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The Chilean Wide Web? – JSTOR Daily

Why it internet and nothing else? Popular histories of technology tend to be teleological, inevitable destinies that lead—magically, naturally—to present conditions.

Of course, history itself is more complicated. The internet-as-we-know-it had its foundations laid by the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) of the US Defense Department in the late 1960s. ARPANET used packet-switching and implemented the current common TCP/IP communication protocols. One of the main motivations for its construction was to decentralize communications in preparation for a nuclear war where command and control centers could be targeted. So the bones of the World Wide Web are American—publicly funded by the US government as a Cold War weapon.

But what about other possible internets? Why didn’t the British, emerging from World War II with the best computer science in the world, make the stage? What would have happened if the Soviet Union’s OGAS project, a major computer networking effort that began in 1959, had actually come to fruition?

And then there’s Chile. In the early 1970s, Salvador Allende’s government collaborated with a prominent British cyberneticist to network the country’s economy with socialist principles. Scholar Eden Medina examines Project Cybersyn (a mash-up of “cybernetic” and “synergy”), also known as Synco in Spanish.

According to Medina, the project plans to “network every company in the expanding national economic sector in a central computer in Santiago, which will enable the government to immediately understand the state of production and respond to economic crises in reality time.”

Salvador Allende was the first Marxist elected to the American leadership. His 1970 election was a narrow one, and his administration was attacked by intense internal and external opposition. Henry Kissinger, for one, said there was no reason for the US to sit back and let a country become communist “because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

The nationalization of key industries was a major part of Allende’s plan to remake Chile’s economy. And, by linking the state, company managers, and workers on factory floors, Cybersyn is designed as a “new technological system capable of regulating economic change in Chile in a manner consistent with [Allende’s] socialist principles.”

The Chileans brought in Stafford Beer, the “father of cybernetics management,” who once worked as chief cybernetician at United Steel. As a self-described “old left,” Beer believed in the possibilities of technology and “cybernetic principals to bring about social change.” This meshed well with the Allende government’s desire for cutting-edge technology to help transition the economy and society.

In 1968, Chile had fewer than fifty computers, all manufactured and sold by US companies. Cybersyn ended up using the existing telex network instead of computer terminals. The resulting system of communication united a remarkably long country, extending some three thousand miles from north to south, through thirty-nine degrees of latitude.

Like all technological projects, it is a product of its time and place. As Medina describes, “The tensions surrounding the design and construction of Cybersyn mirrored the struggle between centralization and decentralization that troubled Allende’s dream of democratic socialism.”

The system was designed “to facilitate the maximum retrieval of information by an individual with a small amount of scientific training,” revealing the level of expected technological expertise and assumptions about gender. Santiago’s seven-seat command center, for example, looks not unlike the bridge of a Starship Enterprise, lack keyboards. Beer admitted that a “woman” or secretary—in other words someone with typing skills—would only hinder the direct connection of the male operators of the machines. (Men, in short, don’t know how to type, but they can “shake” to make a point.)

This Opsroom is just a prototype. But even as inflation, strikes, and political unrest engulfed the country, 26.7 percent of nationalized industries, responsible for 50 percent of the sector’s income, were included “to some degree within the system” in May 1973. But , backed by the US, Allende’s opponents in Chile overthrew the government in September. Cybersyn has almost no chance. The military dictatorship of Pinochet, which lasted for sixteen years, had no use for a vision of a collective computer network.

Medina boosted his account to Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.

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