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.

Domesticated Animals & Us

Note: This article first appeared in the current issue of Fifth Estate (#391 Fall/Winter 2014)

creatures of empire

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp., $19.95 paperback



Civilization is a lie. Its images mask violence and its logic is that of genocide. Even the most banal scene of grazing cattle, while seemingly serene, portrays a weapon a war.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire is an important work for many reasons. It restores agency to domesticated animals and recognizes their vital role in a key period of American history; by recognizing the role of livestock Anderson’s work contributes to a more complete understanding of the European invasion of North America. It also provides a compelling case study of how civilization has been spread and genocide carried out; while tactics may have shifted according to convenience and circumstance, the goal was always to eliminate Indians as such either by transforming individuals into pseudo-English Christians or simply through physical removal and extermination.

Anderson focuses on seventeenth-century releations between English colonists and two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians: Indians of southern New England and Indians of the Chesapeake region of colonial America. Animals—both wild and domestic—often served as the intermediaries between colonists and Indians prompting both short-term cooperative efforts to minimize disputes as well as intense violence. Animals became tertiary targets of violence often being killed simply to send a message from one group to another. Anderson argues that toward the end of the seventeenth-century the fact “that animals could help incite a war between human combatants was eminently clear” (p. 232).

Even before direct contact between colonists and Indians, the two groups often encountered animals that would challenge their conventional understandings of human-animal relations. Indians would encounter domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs brought by colonists from Europe; animals that were deemed property. For people with a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the landscape, encounters with unfamiliar animals must have been incredibly shocking. Furthermore, virtually all animals in the Indians’ experience were wild and no living animal was considered an individual’s property. Likewise, colonists would encounter wild animals who would prey on their livestock, destroy their crops, and generally make highly-controlled, English-style agriculture close to impossible.

Both groups—colonists and Indians—would regularly encounter feral animals that blurred conceptual categories. For Indians, feral livestock most closely resembled wild animals that could legitimately be hunted. And yet to the English, “livestock could no more become [wild] than colonists could become Indians” (p. 138). For the English, any animal that was deemed property would necessarily always be property regardless of how far the animal wandered or uncared for the animal was; any resemblance to a wild animal was superficial and for another to kill that animal would invite harsh sanction.

Initially, when Indians were in a dominant position and colonists were simply struggling to survive, the colonists’ civilizing agenda took a superficially cooperative or ideological approach. It was not only prudent to preserve peaceful relations with valuable trading partners but the English believed that they could distinguish themselves from Spain by adoption of “an ideological approach [to colonization] that advertised their nation’s moral superiority (p. 78). It would be a way to make up for the fact that Spain was farther ahead of England in the race to secure colonies.

Furthermore, “[c]olonists took it for granted that Indians would recognize the superiority of an English agrarian regime once they saw how it worked,” and so violence may not even be necessary (p. 171). The effort was not only to turn Indians into sedentary agrarians but into Christians as well. For the English, owning livestock was strongly invested with a normative component; indeed, it was deemed a hallmark of civilization. The fact that native populations had failed to domesticate animals was considered clear evidence of a serious deficiency on their part. To English eyes, the landscape was made for livestock and awaiting improvement. But in fact, as Anderson points out, there was little benefit to be gained from domestication and the species on the North American continent were not of the sort that would readily submit to domestication.

This “ideological approach” was evident when in 1656 the Virginia colony adopted a policy of rewarding Indians who killed a sufficient number of wolves by giving them a cow. The heads of eight wolves could be exchanged for one cow. It was a plan intended to eliminate wolves which threatened English livestock while simultaneously introducing the concept of livestock ownership to native peoples. Similarly, an effort in Rhode Island involved taxing colonists’ cattle to raise funds to assist Indians in building fences around their cornfields. This was to minimize disputes involving animal intrusions while shifting the burden onto Indians rather than animal owners. Once fences were built, Indians would be required to maintain them if they were to have their grievances heard and be considered for compensation.

But by the middle of the seventeeth century, the civilizing agenda shifted from a strategy of assimilation to outright aggression and “depredations against livestock came to be seen as…acts of war” (p. 178). The fences that Indians were pressured into building were on several occassions burnt down by colonists who then proceeded to let their cattle roam through Indian cornfields; “roaming livestock acted as the advance guard of English settlement.” (p. 243) It was thought that such routine harassment could compel Indians to simply leave and cede the land to colonists. Disputes that would have previously been treated as delicate diplomatic issues to be navigated with caution—when the colonists were weak—were now simply regarded as a matters of law enforcement and handled with force.

Anderson’s concludes by saying that “livestock enabled the English to extend their dominion over the New World with remarkable speed and thoroughness” (p. 242). Livestock would advance, Indians would retreat, colonists would move in, and then the process would repeat itself as many times as necessary.

For anyone looking to better understand the specific mechanisms by which civilization encroaches and genocide is carried out, Anderson’s Creatures of Empire should be treated as required reading.