When Pinochet's military overthrew the Chilean government 30 years ago, they discovered a revolutionary communication system, a 'socialist internet' connecting the whole country. Its creator? An eccentric scientist from Surrey. Andy Beckett on the forgotten story of Stafford Beer
During the early 70s, in the wealthy commuter backwater of West Byfleet in Surrey, a small but rather remarkable experiment took place. In the potting shed of a house called Firkins, a teenager named Simon Beer, using bits of radios and pieces of pink and green cardboard, built a series of electrical meters for measuring public opinion. His concept - users of his meters would turn a dial to indicate how happy or unhappy they were with any political proposal - was strange and ambitious enough. And it worked. Yet what was even more jolting was his intended market: not Britain, but Chile.
Unlike West Byfleet, Chile was in revolutionary ferment. In the capital Santiago, the beleaguered but radical marxist government of Salvador Allende, hungry for innovations of all kinds, was employing Simon Beer's father, Stafford, to conduct a much larger technological experiment of which the meters were only a part. This was known as Project Cybersyn, and nothing like it had been tried before, or has been tried since.
Stafford Beer attempted, in his words, to "implant" an electronic "nervous system" in Chilean society. Voters, workplaces and the government were to be linked together by a new, interactive national communications network, which would transform their relationship into something profoundly more equal and responsive than before - a sort of socialist internet, decades ahead of its time.
When the Allende administration was deposed in a military coup, the 30th anniversary of which falls this Thursday, exactly how far Beer and his British and Chilean collaborators had got in constructing their hi-tech utopia was soon forgotten. In the many histories of the endlessly debated, frequently mythologised Allende period, Project Cybersyn hardly gets a footnote. Yet the personalities involved, the amount they achieved, the scheme's optimism and ambition and perhaps, in the end, its impracticality, contain important truths about the most tantalising leftwing government of the late 20th century.
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