Cybersyn and the Ludic Century

This afternoon I was running through my list of “links to read”, which had accumulated for quite a while. One of the earlier, shorter ones happened to be this brief overview of Chile’s “socialist-internet” under Allende.

Technically the system seems to have little in common with the actual Internet, but it is perhaps more interesting. What they were trying to connect was not different networks of computers, a la the Internet, but factories to Santiago and vice-versa. The whole system was intended to enact nationwide cybernetic economic management and control. It also featured a really rad 70’s control room. The project was called Cybersyn, and it raised a whole host of questions and concerns for me, so I started digging into some of their sources.

This is the project’s homepage however the main thesis pdf seems to be only in Spanish, and was of limited use for me. Another site has aggregated a variety of sources for a much more in-depth history, and this was a better starting point for me.

At first, the entire project brings visions of some sort of real life TRON, with an ever-present Master Control Program coordinating the national economy. However, this was not the ultimate vision of Stafford Beer, the British cybernetic management consultant who architected the system. Rather, Beer “believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.” It was more about acquiring information rapidly to coordinate national resources than about a central computer directing human labor. Both Beer and Allende “shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people.”

I have limited economics background and have serious doubts that a working system like this would actually be a net positive, but it is still fascinating to think about. It also led me to think about Eric Zimmerman’s “Manifesto for a Ludic Century.” Lots of digital ink has been spilt discussing the shortcomings of this piece, but like all good manifestos it is inspirational, provocative and overly simplistic. In broad strokes it claims that the next century will be defined by games, game players and game designers. The connection I see between the ludic century and an unrealized socialist dream from last century is the promotion of systems, not just as metaphors for understanding the world but as tools for shaping the world. David Kanaga has a much longer post considering this distinction, and offering rebuttals and further readings for Zimmerman’s manifesto. Kanaga states that “the Ludic Century…won’t be defined by everyone being a game designer, but rather everyone being a player.” Presumably, these players would have both a better understanding of the systems that govern their lives as well as increased agency within those systems.

I think the move in game studies towards more comprehensive and thoughtful consideration of the player is generally good and important (although I would also consider myself a ‘proceduralist’). I think this focus on play and players can help unpack my fascination and discomfort with the Cybersyn project. On the one hand Beer and Allende’s intention was purportedly to increase openness and communication between the government and its citizen workers. On the other hand, who is the “player” in this system? If you were to play a Cybersyn game (Civ, SimCity, etc are practically there) it is unlikely that you would be a factory manager, and even less likely to be a factory worker. Instead you would be in the super cool 1970’s control room, receiving these other people’s reports and making “interesting decisions” based on that info. In an even better version of the game you might be Beer, tasked with developing an ideal cybernetic system to produce maximal productivity in the country. Either way, when we try to envision a “ludic century” it starts to become clear that it privileges the needs and visions of the few at the expense of any perspective from the many.

If Stalin was an editor will we consider some future despot a game designer?