Compendium: Project Cybersyn and Ernst Jünger’s ‘Phonophores’ and ‘Luminar’

It is generally agreed that the Internet and smartphones are ubiquitous aspects of everyday life in the early 21st century. Everyone uses the Internet to connect with others and everyone else browses on their smartphone when the opportunity arises. It is possible that somebody may be reading this entry in the Compendium on their computer or mobile device somewhere. If one wishes to reinterpret the contemporary world, we are still living within the broader backdrop of the 20th century. Today’s circumstances may seem different, but so much of everyday life has been impacted by an aspect of the previous century in one capacity or another.  

For unknown to most people, these technologies which have taken for granted were anticipated as far back as the 1940s by Ernst Jünger in his novel, Heliopolis. In that particular book, Jünger depicted a future world where humanity carried smartphone-liked devices called “Phonophores” that were connected to an Internet-like app called the “Luminar.”

Such technologies were depicted again in his 1977 novel, Eumeswil, which depicted that same future world in which its setting can be best described as ‘post-apocalyptic’. The Luminar app enabled its main character to ‘travel back in time’ and witness how history unfolded as part of his own personal research as an historian.  

The English-translated description of a blog post on a website devoted to Jünger’s Bibliography was adamant about its significance in the contemporary world:

Anyone who has read Heliopolis, Jünger´s first futuristic novel, should not be surprised by the title of this blog and the embedded lecture. These readers already know that an apparatus with almost identical functions to today’s smartphones appeared in this novel way back in 1949.

A pity that the speaker, after so convincingly explaining the remarkable parallels between the phonophore and smart phone/internet, seems to feel obliged to discover some flaws in Jünger’s vision – but then the speaker is after all German and the visionary is Ernst Jünger, their own beloved national scapegoat.

But ignoring for the moment that any vision of 2010 from 1949 is bound to contain some inaccuracies, I still do not agree that there is an essential difference between today´s reality and Jünger´s view of media in Heliopolis. That is, that a central monopolisation and hierarchy of address and response functions does implicitly exist in the phonophore network or internet, as it is called in our world.

Those who believe in the opposite, in real decentralization, freedom and democracy of the internet, live in ignorance of the underlying power structures of this world and their powerful social conditioning instruments. As with any tool, it is the chosen use which determines its value to man, not any intrinsic property of it. And of all its potential uses, the internet has become above all a principal vector of social conditioning in our world. And that is always hierarchical.

Which is not to say that the internet, like the phonophore network and the Luminar of Eumeswil, cannot be leveraged by individuals by their own genuine advantage. It all depends on the user, not the tool. Only an individual – and never a society – can ever hope to be free and “unruled from above” – that is to say literally, an an-arch.  

A Photo of Jünger in the trenches of World War I

For those who are interested in tracking down the source, there is a rough English translation of where the Phonophore and Luminar both appeared on that the same blog.       

It would not be too much of an overstatement here to suggest that Jünger did not just predict the advent of a world connected to the Internet and having smartphones around for everyday use. He essentially saw the development of emerging technologies in general during his wartime experiences in the First World War, writing about their growing role in the Western world throughout the 20th century.  

The early 20th century saw rapid developments in automatically-operated machinery that did not require manual operation by humans. Conceptualized theories and devised technologies from the period were shaped by preceding developments in the 19th century. This observation is discernible among the nation-states involved in the two World Wars, where weaponry, motorized vehicles, aircraft and warships filled a niche bridging what came beforehand and what came afterward in the Cold War and beyond. But computer technologies grew up alongside nuclear technologies against the backdrop of the Cold War in the late 20th century.    

The secret to understanding how Jünger foresaw the later appearances of the Internet and smartphones was that they came as the result of his observations in the essay “Total Mobilization,” the topics of which were later expanded in Der Arbeiter. While the technological developments of Der Arbeiter may have been on the cutting edge in the 1930s, Total Mobilization itself was normalized and not just because of the Cold War. In essence, Total Mobilization in the late 20th century erased the distinctions between “peacetime mobilization” and “wartime mobilization.” The growing complexities of everyday life had set the precedent for any government to direct and guide the affairs of national economies toward specific goals.        

The most important topic that Jünger discussed in Der Arbeiter, and would later become increasingly relevant by the 21st century, is the transdisciplinary field of Cybernetics. Cybernetics concerns the role of automatic control systems and their interactions between humans and the machinery. The general premise behind Cybernetics is that humanity can achieve far more by working alongside machinery as opposed to working without them or vice versa as some proponents of automation and artificial intelligence have suggested. Computers and smartphones are common examples of Cybernetic technologies because Cybernetics in general offers the ability to send, receive, store, and process information within a feedback loop that can translate into an actual process of organization and decision-making.

One of the notable contributions to Cybernetic technologies in the Cold War has been Proyecto Synco (Sistema de INformación y COntrol; Project Cybersyn) of Salvador Allende’s Chile. The intended purpose behind Cybersyn was to allow the Chilean government to relay information about the overall state of the national economy and monitor its performance from given trends and making predictions based on simulations.

The operating software relied on the “Viable System Model” of Stafford Beer, who founded the subfield of Management Cybernetics in his 1972 book, Brain of the Firm. Cybersyn was in many respects an attempt at realizing the Viable System Model as a practical application.

It functioned as a network of hundreds of telex typewriters, the pre-Internet precursor to the fax machine and later emailing, organizing them as a “Cybernet.” The Cybernet operated on a software program called “Cyberstride,” which transmitted information on specific firms and sectors of the Chilean economy to a government office in Santiago. Should something happen to a particular firm or sector at a given point in time, the government office was notified.

This office in particular was the “Operation Room,” a hexagonal-shaped room with seven tulip swivel-chairs featuring built-in buttons at the armrests. The buttons controlled various panels denoting the different sectors of the economy and screens depicting prepared graphs and slides sent from the Cybernet. The swivel-chairs themselves were arranged in a manner where everyone faced each other, so that when a vote on a state of the economy was decided, the seventh person will be able to break any potential tie in the casted votes.

While the technologies may seem rudimentary by today’s standards, the concepts that went into the specifications of Cybersyn are a basic example of the general procedures behind Council Democracy. The implications alone demonstrate what can be seen as an early foray into a rudimentary form of the Work-Standard’s MTEP (Mission-Type Economic Planning) as part of a Vocational Civil Service (VCS) Economy. It is more realistic to expect that MTEP to rely on a more advanced technology that draws on a different conception of political-economic organization and governance. Even so, it may be possible that Cybersyn could have gone in that direction if Allende’s government survived long enough for a new version to be developed.    



Categories: Compendium, Philosophy, Technology

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  1. An Update and Preview of “What is the ‘Splinternet?’” – The Fourth Estate

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