Today is the 50th anniversary of the coup of Chilean president Salvador Allende, under which the legendary Project Cybersyn was initiated. Cybersyn is an oft-referred to hypothetical in the socialist calculation debate, and was partially masterminded by the infamous cybernetician Stafford Beer. Many books and articles have been written about the project, but earlier this summer the story got a new podcast serial treatment by noted technology critic Evgeny Morozov. The series is called The Santiago Boys, and it is excellent.
Morozov has been a long time influence, helping me to think more critically about the tech industry as I was leaving Apple in 2012. I reviewed his To Save Everything, Click Here nearly 10 years ago.
The right way to think about “To Save Everything…” is that it’s a grenade thrown to test the waters. In 5 years, I am returning in a tank.
I have been waiting for his third book every since. I didn’t know it was going to be a podcast series!
A decade ago the tech elite thought of Evgeny as an “attack dog.” One time Balaji Srinivasan followed me on Twitter only to send a DM whining about me inviting Evgeny to one of Balaji’s long-winded Twitter spiels.
Anyways, since those days Evgeny didn’t have time for tanks since he went to Harvard to do a PhD. He has writing about Cybersyn since at least 2014 and brings that expertise to this new series.
Evgeny is a polymath who thinks in broad-but-connected systems. He reads everything and does his homework. In fact, he used this super power to start The Syllabus, a curation service that trawls through the best intellectual journals, articles, books, videos, and podcasts to bring you the best sources across a number fields including technology, international studies, political economy, social justice, climate, and more.
Using this superpower to churn through many sources and surface insights, Evgeny and his team spent two years pouring over documents and conducting more than two hundred interviews to bring us a very nuanced story of the chaotic years around 1973 in Chile, and what it means for the relationship between technology and geopolitics. The Santiago Boys website is full of footnotes and supplementary materials that you can check while you listen to each episode. It is a rich reserve of resources.
But this show isn’t just an information dump. Other than his sharp skills of critique and ability to make sense of swathes of sources, he added a new skill for the podcast: scriptwriting. In a TMK interview Evgeny talks about how he stopped halfway through through project to spend four months reading Hollywood writing bibles in order to put together a more compelling narrative.
Over nine parts the story introduces a number of characters including the eccentric Stafford Beer, a central character in the curious case of Cybersyn. The podcast takes care to show us multiple angles of each person, and not reducing them to mere caricatures. Although it seems more fair to the people involved, it can be pretty overwhelming to have such a large cast without the benefit of photographs to help differentiate them as a documentary might. This is one of the weaknesses of the show. There are a few more nitpicks including some sound quality issues and maybe too much reliance on rhetorical questions, but overall I found the series compelling and very informative. I certainly knew about Project Cybersyn before, but I was not “born in it, molded by it.“
The Santiago Boys will give you a very detailed and informed account of the coup 50 years ago, but more importantly it details the context surrounding the coup, illustrating how tech and geopolitical power are connected, how big corporation influence governments, and how whole countries can become dependent on corporations. Maybe more importantly, it shows how countries can fight back.
Today is the 50th Anniversary, and Evgeny Morozov will be speaking in Santiago with Progressive International celebrating the legacy of President Salvador Allende.