretical/philisophical work, it likely would have been four stars instead of five.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

    This is an unusual history, focused as it is on the history of computing and cybernetics far outside the US and Europe. It tells a story that is entertaining and thought-provoking, even though the project that it documents was never fully implemented. There is also an interesting tie-in to Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, a formative book for me. On the bad side, the writing is dry and the analysis, while adequate, comes across as uninspired. Still, this is a st This is an unusual history, focused as it is on the history of computing and cybernetics far outside the US and Europe. It tells a story that is entertaining and thought-provoking, even though the project that it documents was never fully implemented. There is also an interesting tie-in to Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, a formative book for me. On the bad side, the writing is dry and the analysis, while adequate, comes across as uninspired. Still, this is a story that needed to be told, and I'm glad that I came across it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    An immensely valuable collection of information on Project Cybersyn, its successes and shortcomings, which would be important to consider in any political project aimed at decentralized yet coordinated control. Only alluding to any kind of comparative study, this book feels most like a start of a line of research.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Juan C.

    Lo más entrete es que alguien que leyó sobre Synco al pie de página en Estados Unidos se tomó 10 años en hacer un libro sobre el tema

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tanju Cakar

    An excellent history of Project Cybersyn.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Christian Cail

    This book tells rather well one of the most important stories of our modern era

  14. 5 out of 5

    Paulo

    Uma história incrível muito bem contada.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robharries

    Now because of GRs stupid personalized rating system on how much you enjoyed/loved/liked a book I must say this deserves a four out of five for quality of content, however, I liked it but hardly an overly interesting read from a personal perspective, hence three stars. A pretty good overview of the history of project cybersyn, weaving the life of beer, the Allende government, flores and other characters in this somewhat obscure (although becoming more well know) story of cybersyn. A good academic Now because of GRs stupid personalized rating system on how much you enjoyed/loved/liked a book I must say this deserves a four out of five for quality of content, however, I liked it but hardly an overly interesting read from a personal perspective, hence three stars. A pretty good overview of the history of project cybersyn, weaving the life of beer, the Allende government, flores and other characters in this somewhat obscure (although becoming more well know) story of cybersyn. A good academic book on the intersection of technology and politics in chile around cybersyn and cybersyn itself.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Graham Lee

    This is a really interesting history on the inextricable link between technological and political models of a system, using the cybernetics and democratic socialism of Chile's cybersyn project as its working example. The author's bias is generally leftist and sympathetic to the project in the face of external factors blocking its success. If you know someone who thinks that the design and construction of a software (or other technological) system is apolitical and it's other people who choose how This is a really interesting history on the inextricable link between technological and political models of a system, using the cybernetics and democratic socialism of Chile's cybersyn project as its working example. The author's bias is generally leftist and sympathetic to the project in the face of external factors blocking its success. If you know someone who thinks that the design and construction of a software (or other technological) system is apolitical and it's other people who choose how to use it, buy them a copy of this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Vasil Kolev

    The whole information from the book could've fit in 1/2-1/3 of the size. There is no need to have paragraphs telling what's the paragraph is about. The described system never got into a production stage, so its modeling capabilities never got tested, but it would've been very interesting if it could get something right. All in all modeling such a complex and most probably chaotic system is a futile exercise, but the close-to-realtime detection of problems is something that should be pretty ubiqui The whole information from the book could've fit in 1/2-1/3 of the size. There is no need to have paragraphs telling what's the paragraph is about. The described system never got into a production stage, so its modeling capabilities never got tested, but it would've been very interesting if it could get something right. All in all modeling such a complex and most probably chaotic system is a futile exercise, but the close-to-realtime detection of problems is something that should be pretty ubiquitous by now.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Leah

    A Lucid history of Fernando Flores and Stafford Beer's collaboration in Allende's Chile; useful for thinking about how utopias dovetail with technology in a socialist context (my reading: the accusations of technocracy ultimately brought down Flores & Beer's efforts, but, uh, they weren't doing so well at implementing their cybernetic central planning anyway), and for a practical counterexample (or example) to marxist debates about the role of technology in history's ends. A Lucid history of Fernando Flores and Stafford Beer's collaboration in Allende's Chile; useful for thinking about how utopias dovetail with technology in a socialist context (my reading: the accusations of technocracy ultimately brought down Flores & Beer's efforts, but, uh, they weren't doing so well at implementing their cybernetic central planning anyway), and for a practical counterexample (or example) to marxist debates about the role of technology in history's ends.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Michael Grasso

    A riveting and approachable read. The almost-but-not-quite cybernetic reorganization of the Chilean economy under President Salvador Allende and cybernetician Stafford Beer is a story of the history of cybernetics, Cold War brinksmanship, Aquarian idealism, and lots and lots of Telexes. Medina's account of the first meeting between Beer and Allende had me literally holding my breath. Fantastic stuff. A riveting and approachable read. The almost-but-not-quite cybernetic reorganization of the Chilean economy under President Salvador Allende and cybernetician Stafford Beer is a story of the history of cybernetics, Cold War brinksmanship, Aquarian idealism, and lots and lots of Telexes. Medina's account of the first meeting between Beer and Allende had me literally holding my breath. Fantastic stuff.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jackie Mccarthy

    I learned about this book from the New Yorker; I think it's actually a dissertation. Super wonky, but interesting to think of data-driven economic policy 20 years before the Internet. Big Data, 1970s style, complete with a groovy-looking control room. I learned about this book from the New Yorker; I think it's actually a dissertation. Super wonky, but interesting to think of data-driven economic policy 20 years before the Internet. Big Data, 1970s style, complete with a groovy-looking control room.

  21. 5 out of 5

    D Schmudde

    Fascinating, well researched graduate thesis published as a widely distributed book. Although it is not always concise, the information contained inside is a valuable look into the politics and culture that every powerful technology inherently embodies.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    heres a spirited exchange from a few years ago on this very subject: http://www.rhizzone.net/article/2011/... http://www.rhizzone.net/article/2011/... heres a spirited exchange from a few years ago on this very subject: http://www.rhizzone.net/article/2011/... http://www.rhizzone.net/article/2011/...

  23. 5 out of 5

    Zara Rahman

    The story behind this book is truly fascinating, and Medina goes into a great deal of detail in recounting the history behind Project Cybersyn. I found the book quite dry in places, perhaps due to the detail, and longer than I expected - that said, I still thoroughly enjoyed it!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    An excellent work on the history of technology, with thought given to alternative and non Global North paths.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rodrigo Gonzalez Acevedo

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  27. 4 out of 5

    Nick

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

  29. 4 out of 5

    Adam LoBue

  30. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Berry

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