BOB GARFIELD: During its brief life, the Allende government undertook a great experiment to create a rapid communications network to regulate Chile's transition from a capitalist to a socialist system. To this end, the government employed an eccentric British cyberneticist named Stafford Beer who designed Project Cybersyn --a system of telex machines linking factories around the country to a central mainframe computer in Santiago. Eden Miller is a PhD candidate from MIT who has spent the last two years in Chile excavating this lost piece of communications history. She says that Beer's vision of an electronic communications network for Chile's budding socialist economy prefigures the internet and took its model from biology.
EDEN MILLER: And Stafford Beer's biological model emphasized decentralized control, and I can give a, a pretty easy example of how this works in biology. If you think about day to day breathing, your lungs take care of all the work, but if you want to go swimming, for example, your brain can jump in and it can control the rate of respiration. So the idea was that the factories connected to the system would behave like the lungs -- they would maintain their autonomy on a day to day basis, but if there was a problem, then the government, like the cortex of the brain, could jump in and intervene and solve the problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Now you've made the comparison between Beer's electronic nervous system and the internet. Why is--
EDEN MILLER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- that a valid comparison?
EDEN MILLER:It's a network of communication that involved a computer. It was also a system designed to provide rapid data transmission. And it was also designed to enable a dynamic form of decision-making which is one of the benefits that we have of the internet today.
BOB GARFIELD:And did it work? Did-- Project Cybersyn allow the government brain in Santiago to know what was happening on the factory floors?
EDEN MILLER: [LAUGHS] You know it did, but not as you would expect it to. One of the most valuable outcomes of the system was during the truck drivers' strike of October 1972. About 50,000 vehicles blocked the streets of Santiago, not allowing food deliveries to pass -- it could have brought the country to a standstill and terminated the Allende government much earlier than September 11th of 1973. But using this telex network the government was able to coordinate the 200 trucks that were loyal to the government and was able to coordinate what they were carrying, what roads were open, etc, etc -- and they were able to survive.
BOB GARFIELD: Now a year after that strike, the coup did occur. What then happened to Project Cybersyn?
EDEN MILLER:It stopped the day of the military coup. The military -- several members were fascinated by the system. There was a-- operations room that was modeled after a war room from World War II. So the military knew the system had something to do with control, but they weren't sure what. So they interrogated several members of the team, and at the end of the day it was just too complicated for them to understand, so they destroyed the control room.
BOB GARFIELD:It seems like we're looking at Project Cybersyn and saying well that's a very forward-looking technology employed by a progressive government to harness the power of communication, but tilting it just a slightly different way-- isn't it a little bit creepy that the Allende government was centralizing information and couldn't that have been used, had the Allende regime not been overthrown for sinister means somewhere down the line?
EDEN MILLER: [LAUGHS] You sound like you're a member of the rightist press in Chile. [LAUGHS] There were several articles that were published during this time period both in Chile and in England, looking at it from this more sinister side -- fear of a Big Brother or some means of controlling the workers. My opinion is that the system was very forward-looking. It couldn't have been that sinister Big Brother type of system because the data that was being communicated from the factories -- each factory only sent maybe 5 to 7 indexes of data every day, so things like raw materials, transportation, absentee levels from workers but not which workers were absent. That was the type of information the government was receiving, and at that level it would have been impossible to have a Big Brother type of control. But with different technology, the same type of layout -- I can see how it could be read the other way.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Eden Miller - thank you very much.
EDEN MILLER: Sure! Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Eden Miller is a doctoral candidate in the history of technology at MIT. [MUSIC]