Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Salvador Allende's Star Trek Fantasy

What's the connection between a bad Star Trek episode and Chile's 1970-1973 Soviet-backed president Salvador Allende? The answer is Cybersyn, a make-believe project by British "visionary" Stafford Beer. Cybersyn (control room seen above) was supposed to replace free markets with totalitarian central planning, but ended up as nothing more than an expensive joke. According to Marginal Revolution's Tabarrok:
It is no accident, say Axelrod and Borenstein, that the control room looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise because the whole purpose of the room was to exude a science-fiction fantasy of omniscience and omnipotence. The fantasy naturally appealed to Allende who had the control room moved to the presidential palace just days before the coup.
The control room is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in another respect--both are stage sets. Nothing about the room is real, even the computer displays on the wall are simply hand drawn slides projected from the other side with Kodak carousels.
Ironically, when rumors of the project began to circulate, the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that Beer had created, the same illusion that so appealed to Allende and that had funded Beer's visions and experiments, this illusion caused fear that an all-knowing big brother was on the way--and such fear may even have encouraged the coup.
Indeed, Cybersyn is nothing more than an excellent inner mind portrait of Messianic politicians. If Beer was for Allende what Friedman was for Pinochet, than it's easy to understand why Beer's Chile resulted in economic failure while Friedman's Chile resulted in economic success.


Joseph said...

Your analogy to Friedman and Pinochet is not good. Friedman was Pinochet's Austan Goolsbee; Beer worked on that ONE project.

Your post ignores the real achievement of Cybersyn. It was basically an Internet, created largely by ONE man. In the early 70s. If you are so steadfast in your refusal to see outside of the parameters of axiomatic libertarianism and take Cybersyn for the marvel that it is, you must get bored pretty often.

Of course Cybersyn has socialist overtones; Allende was a socialist. This is hardly news.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

The point here Joseph is not what each of the advisers achieved (obviously Friedman achieved infinitely more). It's about the mindset of people in government, represented by their choices of advisers and projects.

I also think that developments like the Internet are never just the result of a visionary's dream. If the economics is not sound, no deal. The economics of Cybersyn was nonsense, and based only on what I've read about it (so here I'm guessing) the engineering didn't make much sense too.