The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data

The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data

The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data

The genesis for the data-driven society of today can be traced to socialist Chile in the 1970s.


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.

But there’s a part of the story that Morozov misses, concerning the darker side of the pervasiveness of “big data” in our daily lives. He writes that when Augusto Pinochet staged his Washington-backed coup on September 11, 1973, overthrowing Allende and installing his long dictatorship, he dismantled Project Cybersyn. “Pinochet,” Morozov writes, “had no need for real-time centralized planning.”

But he did have a need for computers, which, Cybersyn notwithstanding, were rare in Latin America in the early 1970s. Washington began to provide Latin America’s right-wing dictatorships with the latest in computer technology, as part of its larger campaign to “modernize” and “professionalize” their intelligence agencies.

Here’s a passage from John Dinges’s The Condor Years:

The feature of Condor most openly described in the founding documents…was the establishment of a central data bank to which all member countries would contribute intelligence. The data bank was located in the headquarters’ Coordinating Center in Chile, designated as “Condor One.” The data bank was designed to gather in one place the best information from each country, and from countries outside the system, about “people…organizations and other activities, directly or indirectly connected with subversion.” Computers were almost nonexistent in South America in the mid-1970s…that the data bank would be computerized was itself a revolutionary step forward. FBI Agent Scherrer said he learned that the CIA provided DINA with computer systems and training that he presumed were used in the Condor data bank. Several U.S. intelligence documents refer to computer use in Condor. A diagram in the Condor Agenda of the “System of Coordination” indicates the information center was to be organized in four divisions: data bank, police records, microfilm, and computers.

Patrice McSherry, in Predatory States, likewise writes that the “CIA provided state-of-the-art computers,” both to the intelligence services of individual nations that ran the death squads and to the centralized Condor apparatus, which coordinated their activities. In Uruguay, computers were used to classify all citizens according to their “degree of dangerousness.”

Even before the fall of Allende and the demise of Operation Cybersyn, Washington had been working to turn lethargic, untrained national intelligence units of limited range into an international network capable of efficiently managing information. American advisers helped coordinate the work of the competing branches of a country’s intelligence, police and military forces, urging them to overcome differences and cooperate. Washington, through various military and commercial programs, supplied phones, radios, cars, guns, ammunition, surveillance equipment, explosives, cattle prods, cameras, typewriters, carbon paper and filing cabinets—and teletypes and computers.

And not just to Latin America. In 1979, Michael Klare documented what he called a US-supplied “international repression trade” to frontline countries around the world—Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Malaysia and other countries—and included equipment such as “surveillance systems and telephone-tapping equipment; riot batons and water cannon; thumbscrews and electric shock devices; and computerized intelligence systems,” including software. Brazil received “three Rockwell International ‘Printrack-250’ computerized fingerprint identification systems.”

The information being handled by this equipment might not have been “big data,” but the idea was the same: to gather real-time intelligence from as many sources as possible, analyze it, act as quickly and in as coordinated a manner as possible, and then store it for future use. These upgrades allowed intelligence agencies, either working in tandem through Condor or individually, to kill or disappear more than 100,000 Latin American citizens and torture maybe an equal number.

So we rightly think of Chile’s 1973 coup as a turning point in modern history, where Hayekians and Friedmanites were able to first fully apply neoliberals’ “Shock Doctrine.” The “price system”—and not central planners sitting in fiberglass chairs getting inputs from nationalized factories run by worker committees—would determine the proper distribution of resources and profit.

But the coup should also be memorialized as marking a related historical turning point, when cyber-utopia transmuted into cyber-terror, and technology was used not to increase “real-time happiness”—unto “complete bliss”—but to instill raw pain. “Voltmeter” dials wouldn’t record people’s satisfaction with the government’s social-welfare policies. They’d be hooked up to electrodes and attached to victim’s bodies—a common Condor practice. (Even before Condor was up and running, Dan Mitrione, a US agent stationed in Brazil and Uruguay, is believed to have invented the infamous “Dragon’s Chair,” an electric torture chair; for three years, the current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff—up for re-election this Sunday in a runoff vote—“was incarcerated in a military prison, stripped naked, bound upside down, and administered electric shocks to her breasts, inner thighs, and head.”)

Thus with US-supplied computers and telexes (along with other equipment), Latin America’s anti-communist terror states updated the Spanish Inquisition to the digital era—creating a command economy of terror.

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