Friday, March 28, 2008

When Science Fiction Met Socialism

The Times has a bizarre article up today about the Cybersyn project Salvador Allende used during his presidency (1970-1973). Apparently, Cybersyn was a computer in which data was fed in and analyzed in order to try to manage the economy without relying on the Soviet model of planned economy. While successful in confusing the dictatorship of Pinochet that overthrew Allende and giving a generation of computer-geeks who wanted to use their knowledge for socialism a chance, I'm not quite clear from the article what the successes of Cybersyn were beyond that. It is an interesting idea, and may have had some influence on future computer-like ideas, but it doesn't seem to have done much for Allende. The article does mention that

Cybersyn gained stature within the Allende government for helping to outmaneuver striking workers in October 1972. That helped planners realize — as the pioneers of the modern-day Internet did — that the communications network was more important than computing power, which Chile did not have much of, anyway.

I'm not really sure what the success is here, though. I don't know which "striking workers" they are talking about (there were a number of strikes from leftist laborers who thought Allende was not proceeding down the "socialist path" fast enough, and entered strikes to try to egg him on), but I have my doubts that the computer really had that major a role in "outmaneuvering striking workers" (and indeed, I'm not even fully convinced that the government "outmaneuvered" the workers, though again, given how vague "striking workers" is, I have no way of really knowing the details here). And without any further specifics, I'm not quite sure how the planners realized "that the communications network was more important than computing power," nor how such a realization led to change in the lives of anybody but a few computer technicians who went into exile.

Still, I think the article is worth a read, if for no other reason that it shines light on one of the unknown, bizarre-yet-now-mundane aspects of the types of tools governments will try to use to better the lives of their citizens and make governing easier.