The New Yorker last week published an essay by Evgeny Morozov on socialist Chile’s fascinating Project Cybersyn. Cybersyn was short for cybernetics synergy, an attempt by Salvador Allende’s economic planners to create a state-of-the art information system that could rationalize economic decisions—a networked of linked telex machines with state-of-the-art software that would keep track of real-time economic indicators, availability of raw material, shortages, factory output, consumer demand and so on.
In was the early 1970s, and so at the center of the project was the “Operations Room,” designed by Gui Bonsiepe, a German industrial designer whose work, according to Morozov, inspired Steve Jobs. Here’s Morozov’s description: “it was a hexagonal space, thirty-three feet in diameter, accommodating seven white fiberglass swivel chairs with orange cushions and, on the walls, futurist screens. Tables and paper were banned.” It looked something like the deck of the USS Enterprise, from Star Trek, which had just ended its run the year before Allende’s 1970 election. “Four screens could show hundreds of pictures and figures at the touch of a button, delivering historical and statistical information about production—the Datafeed.”
Most of the program was meant to coordinate a command economy, and was to include programs to run stimulations of economic decisions: “before you set prices, established production quotas, or shifted petroleum allocations, you could see how your decisions would play out.”
But there’s this lovely addition, which indicates how humanist was Chile’s socialist humanist tradition, of which Allende was the standard-bearer:
One wall was reserved for Project Cyberfolk, an ambitious effort to track the real-time happiness of the entire Chilean nation in response to decisions made in the op room. Beer [Stafford Beer, the computer futurist brought in to run the project] built a device that would enable the country’s citizens, from their living rooms, to move a pointer on a voltmeter-like dial that indicated moods ranging from extreme unhappiness to complete bliss. The plan was to connect these devices to a network—it would ride on the existing TV networks—so that the total national happiness at any moment in time could be determined. The algedonic meter, as the device was called (from the Greek algos, “pain,” and hedone, “pleasure”), would measure only raw pleasure-or-pain reactions to show whether government policies were working.
Morozov makes the case that, ironically, it is in Allende’s Project Cybersyn that one can trace the beginning of today’s use of computers by our hyper-linked, consumer-desire economy, by Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping,” Uber and the like, as well as new schemes of “algorithmic regulation” cooked up by neoliberal urban planners, who want to “replace rigid rules issued by out-of-touch politicians with fluid and personalized feedback lops generated by gadget-wielding customers.” Project Cybersyn looks like a “dispatch from the future.” “The socialist origins of big data,” runs a teaser for Morozov’s essay.