While we’re often told that the past holds lessons for how to approach the present, we rarely look to older technologies for inspiration. Rarer still is it to suggest that the historical experiences of less industrialized nations may have something to teach us about the technological problems of today — let alone that a decades-old socialist project might offer ways to think about technologies touted by Silicon Valley capitalists.
Yet a computing system built in socialist Chile in the 1970s — Project Cybersyn — offers inspiration on how we should be thinking about technology and data today.
Project Cybersyn was a bold technological project tied to a bold political project. It emerged in the context of Chile’s peaceful road to socialism: Salvador Allende had won the Chilean presidency in 1970 with a promise to build a fundamentally different society. His political program would make Chile a democratic socialist state, with respect for the country’s constitution and individual freedoms.
Giving the state control of Chile’s most important industries constituted a central plank of Allende’s platform, but created management difficulties. The government had limited experience in this area. Yet by the end of 1971, it had taken control of more than one hundred and fifty enterprises, among them twelve of the twenty largest companies in Chile.