I read Evgeny Morozov’s book To Save Everything, Click Here a few years ago and found it frustrating. It’s about the “folly of technological solutionism” so, while I agreed with the broad argument, I thought he presented it in an annoying way.
Here, Morozov is interviewed about his podcast The Santiago Boys, which explores into Project Cybersyn, an ambitious project from 1971 to 1973 under Salvador Allende’s Chilean government. The project aimed to use cybernetics to efficiently manage state-owned enterprises but faced various internal and external challenges, including U.S. interference and internal political tensions.
What’s useful in this interview is the discussion of “dark tech,” highlighting the technological vulnerabilities and challenges faced by socialist projects like this. Morozov argues that the legacy of Project Cybersyn offers valuable lessons for contemporary discussions on socialism, technology, and governance. He emphasises the need for technological sovereignty and a nuanced approach to management and planning. So yes, we could learn a thing or two.
Nick Serpe: What was Project Cybersyn?
Evgeny Morozov: Project Cybersyn—short for “cybernetic synergy”—aimed to aid the Chilean state in managing the enterprises being nationalized by the Unidad Popular government. A significant hurdle was the lack of sufficient managerial staff to oversee them. Allende’s opponents, including the U.S. ambassador, were making things even harder by encouraging managers and other professionals to flee the country.
As with most science and technology projects, the path toward Cybersyn was not linear. It didn’t emerge as a culmination of some strategic plan to use computers in management; the whole process was more chaotic—and even its name came at a later stage. It all started with an effort to bring some external expertise to Chile. Fernando Flores, a high-ranking member of the Allende administration, felt that he needed help in dealing with all these nationalized companies. So he sought the guidance of the British management consultant Stafford Beer, even going to London to meet him. That encounter resulted in Beer agreeing to go to Chile. This collaboration eventually blossomed into what we now recognize as Project Cybersyn.
In the end, Cybersyn was a tragedy—and a drama. This project started in an optimistic, even utopian political environment. The Santiago Boys worked off the assumption that Allende would be allowed to govern, and they would be able to build a different economy in Chile. These assumptions were quite unrealistic. If you know anything about how ITT, the CIA, local industrialists, the government of Brazil, and other forces were trying to prevent Allende from even coming to office, you would never think that such optimism was warranted—especially when Allende won the election with only one-third of the popular vote and relied on a very unstable coalition of six parties.