A proto-dashboard that worked

Back in 1971 Chile’s newly elected socialists dreamed of what today we’d call a dashboard, and it was to run the country. They actually did build it, and just 15 months after conception it was good enough to thwart a nationwide strike.

They called it Cybersyn. In Friday’s New York Times, Alexei Barrionuevo tells how the newly elected socialist government wanted an alternative to the top-down economies of the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The Chilean economy would be controlled from a series of “Star Trek-like” chairs with controls in the armrests. The controllers would read information on projection screens fed by data from a network of 500 second-hand telex machines transmitting from factories up and down the country. The team of “bright young Chileans,” led by the cigar-smoking, wine- and whiskey-drinking visionary, poet and painter A. Stafford Beer, actually found the telexes in a warehouse.

I don’t see how that wasn’t top-down. The proof, though, was in the pudding.

Barrionuevo writes:

Cybersyn’s turning point came in October 1972, when a strike by truckers and retailers nearly paralyzed the economy. The interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.

The strike dragged on for nearly a month. While it weakened Mr. Allende’s Popular Unity party, the government survived, and Cybersyn was praised for playing a major role. “From that point on the communications center became part of whatever was happening,” Mr. Espejo said.

As you might have guessed, the end came with a change in management. General Augusto Pinochet’s guys just couldn’t figure it out, and they dismantled the program.

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