Project Cybersyn

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The date September 11th is of course very significant for people in the U.S., but the country of Chile also has an important September 11th in their history.

Katie Mingle:
On 9/11/1973 using both airstrikes and ground attacks, a military junta violently took control of Chile. The country was led at the time by President Salvador Allende.

Roman Mars:
Producer Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
Allende had become president of Chile in a free and democratic election. After the military coup, General Augusto Pinochet took power and ruled Chile as a dictator until 1990.

Roman Mars:
After taking over the country, the military dissolved Congress, took control of the media and went about dismantling all of the socialist and democratic institutions that Allende’s government had built.

Katie Mingle:
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the new military regime discovered something in a nondescript office building in downtown Santiago. It was a room, a very strange room.

Eden Medina:
I’ve heard people compare it to something out of a Kubrick film, Star Trek…

Katie Mingle:
That’s Eden Medina, Professor of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University in Bloomington describing the strange place.

Eden Medina:
It’s quite striking. It’s in this bright technicolor, oranges, wood paneling…

Roman Mars:
Picture of the deck of the starship Enterprise, and you’re not that far off. The room was hexagonal in shape with seven white fiberglass chairs arranged in an inward-facing circle. There were colorful space-agey screens displaying charts and graphs on all six walls.

Katie Mingle:
When Pinochet’s men found this room, they didn’t quite know what to make of it. It said that one of them began stabbing its colorful display screens with a knife.

Roman Mars:
It’s no wonder they didn’t understand this place. There had never been anything quite like it. This operations room was the physical interface for a complicated system called ‘Project Cybersyn’.

Eden Medina:
Project Cybersyn had been designed to help Chile’s socialist experiment work better. It was just one of the ways that former President Allende had been trying to do socialism differently than it had ever been done before.

Roman Mars:
So, let’s back up before the coup, before the sci-fi operations room was built.

Katie Mingle:
Salvador Allende had been elected in 1970. He was the first Marxist president ever elected democratically in any country. That’s his campaign song you’re hearing right now. It’s called ‘Venceremos’ or ‘We Shall Overcome’ written by the band ‘Quilapayún’. It was one of many protest songs and chants to come out of Allende’s campaign.

Roman Mars:
Poor and working-class people sang and chanted and finally voted Allende into office. They loved him.

Katie Mingle:
Allende hoped he could show the world that Chile was going to be different than the communist and socialist experiments in other countries. His government, after all, had been elected democratically and it was deeply committed to protecting civil liberties.

Eden Medina:
So, it did not want to get rid of the constitution. It did not want to censor the press. It wanted to preserve freedom of speech.

Katie Mingle:
Right away the government raises employment and wages for people across Chile, and they start a program of agrarian reform to redistribute the ownership of land.

Eden Medina:
They also begin a program to make consumer goods that previously had been reserved for the elite to try to make them more broadly accessible to the Chilean people.

Roman Mars:
Toward this end, Allende formed an industrial design group in his government. He believed design was political.

Fernando Flores:
We were thinking that we were doing something great, good for people, and good for humanity.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Fernando Flores. He began working in the Allende government after the election, and he says to say it was an exciting time is an understatement. It wasn’t just excitement, it was like being in love.

Fernando Flores:
When you are in love with someone you are thinking about them 24 hours a day. We were working in a great adventure. The whole country was an adventure for those people that believed in Allende.

Katie Mingle:
The whole country was an adventure for those that believed in Allende, an adventure but also a ton of work.

Eden Medina:
So, the central problem is a central problem in socialist revolutions.

Roman Mars:
Which is the government must go about turning all the private businesses into public businesses.

Eden Medina:
Just think about the challenge of bringing the most important industries in your country under state control and not having the experience to do so.

Roman Mars:
The government eventually took control of 150 enterprises, including several of the largest companies in Chile. This is the not so fun part of a socialist revolution: management.

Fernando Flores:
When people are doing political revolution, they don’t care about management but I care.

Katie Mingle:
Fernando Flores cared about management, and he had an idea for how to manage Chile’s complicated economy. He wanted to use a relatively new science called cybernetics.

Roman Mars:
Cybernetics is a science that became popular around World War II. As humans develop new kinds of machines, we became interested in developing systems for controlling those machines. Cybernetics looks at how to design intelligent self-correcting systems.

Eden Medina:
Cybernetics is based on the word ‘kybernetes’, which is Greek for steersmen.

Katie Mingle:
The goal of a steersman is to get the ship to the destination taking into account all kinds of feedback from the environment like wind and current.

Roman Mars:
All cybernetic systems have goals, so you can think about the heating and cooling system in your home as a cybernetic system. The goal is to keep your house at a desired temperature. The thermostat does this by telling the heater or the air conditioner when to turn on and off depending on feedback it’s receiving from the environment. It’s an intelligent, self-regulating system with a goal.

Katie Mingle:
In England in the 1960s, a consultant named Stafford Beer was applying concepts of cybernetics to business management. He believed a business could be thought of as an intelligent system. If the goal was to sell more product or work more efficiently, you could using the principles of cybernetics design the system to work toward those goals.

Roman Mars:
Stafford Beer had never imagined he’d get to apply his ideas to helping a whole government succeed.

Stafford Beer:
“Then I suddenly got a letter, which very much changed my life. It was from the technical general manager of the State Planning Board of Chile.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Stafford Beer in archival tape from 1974. The letter he got was from Fernando Flores.

Stafford Beer:
“He remarked in this letter that he had started on my works. He had collected a team of scientists together, and would I please come and take it over? This was to start me on a journey which made me travel 8,000 miles over and over and over again. I was commuting between London and Santiago for two years.”

Katie Mingle:
Stafford Beer’s first trip to Santiago was in 1971. When he arrived, he and Fernando Flores and the team they had assembled in Chile went about designing a cybernetic system that could help them manage the bureaucracy of the new Chilean economy. They would call this project Cybersyn.

Roman Mars:
Stafford Beer had long stringy hair and a long beard. He looked like he should be leading yoga retreats not teaching major corporations about management. Beer was particularly interested in using cybernetics to help companies redistribute power within the system and Chile was interested in this too.

Eden Medina:
How do we make institutions non-hierarchical? How do we distribute decision-making?

Katie Mingle:
The first thing Beer did was map and model Chile’s entire economy. This was a really complex process that involved understanding how each part of the economy was affected by other parts and by outside feedback. On paper, it looks like a big block diagram connected with lines and arrows.

Stafford Beer:
“Now we have the economy. These are the big major branches of industry, heavy industry, light industry, materials industry and consumer industry.”

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t enough, however, to just understand how all the parts of Chile’s economy connected. It was also crucial that the different parts be able to communicate with each other. Beer wanted factories to be able to send and receive information. He wanted to create a vast computer network that connected all the factories in Chile.

Katie Mingle:
Which was a really novel idea. This was pre-internet. Computer networks weren’t really a thing yet, but there was a problem with this idea. There were only a handful of computers in all of Chile and Beer, he only had access to one of them.

Eden Medina:
These guys, they had to create a computer network using one computer, which is pretty amazing.

Katie Mingle:
So, they improvised.

Eden Medina:
They realized, ‘Okay, we can’t put computers throughout the country, but what we can do is we have these telex machines’.

Roman Mars:
A telex machine looks like a typewriter, but it’s hooked up to a telephone line. So, imagine you and your friend, you both have telex machines. You can type a message on the keyboard, you hit send and your friend’s telex will receive it and literally type it out onto a piece of paper.

Katie Mingle:
It’s like super steampunk G-Chat.

Eden Medina:
I think G-Chat is a great way to think about it.

Roman Mars:
Every day someone from a factory would send data via telex to another telex where it would be received by an operator and then entered into the central computer.

Eden Medina:
The kinds of data that people might send could include raw materials, right? How much cotton do you have? How much coal do you have?

Roman Mars:
The central computer software program, CyberStride, was able to analyze the data and warn about potential problems.

Eden Medina:
This is what your worker absentee level was today. This is what it was the day before. This is what it was the day before that, what is it going to be tomorrow? Are you going to have a problem?

Katie Mingle:
Decisions could then be made about what to do.

Roman Mars:
This brings us back to that bizarre hexagonal room, the one that looked like something out of a Kubrick film or Star Trek.

Eden Medina:
So the operations room, it is a futuristic decision-making space.

Katie Mingle:
Stafford Beer wanted to build a physical space for Project Cybersyn. Actually, he wanted to build several of them all over Chile, but only one was ever finished.

Eden Medina:
The room was inspired in part by Winston Churchill’s war room. So, you can imagine the general sitting around smoking their cigars, or in this case, the Chilean sitting around smoking cigarettes and perhaps drinking pisco sours.

Roman Mars:
But unlike Churchill’s war room, and this is a key difference, this was a room for non-hierarchical decision-making. Stafford Beer imagined factory workers and higher-level bureaucrats alike making decisions together.

Gui Bonsiepe:
I asked him, “Look, do you really need a design for this? I mean, you take some tables and some chairs. The projector is there. So what?”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Gui Bonsiepe originally from Germany. Bonsiepe had been working in Chile’s industrial design group and was busy designing cool products for the masses. When he was tapped to help design the operations room for Project Cybersyn, eventually he realized Stafford Beer wanted the room to be so much more than a standard meeting room.

Gui Bonsiepe:
During the project, I became more and more aware of the complexity and the ambition of this project. You see, it is the interface which made it possible for the users to use the system.

Roman Mars:
The room needed to be democratic and state of the art and please no tables.

Gui Bonsiepe:
No table because Stafford Beer said, ‘Look, this is a room for making decisions, not for reading reports and talking about notes’. So, he was very categorical about this.

Katie Mingle:
The room was designed to quickly convey information about factories all over Chile.

Eden Medina:
You have charts and graphs of factory production on the walls. You have a photograph of the factory that is discussed. You have flashing lights that show whether there are emergencies taking place.

Katie Mingle:
Seven people would sit in a circle discussing and deciding how to proceed with various problems.

Eden Medina:
Seven because it’s an odd number to facilitate voting in a circle so that no one would be prioritized over anyone else. So, it’s not a rectangular table with a head.

Roman Mars:
Each chair in the operations room had a place to set your whiskey glass, an ashtray and a set of buttons one could use to control the display screens on each wall. It’s Mad Men meets Star Trek though Bonsiepe insist they weren’t consciously trying to make it look futuristic.

Gui Bonsiepe:
Certainly was not our idea at all. We didn’t make science fiction. We made science reality, which at some point different I would say.

Katie Mingle:
To me there is a bit of fiction in all of it. It’s an immaculate piece of design, but it conceals a clunky technology. The buttons on the chairs, for instance, were connected to some wires that ran under the floor and behind the wall and eventually connected to three slide carousels.

Eden Medina:
Depending on the combination of buttons that you pushed, it would advance one slide carousel or another or tell the slide carousel to move backwards as a way to pull up the desired image.

Roman Mars:
These screens couldn’t display information in real-time. You could only display and discuss slides that had been premade.

Eden Medina:
So, it’s this image of modernity, but behind it there’s just a lot of human labor going into to making this illusion possible.

Katie Mingle:
While Project Cybersyn was coming together and the futuristic operations room was being designed and built, things were not going so well for the Allende government.

Eden Medina:
So, all of this is taking place during the heart of the cold war and Latin America has emerged as a battlefield.

Katie Mingle:
The U.S. had been actively working with people within Chile who were unhappy with the government.

Eden Medina:
So, the U.S. was intervening in Chile in many, many, many different ways so that the Allende government would fail. They had been involved in denying Chile foreign credit. It became increasingly difficult for Chileans to get a hold of U.S. spare parts to U.S. machinery. If you don’t have the parts, you can’t keep the machines running.

Roman Mars:
The economy was collapsing.

Eden Medina:
Inflation had started to skyrocket, so people are having trouble getting basic items.

Katie Mingle:
Then just three years after Allende was elected came Chile’s September 11th.

Fernando Flores:
September 11 ’73. Well, I don’t want to talk about that. For me, it’s a very dramatic day. It brings memories.

Eden Medina:
That’s Fernando Flores again.

Fernando Flores:
I was in the palace with the president and some other people. We were stranded. We were bombed by planes.

Roman Mars:
While the presidential palace was bombed by a military junta supported by the United States, Allende gave his final radio address to the country.

Archive Tape:
(President Salvador Allende addresses Chile in Spanish.)

Katie Mingle:
‘Long live Chile, long live the people, long live the workers’, he is saying. ‘These have been my last words and I’m certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain. I’m certain that at the very least it will be a lesson that will punish felons, cowardice and treason’.

Archive Tape:
(Radio address continues followed by explosions.)

Katie Mingle:
Those explosions were recorded in the actual radio broadcast. Salvador Allende took his own life that same day shortly after giving that address.

Roman Mars:
It’s estimated that during Pinochet’s rule, about 38,000 people were imprisoned and most of those prisoners were tortured. Close to 3,000 people were executed. Another 1,200 people went missing and around 200,000 people were exiled to other countries.

Katie Mingle:
In fact, Quilapayún, the band that wrote Allende’s campaign song was exiled to France where they wrote a new song.

Quilapayún:
(singing in Spanish)

Katie Mingle:
‘The people united will never be defeated’. The song became the anthem of resistance against Pinochet and the chorus has continued to be a chant at leftist protests across the world.

Quilapayún:
(chorus in Spanish)

Roman Mars:
Project Cybersyn never got fully up and running. The telex network was set up and the system was starting to receive data from factories, but it was slow to come in and the operations room was finished, but it hadn’t really been put to use yet.

Katie Mingle:
Gui Bonsiepe managed to escape Chile with the one color photograph ever taken of the operations room and various other documents related to Cybersyn.

Gui Bonsiepe:
It was for me, a meeting at the intersection of science and technology, politics and design. This does not happen very often I would say.

Katie Mingle:
Cybersyn was maybe just a bit ahead of its time, a network pieced together with telex machines and one computer just a couple of decades before the internet made this kind of thing commonplace. An operations room designed to convey information as quickly as possible. Only you had to crawl behind a wall and put a new slide in the carousel when you wanted to show something to the group.

Roman Mars:
Cybersyn’s technology was probably never up to the task at hand, but then again, it was a technology designed to help socialism succeed while the United States did everything in its power to make it fail. Maybe no technology was up to that task.

Gui Bonsiepe:
Heaven sake, at that time, we were so inspired by the possibility that it is possible to change society.

Eden Medina:
When you look at the operations room, I mean, how can you not look at it and see that this is someone’s dream, right? That this is someone’s utopian vision. There is a kind of hope about it.

Roman Mars:
When Pinochet took over Chile, he destroyed this strange futuristic space that embodied the utopian dreams of the Allende government. He had no use for such a thing.

  1. Scott Lewis

    As a left handed person, I cannot be appreciative of the design of those chairs. They bring back bad memories of college lecture hall desks that were tremendously biased toward righties. On the other hand, if you were a lefty on that council in Chile, and preferred smoking and whiskey over operating slide shows, perhaps you were in good shape.

  2. Thank you guys for telling the world about this! I’m a chilean designer and can testify that 99% of chileans have no idea this ever existed. This episode is now my new favourite although it is bitter sweet because it talks about what could have been, what we might have been as a society if this plan hadn’t been destroyed.

    I especially appreciate that you pointed out how the US’s participation in the coup is now internationally recognised as a fact. It’s appalling to think that still today there are too many chileans who don’t believe this to be true and condone the atrocities committed.

    Even though it’s been 27 years since the end of the dictatorship, we still today live culturally crippled, abiding for example, by a corrupted constitution created during the military regime in 1973. Hopefully, generations to come will get back on the track we once treaded.

  3. the realist

    I love that socialists think a cool future room where low skill level people can look at days old slides about “emergencies” hundred of miles away and pretend they are making decisions on how to run a business counts as actually doing something worthwhile.

    We stole this business from an actual business owner and are now running it better through imagination! Fun playtime.

    1. Gabriel V

      I don’t think you quite got how this was supposed to work.

    2. Communist Survivor

      I love that someone’s reply to you was that you didn’t get the idea. His statement is akin to “that’s not real communism/socialism”. The idealists, utopians, and nihilists never notice their demise until it’s too late to rescind the destructive consequences. Most unfortunate is that everyone else has to go for the ride as well.

  4. Ignacio Concha

    I think the story was quite interesting, but I was bothered on how you described Allende and his government.

    Allende’s government destroyed Chile’s society and the economy very quickly by blatantly breaking the law, supporting violent groups and ignoring courts and Congress. It is like what is happening in Venezuela, but without oil revenue and accelerated into three years. I was disappointed that you did not do enough research. I have no complains about the rest (Pinochet et al), but not because one is against the violence that came after Allende, one should think that Allende was this well intentioned democratic president. His government was terrible for Chile, pushed us back many years and caused the interruption of Chile’s long democratic history. Also, although he won the election, Allende only got 36% of the vote and was appointed by Congress under the promise that he would respect the constitution, which he did not do.

    I hope this oversight only refers to this episode and does not mean that other stories are also poorly researched.

    1. Pete X

      This exactly.

      The bit where the episode ‘Nationalised’ the industry was quite a euphemism.

      Also some not of the actual economic record of Allende’s government with rampant inflation, 5% year on year contractions and other things was sorely missed.

      The episode should have mentioned the ‘socialist calculation problem’ more explicitly. Perhaps even noting that as early as at least 1920 economists said this problem was exactly why the Soviet Union wouldn’t work.

    2. Spencer

      This is my thought exactly.

      99 Percent Invisible – your shows are well produced and Roman Mars knows how to tell a good story. But you glossed over lots of facts on how the Chilean Socialist experiment was not going well for Allende and his supporters, and for the people of Chile. Granted, the US was involved with the coup, and the new regime imposed many atrocities on the the people. That doesn’t mean Chile’s Socialism was also free of its problems. Anyone that does any amount of research on this topic will see this.

  5. Great episode folks. But your assertion that “Allende took his own life” is disputed and should have been acknowledged in the production.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2013/04/why-allende-had-die

    This article on the coup by Gabriel Garcia Marquez includes a famous photograph, thought to be the last of Allende alive. In it, he is holding a gun and preparing to fight. Following the coup, the junta sought to suppress this photograph, because it undermined the official story of suicide (and the implication of cowardice). More details of the alternative accounts of his death are towards the end of the Marquez piece.

    I think the 99pi shown notes above should acknowledge this dispute.

    1. Virginia

      This was something that bothered me too..thanks for pointing it out.

  6. Able Magwitch

    I found this profoundly sad but not for the reasons the producers seem to have found it sad (if not sad, then they are certainly misty and oddly romantic about it.)

    What I find sad is that in 2017, there are people like the producers who A) think that a misguided effort to “guide” the economy via a centralized, state-run system is something to romanticize and B) that Allende was an innocent actor in ruining his country’s economy and causing greater division.

    Is it sort of cool that this room existed and that the government of Chile in the early 1970’s was open to utilizing technology for the purposes of governing? I suppose so. But as far as actual “the future is here now” concepts, this comes off as comical and Rube Goldberg-like. Actual tech and science advancement was happening elsewhere at much more complex and interesting paces.

    So, what we end up with here is a very politically motivated piece which doesn’t do justice to the actual history of Chile and the world at the time (short of some minor mentions of the Cold War.)

    I applaud the producers for one reason: Allende’s efforts show how misguided and utopian Marxist ideology is, whether democratically elected or not.

    And for the record, I’m no Pinochet supporter. He was a kleptocrat, a torturer and a brutal dictator. But compare him to someone like Fidel Castro (the best comparison one can make in in Latin America) and he comes off looking pretty good.

    1. intosh

      Similar to brainwashed “free” market believers romantize corporate-run states?

  7. Robert

    Very enjoyable, though sad too.

    Regardless of ones ideological position, it is important to note that the Beer’s Viable System model is specifically NOT about central control. Its aim is to delegate control as far from the centre as possible whilst maintaining sufficient cohesion and co-ordination for the parts to function for the benefit of the whole. As told by Beer, Pinochet recognised that this meant that “the people” were the arbiters of how the system should work.

    Besides, it is not clear that even the most capitalist of societies is sustainable without government bail outs of big business funded by the taxpayer 😉

    1. Communist Survivor

      By “the people” I suppose you mean the whiskey-sipping, cigar-smoking bureaucrats, ie the ones not doing “the work”. Yea, that’s how you get power in the hands of “the people”. I see it in action every time I visit the DMV or City Hall. Thanks, but no thanks.

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