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A STRANGE footnote to the story of the Chilean experience of socialism is that of an ambitious project named Cybersyn.
Until the 1973 coup the government of Salvador Allende invested in an IT system which aimed to monitor, analyse and plan the national economy — ambitious indeed!
Cybersyn was a network of telephone lines, mainframe computers and futuristic-looking control centres built with the aim of creating a democratically planned socialist economy, including a degree of direct workers’ control at a local level.
Those of you who have seen the photographs of the ’70s chic futuristic control rooms of white swivel-chairs and chunky buttons will perhaps appreciate the optimistic attitude of the system’s designers towards the possibilities that technology held for socialist planning and democracy.
Like all technology, advances in information technology, including artificial intelligence and the internet, are Janus-faced. Some backbreaking and dangerous occupations have been consigned to history — in Western nations at least, though far from entirely even in advanced capitalist countries — while simultaneously, we now spend long hours tied to our mobile phones and laptops: the boundaries between work and home continuing to blur.
While activists are able to organise internationally thanks to information technology, the very same technology has increased surveillance and monitoring in the workplace.
The intention of Cybersyn was to plan economic output and to allow for greater national and workplace democracy. Contrast this with the primary objective of tech giants like Google, Microsoft or Facebook: the maximisation of profit.
Contrast Cybersyn to the IT projects of the British capitalist state such as the expensive new system from the Department for Work and Pensions to facilitate a brutal regime of continuous assessment and sanctions.
There are those who, with some justification, fear the future. Automation threatens existing jobs. People correctly ask questions like: what will professional drivers do when automated vehicles become the norm? This is a valid question and one that cannot, and should not, be decided by a handful of individuals seeking to maximise profits.
It is a social question that must be decided upon democratically. Do we want some jobs to be human only such as the caring professions, teaching, customer services or jobs which require a degree of ethical decision-making?
Do we, as a society, value the hand finishing of the human craftsperson for certain products? Do we simply want to protect certain jobs to ensure employment? At the moment these questions are, for the most part, being answered by a tiny elite and a capricious market, as they have been since before the industrial revolution.
Technology can be both liberating and a tool of repression. Socially owned and democratically controlled projects similar to Cybersyn offer incredible possibilities for answering the so-called “calculation problem” — replacing price as an indicator of demand and addressing the inequalities produced by a market indifferent to human need.
As technology rapidly progresses, so does the necessity of placing the future in the hands of the people. The question of the nature, quantity and conditions of work needed is one that should not be left to corporations.
More immediately though, the information technologies produced under capitalism can be used by activists to fight for reforms. The machines and concepts produced for profit can be repurposed for social activism — mass demonstrations and industrial action can now be organised online, injustices can be broadcast live across the world in real time, new media outlets can challenge the narratives of the billionaire-owned press.
Socialists should embrace their iPhones and their Facebook accounts and use them against the exploitative corporations that are forced to innovate to sustain their profit margins.
Ultimately, we not only demand our laptops and smartphones, but the factories that they are made in as well.
Only under the conditions of social ownership and democratic control can we fully enjoy the fruits of IT and innovate for the social good.
The same holds for all technologies: renewable energy, space exploration, medical science, logistics, transport, communications, agricultural science etc — we must abandon profit as the motivation for innovation and instead create a future where human need is our principle goal.
That, I believe, was the intention of Cybersyn, and that should be our intention too.
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