“Borrowing” Shiny Intellectual Bicycles: Thoughts on the Morozov-Medina Affair

When I first read Evgeny Morozov’s New Yorker article, “The Planning Machine,” it seemed to me as though Morozov had metaphorically “borrowed” Eden Medina’s shiny intellectual bicycle—her award-winning book, “Cybernetic Revolutionaries” (2011, MIT Press). In “The Planning Machine,” Morozov largely summarizes Medina’s summary of Project Cybersyn, a socialist project undertaken by the Chilean government in the 1970s to distribute decision-making among factories via computers.

“Cybernetic Revolutionaries” is a bicycle that was built to last—built by Medina—and the envy of young and old scholars alike. Morozov rode it around, and liked it so much that he decided, like a petulant child or neighborhood bully, not to return it. I’ve always been the kind of person to chase down the bike stealers. Twitter is a really great tool for rallying friends to challenge people, like Morozov, who really mean “take” when they say “borrow,” so I’ve been speaking out on that platform.

Yet, it seems to me that Morozov stripped the bike and left much of the good stuff intact. He completely glanced over the important issues that Medina raises in her book about how Project Cybersyn was inherently gendered and classed.

For example, take the very first line of Morozov’s article: “In June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled ‘Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.’” On p. 134 of her book, Medina also discusses the song, but does so in order to highlight how it was inherently problematic to describe Project Cybersyn as a “pregnancy” (Parra, qtd. in Medina, p. 134) when women had very little power to make decisions effecting Chile’s future.

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

Take another line that appears in Morozov’s article, in paragraph 4: “Beer was building the future, and it had to look like the future.” Throughout her book, Medina discusses the politics of designing the “future” through technology, and lead project architect Stafford Beer’s role in that design. On p. 138, she draws attention to the values associated with particular futures, futures largely planned by men. She writes, “The design of the [Project Cybersyn] operations room reveals gendered limits of power distribution on the Chilean road to socialism and how preexisting ideas about gender and class restricted the way historical actors imagined the future, even when their visions bordered on science fiction.”

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

When I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the absence of Medina’s well-researched arguments about the history of power differentials in knowledge production and distribution.

Finally, in paragraph 10, when Morozov does mention Medina, he merely writes, “As Eden Medina shows in ‘Cybernetic Revolutionaries,’ her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced.” When challenged by other academics to explain Medina’s erasure from the piece, Morozov posted on Tumblr, chronicling how he scoured the internet for material on Project Cybersyn, as well as rare library books and archives housed in the Global North. Medina spent a decade traveling the world (especially Chile), interviewing members of the international cybernetics community. Unlike Morozov, Medina tried to find Chilean factory workers who might remember Project Cybersyn. Considering the project’s socialist ideals, one might think that factory workers played a significant role. Medina found few who remembered the project—and she insists that this silence is itself meaningful. Writes Medina (p. xi), “That the project is remembered by technologists, not factory workers, is historically significant.”

In short, when I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the undercutting of her feminist and anti-colonial work.

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