Cybernetic Revolutionaries

Note: this was originally published in Fifth Estate #394 (Summer 2015)

Cybersyn control roomCybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile
Eden Medina
MIT Press, 2014, 344 pp., $20

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries provides an account which is sympathetic to Chile’s Project Cybersyn. She uncovers and details the largely forgotten and extraordinarily fascinating history of how information and communication technology was seized upon as a way to realize President Salvador Allende’s socialist aspirations.

After his election in 1970, Allende led Chile on what he described as the “Chilean road to socialism” which was to differ from the revolutionary path charted by figures such as Fidel Castro in Cuba. In contrast to the Cuban example, the democratically elected Allende aimed to use already existing institutional channels to peacefully introduce socialist policies to his country. His plan was offered as a third way that did not explicitly align Chile with either of the two superpowers that were waging their Cold War and using smaller countries as pawns.

Similarly, Chile’s road to technological prowess was to differ from what conventional wisdom suggested. The generally accepted path forward for small lesser-developed states was to make big friends and then import modern technology and expertise from them. Instead, Allende took an interest in the emerging field of cybernetics as a way to more creatively think about how to use the computer technology they already possessed—which was far from the most advanced—to create systems that even the superpowers could not yet accomplish. They set out to build something akin to a nationwide internet before the existence of the internet.

With the help of eccentric British cybernetician, Stafford Beer, Chile launched Project Cybersyn to create an information network that would make a state controlled economy both feasible and efficient.

Those involved in Project Cybersyn sought a way to capture and manage the flood of information needed to be processed in real-time so that state officials could make informed decisions about how to most efficiently run the economy.

The current obsession with real time information was effectively being pursued in 1970s Chile. State officials would know if productions goals were being met, if raw materials were being delivered, if a work stoppage was interrupting their plans, and vast amounts of other such quantifiable data pertaining to the economy. They wanted models predicting how the economy would respond in the future based on current data.

With such information delivered in real time, the state could theoretically be able to shift and adapt so their desired end targets were achieved. Production quotas could be altered, raw materials could be rerouted, difficult workers could be circumvented, and so on. According to cybernetic theory, the state needed to be as homeostatic and as responsive as a living organism.

The political aspect of the project was highlighted in Allende’s intention to solve the dilemma between maintaining a stable state and allowing for personal autonomy. Individuals needed to have the freedom to live as they chose while at the same time not jeopardizing the stability of the state. Beer and his Chilean colleagues believed that cybernetics could ease this tension by creating a more dynamic state that could allow both. Medina’s book, however, fails to point out that this, in reality, is a sleight-of-hand trick which allows the individual to do as they wish provided the state can easily neutralize their efforts. One can do anything provided it is without consequence.

Since the Allende government defined its policies as socialism, it was also important to at least pay lip service to the notion of worker participation. The operations room of Project Cybersyn in Santiago was supposed to be accessible to even the uneducated rank-and-file. It included screens but only a few buttons. It included chairs but no tables and no paper.

Information was to be displayed graphically so it could be readily understood and acted upon. Keyboards were out because their presence would have implied secretarial work (and bureaucracy) which in turn implied the presence of women in the operations room which is not how the rank-and-file were generally pictured. Indeed, a gentlemen’s club was proposed as one aesthetic model for the design of the operations room. In hindsight, the completed command center has drawn comparisons with the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

Yet as novel as Allende’s political supporters thought his road to socialism was and as innovative as the cyberneticians considered their system, the message of Medina’s book, when read from an antiauthoritarian or anarchist perspective, is that these are but nuances on the organization, development and administration of the industrial system on which a new label was tacked.

Although Allende may have dreamed of a different road or path, his cybernetic industrialism had more in common with Fordism and Taylorism than it did with humanity’s emancipation.

The 1973 U.S.-backed coup that ousted Allende from power and installed the Pinochet dictatorship prevented Project Cybersyn from ever being completed. This fact allows supporters of the project to keep their dreams intact as to what might have been if it had been free from interference. Even Medina seems to occasionally resist criticism in this fashion. But to advance this line of thought, to defend the project in this way, requires that at least some sympathy for its goals of a highly coordinated industrialism. It may have been wildly successful if it had proceeded unimpeded, but in a process which was fundamentally flawed.

Allende, like Marx, thought that socialism could modernize and ultimately be more productive than capitalism. But if that is not the desired destination, it is of little consequence which ideology will purportedly get there faster.

Capitalism and socialism are essentially two different strategies both seeking to make mass society possible. There is nothing radical about simply picking one side over the other; rejecting capitalism only to embrace socialism. The project of mass society needs to be rejected outright.

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Seven Types of Shit

There are seven types of shit. I mean that literally. There are seven types of human feces. Researchers have established a schema for sorting stools into seven distinctive types. The Bristol Stool Chart was developed in 1997 assigns a number one through seven to bowel movements. The numbers span a spectrum from watery, diarrhea on one end to hard, constipated stools on the other end. For those keeping score, numbers four and five and considered healthy stools.

Bristol

The Bristol Stool Chart has trickled down from researchers to medical professionals to caretakers and even to a small number of overly-fastidious laypeople. In fact, I had considered a joke about a future Bristol Stool Chart phone app but then soon discovered that it already exists. Those interested in the app may be disappointed to learn that it is really just the chart made available on your phone (“Brings the famous Bristol Stool Scale to your fingertips!” – hopefully you’re wearing gloves) coupled with a place to document (archive?) your movements and perhaps boast of your regularity. In the future one would hope that you might have the ability take a picture of your stool and have it categorized for you in the same way that someone can point their phone at a constellation in the sky and be told its name. This would go a long way toward minimizing the amount of subjectivity that still remains in using the scale.

More seriously though, the developers of the Bristol Stool Chart originally believed that the classification would correspond with the transit time of fecal material through the bowels. This claim has been called into question but the chart remains as a way for professionals and others to talk more precisely about the bowel movements of their patients and those in their care.

In the 2014 film The Giver starring Jeff Bridges (based on the 1993 book by Lois Lowry), one of the founding principles of the dystopian future society depicted in the film was “precision of language”. Mass society requires precise language in order to function. Indeed, complex phenomena may even need to be simplified for the purpose of capturing it with precise language. In the film, the protagonist uses the word “love” and is quickly reprimanded for deviating from the principle of precise language. To offer a real world example, in 1950 Alan Turing wrote that:

I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

John Zerzan has often pointed out that this passage from Turing does not speak to the ability of machines to think rather Turing’s prediction concerns how people will have changed so as to more closely resemble machines. If machines cannot be made into brains, it may be far easier to make brains resemble machines.

The Bristol Stool Chart provides the precise language necessary for a society where many people are going to be discussing and in some way vested in your bowel movements and/or where you may need to report the nature, frequency, time, and size of your bowel movements to professionals of various sorts. It is easier to report having a “medium sized, type 4” than to get to vivid (the phone app claims to “make it easy to discuss your bowel movements with your doctor”). Furthermore, “medium sized, type 4” is something that can be (and will be) quickly entered into a form or computer program because not only does information have to be relayed from person to person, specialist to specialist, but it needs to be stored and tracked over time. Precise language allows things to be more readily quantified.

“The processing of large quantities of information is an essential aspect of complex societies, and indeed the need for this processing is probably one of the reasons that such societies came into existence.” (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 99).

In this way, this silly chart that compares shit to sausages and snakes, can be understood as a technology that makes mass society possible. In smaller scale societies, people obviously know that diarrhea and constipation are undesirable and that it may be indicative of overall gastrointestinal health and yet they are somehow able to make do without articulating seven categories of shit.