Eden Medina, author of Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, celebrates the 45th anniversary of "Star Trek" by relating it to a different vision of the future--Project Cybersyn.
On September 8, 1966, the first episode of “Star Trek” aired on U.S. television and presented viewers with a utopian vision of a future grounded in the use of advanced technology. On the show, a diverse crew of people (and other life forms) traveled across the universe at warp speed to promote peace, order, prosperity, and greater equality. From the high-tech bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Captain Kirk transmitted messages across vast distances, made decisions quickly and decisively, and monitored the health of both ship and crew.
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of “Star Trek,” this blog post commemorates a different, but related, vision of the future: “Project Cybersyn.” The history of Project Cybersyn is detailed in the forthcoming MIT Press book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, which will be published in November 2011.
Project Cybersyn was a computer system built in Chile by the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970–73). Chilean and British engineers, working under the direction of the British cybernetician Stafford Beer, viewed the system as a way to advance the economic nationalization program that was central to Allende’s economic platform and Chilean socialist change. The system enabled the rapid transmission of information between the nationalized factories and the government agency charged with their management (CORFO) and used statistical software to predict crises before they happened. The team called the system Cybersyn, a synthesis of the words cybernetics and synergy. The name reflected the cybernetic principles present in the system’s design and the team’s belief that the whole system exceeded the sum of its parts.
Like “Star Trek,” Project Cybersyn brought together technology and politics to advance a utopian vision of a just society. It was created to transmit information quickly across great distances (Chile is approximately 3,200 miles long), monitor the health of the national economy, improve governance, and facilitate decision-making. Moreover, its design included mechanisms to promote worker participation in industrial management, and thus increase equality on the shop floor, as well as a control space that rivaled science fiction.