Our Friend, 
the Computer

Ana Meisel in conversation with Camila Galaz

Before starting the podcast ‘Our Friend the Computer’ with artist and writer Camila Galaz, I had been running an online gallery (External Pages) for a couple of years. In 2020 a sudden incursion of web dev requests struck me and the gallery got funding for the first time. With this money, I was able to commission a few projects, one of them being Camila’s interactive website REDES: bread and justice, peaches and bananas about Chile’s protests and the history of Cybersyn - a socialist cybernetics project initiated by the Allende Government in Chile in the early 70s. REDES is an interactive video essay that documents Chile’s 2019–2022 demonstrations within the framework of Cybersyn’s Opsroom. This depiction of how technological tools shape our political experiences was a perfect fit for External Pages - a space where artists explore abstract internet potentials through its current functionalities. We continued to be friends after the project had launched, and about a year later Camila approached me with the idea of making a podcast about pre-Internet networks such as Cybersyn. She said there were many more to be explored…

I obviously bit 👅. While this is the topic of our first season, more generally the podcast is about computing histories and their relationship to society; what political agendas there are and were behind such big state tech projects, what had failed and what was a success. We are now aiming to expand this research and practice in other ways and the podcast, Our Friend the Computer, continues to evolve. 

Hi Camila! As a developer and part-time e-girl with 0 attention span, I like quick projects. Code something and automate it to spend as little time as possible sitting by the computer. I find evolving and long-spanning projects very counterintuitive to my workflow and something that I’m still learning from you. The fact that you are, in a way, continuing REDES, and the fact that Our Friend the Computer is finding new alleyways of existing as a collaboration is quite synonymous with your practice style, I think. 
So I want to know, first of all, what made you research further into other Cybersyn-like projects and how did that develop into finally contacting me about making this pod?

Camila: Hi Ana, thank you for these lovely words! Yes, so during the pandemic I’d been working on a film project about the 2019 Chilean Estallido Social and had been wanting to explore deeper into the use of social media by demonstrators. In my projects I tend to link the present with historical moments—in juxtaposition but also blending them, bringing them into the same time plane. ✈️ ✈️ ✈️ So when we began working on my digital project REDES for External Pages, I brought in the story of Project Cybersyn (Proyecto Synco) to highlight this continuity of history—socialist uses of computer networks before and after the dictatorship. This was a system that largely ran on Telex machines and connected factories to a central information hub. It was destroyed in the 1973 military coup d'état. 

I found the tech history research and thinking about links to the present really fascinating, so I started looking into other similar stories. So our first season of the podcast, which explores computer networks that were developed before the Internet, was a natural progression from that original project. While my art and writing practice uses research as a basis, I also have been trying to find ways to make the research itself more accessible. A podcast seemed like a fun way to do that. And of course I absolutely loved working with you and wanted to keep doing so. The internet brought us together and it keeps us together! 💗 🤝 💗

Ana: Is this ✨continuous workflow✨ something that comes naturally to you or do you have to fight to stay inspired by the same thing over time?

Camila: Ok well I didn’t realise till right now that this is a different style of project for you haha. I think this is the way I naturally make work, but also I find that my research becomes quite expansive and I need to put boundaries on it and work out what I’m trying to say with the project. I think it’s made the podcast less intimidating for us to split it into season topics/themes. Though I feel like this first season, ‘Pre-Internet Networks’, could probably go on forever. What is nice about ‘Our Friend the Computer’, was once we started it felt like suddenly we had a container for all this research and I suddenly just wanted to fill it up with everything that I could. We’ve got so many fun things in the works! I’m excited to move onto other topics in the pod and to start branching out into other forms of collaborative creative research projects under the same ‘Our Friend the Computer’ banner.

Ana: Having reflected on these pre-internet networks, I find myself envious of the low-fi 📺 tech they had back then. I wish I wasn’t really connected, and that all I had was a videotex system to communicate and retrieve information or make digital purchases. I think it’s more than nostalgia though, and something we might actually need for a less preoccupied life (with work, mostly) 🌳. Do you feel the same?

Camila: Yes, it really made me realise that what we got was not what we were sold. I think we’re still chasing that dream of the digital somehow freeing up more time in our daily lives. That’s still how many applications and things like the metaverse are being positioned, but I just don’t think it’s in the cards anymore. Even though we are developing things which should on the surface provide us with more ease, it takes a lot of mental energy to engage with multiple types of platforms, interfaces, or ‘portals’ 🌀. It just adds to the ‘overwhelm’ of everyday life.  The thing that really came through in the episodes about these early systems, particularly Videotex, was the way they were promoted or used early on. It was largely about the digitisation of specific life-min tasks - banking, buying train tickets, checking the weather, even remotely controlling home appliances. And they were contained in a cute terminal or via a TV adapter. It wasn’t something that came with you everywhere. (Though we did see with Minitel that people could become addicted to using it….). While there are good things about decentralisation, I still sort of want a functioning Jetsons house or just a flip phone to play snake and get scared when I accidently press the ‘internet’ button.

Ana: Which videotex system would you have in your home if you had to pick one?

Camila: I mean, it has to be French Minitel right? I wanna get into those chat rooms! lol
Though I suppose I’m choosing based on system uptake and service development. It was very functional and culturally connected. We’ve seen time and again that an aspect of a failing network or platform is often a lack of users. A reason that the French Minitel/Teletel system was so popular was that the network was introduced as a digital replacement for printing expensive telephone directories each year, so the government had motivation to make it easily accessible to everyone. The basic terminals were provided free of charge from the post office! 

Ana: Do you think these projects can inform the future 🔮 of the internet and how?

Camila: I mean, that’s kinda the premise of our project—that there’s something to learn from this messy techie history. The thing that I find most interesting to tease out has been the utopian dreams that sparked the projects; the promise of the projects. Even if those networks ultimately failed or lost steam, what human hopes and dreams did they contain? I think it’s important to question how our expectations and the way we relate to technology have changed in the past half century. I know we’ve talked about this analogy before outside of this chat, but it’s sort of like going to therapy. You want a healthy future relationship so you look back on your previous ones to see what was good, what was bad, what went wrong, what you’d do differently. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right, or maybe you’re a different person now?

Ana: Do you think after web 3.0, we will finally regress to web 1.0 or dare I say, “web 0.0” aka videotex systems? 😈

Camila: lol I’m loving this web 0.0 concept you’ve been trying to start lately. I think there’s definitely a desire for a more simplified web, though I’m not sure we would ever return to Videotex. I saw in the recent Elon Musk Twitter news that quite a few people were advocating for a “return” to individual blogs and RSS feeds though (pour one out for Google Reader). I can see a world where web3 becomes so embedded in everyday life that perhaps another network more like web1.0 starts existing simultaneously. Something simpler, with a focus on expression and connection. I think no matter what happens, that dream never dies. We’re all just looking for the tools that give us the space to live, to laugh, and most of all, to love. 🙏