The Socialist Origins of Big Data

Society and technology academic Evgeny Morozov has been researching early 1970s Chilean President Allende’s Project Cybersyn to bring socialism into the computer age under the rubric of ‘the origins of the Big Data nation’.

The Socialist Origins of Big Data by Evgeny Morozov, The New Yorker, October 6, 2014

Screengrabs of The Socialist Origins of Big Data by Evgeny Morozov, The New Yorker, October 6, 2014

Tim Martin started a discussion of it on Facebook with Richard Barbrook, Bill Hughes and others. Barbrook argued that Morozov had ‘plagiarised and patronised’ Eden Medina’s related book, while Martin noted he had credited her on his Tumblr blog.

I thought it was a rather good piece, and less teeth-pulling that some of Morozov’s writing. And if one takes it as a pseudo-book review one could, pace Barbrook, justify the work drawn from Medina.

Morozov explains cybernetics really well, and in a way that I found helpful. I would have found it more interesting if he had put Cybersyn more in the context of state planning up to that point, and in the context of the demise of the Soviet Union. That context would also have been useful for the Silicon Valley element of the story, to which also he segued rather drastically – referencing only Fernando Flores, who invited Stafford Beer to work on the project, as a (limited) connection to its culture.

He could also have made a stronger connection to modern politicians’ obsession with measurement (a very Stalinist characteristic) over improvements in production – let alone innovation!

The references to what we know call ‘nudging’ or ‘behaviour change’ were fascinating. More generally, I hadn’t realised how compromised Allende was by the time he met his end, and some reflections on the limits of the ‘national road to socialism’ might have been valuable.

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