Some takeaways on Project Cybersyn and socialist technology

I recently read Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011) by Eden Medina, an excellent narrative history of the experiences of Chile’s socialist government (1970-1973) in Project Cybersyn, an effort to develop a telex-based cybernetic industrial control system along socialist lines, in order to help the project of simultaneously nationalizing the economy and empowering workers.  There are many lessons here for modern socialists, especially when it comes to how we ought to understand science, technology, and engineering in the context of political organizing, radical politics, and class struggle.

Medina herself wrote an essay for the Spring 2015 issue of Jacobin Magazine, on what she argues to be the five main lessons of Project Cybersyn: 1) the importance of the state in influencing technological development, 2) the ease with which social biases can enter into supposedly radical and egalitarian development spaces, 3) the potential in re-configuring old technologies (rather than fetishizing the high-tech and cutting edge), 4) the importance of designing privacy into communications and information technologies from the get-go, and 5) the critical importance of properly contextualizing technological development into the larger social, political, and economic picture.

The fifth point is arguably the most important argument, as it cuts directly against the kind of technological determinism that defines mainstream science and engineering culture; that is, the notion that any and all technological progress is inherently good, and any resistance or skepticism is inherently bad.

We must resist the kind of apolitical “innovation determinism” that sees the creation of the next app, online service, or networked device as the best way to move society forward. Instead, we should push ourselves to think creatively of ways to change the structure of our organizations, political processes, and societies for the better and about how new technologies might contribute to such efforts.

Technology and its ethical dimensions cannot be understood outside of its social and political context, and efforts to create “socialist technology” need to be embedded in larger processes that revolutionize the way people interact with one another (i.e. workplace hierarchies); you can’t develop a “socialist technology” that is detached from a wider struggle against capitalism and its social/political organizations and networks.

It’s important to apply this argument to the nature of sub-divisions within the working class — specifically, that between science/engineering workers and everybody else.  One major goal of Project Cybersyn was to help revolutionize workplace hierarchies and empower workers; but the technical development of the system (programming the network, building the mathematical models of the factory, etc.) was done entirely with educated engineers and programmers working with managers and administrators, leaving little role for average workers to influence the design of system, or its political dimensions.  From the book:

In theory, Cybersyn engineers also consulted with members of the rank-and-file.  Beer writes that the engineers were expected to create “quantified flowchart models with the help and agreement of the workers’ committees” and to determine the “recovery times for each index on the same terms: that is with help and agreement”.  The modelers did talk to committees of workers in some cases but not as a rule.  More often technocracy eclipsed ideology on the factory floor.  Despite the explicit instructions the engineers received to work with worker committees, often the converse occurred, and the engineer treated the workers with condescension or would ignore the workers altogether and deal directly with management.  Moreover, the engineers frequently hid or overlooked the political facets of the project in favor of emphasizing its technological benefits, thereby avoiding potential conflicts. (131)

The lesson here is that simply getting engineers to deploy a blueprint of a “socialist technology” isn’t enough–the effort has to involve nothing less than a parallel effort to break down the division of labor and smash the class gap between technical workers and the rest of the working class.  Otherwise, the same assumptions and practices of capitalist technology and management will re-emerge in a supposedly socialist system.  In other words, political and social organization must be the foundation of any successful effort to develop a “socialist technology”.

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One thought on “Some takeaways on Project Cybersyn and socialist technology

  1. […] Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011) (see my brief review here), had a strategy that explicitly sought to create a top-down socialist transformation of Chilean […]

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