Project Cybersyn

by on December 7, 2009 at 7:40 am in Economics, History, Science | Permalink

Cybersyn was a project of the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973) and British cybernetic visionary Stafford Beer; its goal was to control the Chilean economy in real-time using computers and "cybernetic principles."  The military regime that overthrew Allende dropped the project and probably for this reason when the project is periodically rediscovered it is often written about in a romantic tone as a revolutionary "socialist internet," decades ahead of its time that was "destroyed" by the military because it was "too egalitarian" or because they didn't understand it.

Although some sources at the time said the Chilean economy was "run by computer," the project was in reality a bit of a joke especially in retrospect, albeit a rather expensive one, and about the only thing about it that worked were the ordinary Western Union telex machines spread around the country. TheIBM 360 two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines on that order).  These machines were no doubt very impressive to politicians and visionaries eager to use their technological might to control an economy (see picture at right.)  Today, our perspective will perhaps be somewhat different when we realize that these behemoths were far less powerful than an iPhone.  Run an economy with an iPhone?  Sorry, there is no app for that. 

Indeed, you don't have to read far between the lines of Andy "socialist internet" Beckett's account to get a flavor of what was really going on:

Beer's original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists. There was constant friction between the two groups. Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism; testing his son's electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service; and even organising anchovy-fishing expeditions to earn the government some desperately needed foreign currency.

(Note the classic, 'the visionary failed because others lacked idealism' storyMeanwhile the visionary is off on an anchovy-fishing expedition.)

Recently, Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein have put together an excellent video essay (fyi, 25 minutes) which gets to the heart (perhaps head would be a better word) of Cybersyn by focusing on the legendary "control room," which they delightfully call the "inverted panopticon." 

Cybersyn_control_room

It is no accident, say Axelrod and Borenstein, that the control room looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise because the whole purpose of the room was to exude a science-fiction fantasy of omniscience and omnipotence.  The fantasy naturally appealed to Allende who had the control room moved to the presidential palace just days before the coup. 

The control room is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in another respect–both are stage sets.  Nothing about the room is real, even the computer displays on the wall are simply hand drawn slides projected from the other side with Kodak carousels.

Ironically, when rumors of the project began to circulate, the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that Beer had created, the same illusion that so appealed to Allende and that had funded Beer's visions and experiments, this illusion caused fear that an all-knowing big brother was on the way–and such fear may even have encouraged the coup.

After the coup, rather than destroying the project because of its "egalitarian" nature, the military regime was more likely to have been disillusioned and disappointed to discover project Cybersyn's impotence.

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

dearieme December 7, 2009 at 7:46 am

I remember reading stafford Beer when I was young. What an arse he was.

anon December 7, 2009 at 8:44 am

When I first saw the title of this post, thought it was going to be about some kind of hybrid cybernetic pornography.

I was not disappointed.

Meanwhile the visionary is off on an anchovy-fishing expedition.

Wish some of our visionaries would busy themselves with anchovy-fishing expeditions.

I see a whole new use of the term “anchovy fishing.”

Harry Reid: “Don’t talk to me about health care, I’m going anchovy fishing!”

Barney Frank: “Don’t talk to me about re-inflating the housing bubble, I’m going anchovy fishing!”

Tyler: “Don’t talk to me about sordid links or flying puffins, I’m going anchovy fishing.”

Etc.

Affe December 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

Magical realism, Allende-pere style.

E. Barandiaran December 7, 2009 at 8:58 am

Alex,
I’m back in Santiago de Chile. The first time I moved to Santiago was in January 1973, when I had finished my Ph.D. and I was hired by Universidad Católica to teach monetary economics. Since I was a student of Leo Hurwicz (in December 1972, I travelled with him to Toronto where he delivered the Richard Ely lecture on resource allocation mechanisms) and I knew well about what Oskar Lange had been trying to do in Poland (remember that both Hurwicz and Lange were Polish and worked together at the Cowles Commission), at that time I was very interested in knowing about the implementation of the socialist market economy that people like Lange had promoted.

Let me tell you that between January 26, 1973, the day I arrived in Santiago, and September 11, 1973, the day of the military coup, despite many questions I made about what was going on with policymaking, nobody mentioned to me anything related to Beer’s project. After the coup I read some stories about the project, usually involving Fernando Flores, but none said that the project could have been implemented soon. It’s my understanding that later references and descriptions of the project have been part of attempts to rewrite the history of UP government.

Alex Tabarrok December 7, 2009 at 9:54 am

E. Barandiaran, it sounds like Project Cybersyn should have hired you! Hmmm…..perhaps you are still keeping the secret! :) In anycase, I did change the wording slightly to rumors but do note that according to the New York Times (linked in the post) ““Chile run by computer,† blared The British Observer on Jan. 7, 1973, as word of the experiment began leaking out.”

Best

Alex

David Heigham December 7, 2009 at 12:06 pm

The (mostly Californian) team working this up came to London in summer 1973, and wanted to talk to British Treasury economists about what they were planning to introduce. They talked to me. Their modelling was, in concept (they clearly were in the early stages of working out the detail), very good for the time (and their available computers would have handled the data flow OK). But when we got down to the content I found a materials balance set of ideas, with a still large private sector expected to handle things like retail distribution and truck transport (a vital sector in Chile). It was not real time – more like last week/last month for data to feed into next month’s decisions. It was so much better than anything I had heard of in use in the Soviet block that I was fascinated.

It was with real regret that I found myself suggesting that the results from the team’s approach could be disappointing; and asking what improvements over the current ramshackle Chilean economy they hoped to see? Those hoped for enumerable improvements turned out to be mainly distributional. It seemed that productivity, efficiency and output gains would have to wait for later, improved versions of the model; versions in which they would somehow improve on the very crude financial incetives they proposed to leave in the private sector and generalise them into the state sector.

As a means of incorporating incentives, I mentioned the Hungarian ideas of the state owning the means of production but always being willing to rent them out to the highest bidder. The team seemed to think that might be worth looking into; but it was evident that they did not realise that they were improving on mainstream Communist practice; let alone that they should be interested in heterodox Communist thought.

For a mainstream, pretty eclectic macroeconomist, that afternoon was a trip through the looking glass. Nevertheless, there was more to Project Cybersyn ( a name the team were rather ashamed of) than a stage set.

E. Barandiaran December 7, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Alex, Chile is a country that needs urgently to look forward rather than to waste time debating her history (in particular curiosities like Project Cybersyn). This Sunday there will a presidential election and earlier today something odd happened–a judge accused six people of murdering the father of a presidential candidate in 1982, during the military government (see footnote). Indeed some people immediately accused the judge of playing of politics–formally he had been investigating the death for more than 10 years. In the past few days, other government actions were aimed at recovering memories of the repression during the military government. It’s going to be 20 years since the end of the military government and 4 years since Pinochet passed away, but there are still politicians that can look only at the rearview mirror as their hope for change.

Footnote: The candidate is Eduardo Frei Jr. who was president between 1994 and 2000 and whose father, the one apparently murdered in 1982, was Eduardo Frei Sr., president of Chile between 1964 and 1970. Frei Jr. is the candidate of the coalition supporting the current government (this coalition has been in power since the end of the military government). The other main candidate is Sebastián Piñera, a Ph.D. in Economics, Harvard University (1973-76), whose father was a close friend of Frei Sr. (actually he was his ambassador to the United Nations in the 1960s). Although the government coalition claims that Piñera benefited from the military government (since 1980, he has made a fortune with his businesses), politically Piñera and his father were very supportive of Frei Sr. until his death.

babar December 7, 2009 at 2:24 pm

two things are interesting.

first, this could connect directly to kling’s ‘recalculation’ story. maybe this kind of computer could do the recalculating, so that we wouldn’t need all these nasty consumers to do it.

second, there will be bitter irony. of course governments will control economies and markets by computer in the future if they are not doing so already, but they will hide not boast this fact.

Vehical Driver December 7, 2009 at 4:56 pm

I think the moral of the story is that today’s elite cutting edge supercomputer technocracy, will be tomorrow’s “that has less computing power than my cell phone, haha!” bad joke.

Pete L December 7, 2009 at 7:42 pm

m3t00, I think MR’s point is that big impressive-looking computers at the time gave the project credibility with economically naive viewers. Today, these same sorts people wouldn’t be so impressed by an iphone app even though it has many times the processing power. In fact, more modern viewers might be more likely to realize that even impressive looking servers of today aren’t going to ‘solve’ economics simply because they either romanticize computers less or appreciate at a more technical level that the problem is that we don’t have the algorithms or necessary data to do this even with infinite processing power.

anonymous December 7, 2009 at 7:55 pm

m3t00,

Your last sentence was a silly bait-and-switch: using Telex machines to improve communication and coordination — between humans — was never controversial. So let’s stick to the topic of computers. The financial crisis of the last few years has demonstrated just how sharply our best efforts at mathematical modeling of the economy can diverge from reality, even with today’s most modern computer technology let alone 1973’s much more primitive kind.

By contrast, plain old Newtonian physics for orbital calculations is far more straightforward. Before computers, astronomers accurately calculated those by hand, albeit not at the near-real-time speed needed for lunar missions.

justafed December 7, 2009 at 9:54 pm

As ever, I seem to be completely humorless on points like this. On the one hand, you have a really silly and utopian plan to control the economy by a pretty dorky guy who was, on the other hand, actually elected. On the other hand, you have General Pinochet, who assumed power in a coup and appears to have caused at least 3200 people to die, stealing millions, and assuming absolute power and suspending any meaningful political opposition. It’s totally obvious who today’s libertarians should hold in higher regard.

Tom December 7, 2009 at 11:08 pm

“Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism”

Now we have identified the source of Obama’s NEO scandal.

improbable December 8, 2009 at 12:42 am

It seems a bit like the video over-did the emphasis on the star-wars control room.

I want to hear more about what David Heigham was saying: by what sort of model did they plan to run the economy?

JackTrade December 8, 2009 at 10:16 am

To echo improbable’s comments, I wonder how exactly this was to be an alternative to centrally-planned economies of the day? It seems the same thing, to me anyway, and really just a matter of aesthetics (i.e. decisionmaking by technology being more elegant and modern than that by party members in big old ministries).

Or did they think the technology would actually allow the workers to *really* have a voice in things, as opposed to the other contemporary systems which promised this but rarely delivered?

This is too fascinating a story to drop IMO…I wish it could be bumped back up to the top.

Tracy W December 9, 2009 at 4:28 am

Dan Karreman – Walmart (and the other companies you listed) are still reliant on market prices to coordinate demand and supply with other participants in the market economy. This is a different situation from trying to plan a whole economy.

Look at it this way – consider rain protection. There are a whole variety of ways of protecting yourself from the rain when you are outside – there’s umbrellas and raincoats, and each of these two main groups come in various breakdowns. For example within raincoats you can buy very cheap plastic ponchos up to high-end breathable Gore-tex coats with under-arm vents, sealed seams, double zips and a bendy plastic in the hood so the hood sticks out from your face. Obviously the latter sort is more expensive to produce than the cheap plastic ponchos in the sense that it takes more resources. But how much do people value the Gore-tex and the underarm zips and so forth? This depends on things like how much time they spend in heavy rain and wind, and doing what, and their own tolerance for poor conditions, and also how much they need other resources. Furthermore the people who make the raincoats also have their own preferences for raincoat-making jobs relative to other forms of work, as do the people who make the various raw materials that go into the raincoats. The advantage of a market price is that it allows these sorts of comparisons to be made – the wages that need to be paid to make different levels of sophistication of raincoats get incorporated into the price, and then the raincoat purchaser has to only consider whether they value the extra features more than the money to buy them. I have a Gore-tex raincoat with sealed seams but no under-arm zips.

Now raincoats may seem a frivilous luxury, but the same applies to food. People have different preferences for food – for example people with celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten so can’t eat foods like ordinary bread. Some people even have life-threatening reactions if they eat things like peanuts or eggs. Then people also have preferences of varying strengths. On the other side, there are all sorts of factors that go into which crops that produce the most in a particular situation – there’s the soil situation which can change at the level of the individual field, the need for labour at which times of year, the scale of labour needed, the options for mechanisation, etc. A price means that, outside of allergies and cannot-consume-problems, we can make this trade-off – eg I like both potatoes and bread so if potatoes are cheaper to grow than bread I can adjust my diet accordingly if prices signal this.

A computer system can’t gather that sort of information as much of it is implicit. This is a major difference between centrally planning logistics for a company (or the military, or whatever), and centrally planning a whole economy.

Paul Fernhout December 9, 2009 at 11:28 am

From something I just wrote here:
http://listcultures.org/pipermail/p2presearch_listcultures.org/2009-December/006458.html

(Making up an alternative past history written from the future. :-)
As a footnote in history of government-approved search engines, “Google” was
the name of a small company created more than twenty years ago, in 1998, as
the starry-eyed impracticable vision of two graduate students at Stanford
University. Using a computer built partially from LEGO bricks:
“Google Founders built Server Casing with LEGO Bricks”
http://www.i4u.com/article14320.html
and operating from a garage, these wild-eyed dreamers had a vision of
stealing all information on the planet and supplying free access to it.
While there was no real risk that such people could have succeeded, even
with US$100,000 worth of personal backing from someone at an established
computer company (a trivial amount of money in those days for a startup),
because of the vast computation and electrical demands of such an enterprise
(clearly impossible to meet within a garage if you just do a little math on
even just the electrical demand from several servers), clearly these
individuals involved did not understand free market processes and how all
information would need to be sold in order to promote the creation of more
information. On April 1, 1999, the garage that this small company in was
raided by the US FBI in conjunction with representatives of RIAA, the MPAA,
and the SPA, and the server was confiscated. This was also justified because
the FBI was able to perform successful search queries on explosives
manufacture, and such an information service could have been used for more
terrorists like Timothy McVeigh to learn enough to bomb Federal Office
Buildings. Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are still
awaiting trial in Guantanamo Bay (as of this writing in 2019) for
un-American activities as enemy combatants as threats to the state order.
Through enhanced interrogation techniques, it was discovered that Page and
Brin also had plans to steal the world’s books, and more fancifully, set up
an independent society on Mars. While it is laughable to think that such
people could have indexed all the world’s proprietary information with a
server that has less power than one of today’s highly secure “trusted
computing” cell phones, none-the-less the concern was that such people had
no respect for private intellectual property and the free market that
creates it, and so these two info-terrorists would no doubt have helped
physical terrorists like Timothy McVeigh or others to perform a variety of
anti-social acts. Likewise, such a system could potentially have made copies
of proprietary news articles and slightly harmed our vibrant mainstream
newspaper industry, or worse, created synthetic newspapers with biased views
compared to the unbiased reporting that professional journalists and
publishers are well celebrated for (like with the Pulitzer Prize). The US
government stopped the project and probably for this reason when the project
is periodically rediscovered it is often written about in a romantic tone as
a revolutionary “socialist search engine,” decades ahead of its time that
was “destroyed” by the US government because it was “too egalitarian” or
because they didn’t understand it. Hopefully this article will show why that
is foolishness.
This footnote in history is brought to you by Mickysearch, the search
engine that gives you the appropriate information you need, when you need
it, and is offering a discount this week, sign up for one year of searching
(maximum 10 queries per month, all with completely safe high-quality US
government approved results), and the cost is only US$1000 a month instead
of the usual US$1500 a month, a cost savings of more than US$50 per search.)

Alex Tabarrok March 15, 2010 at 5:30 pm

In his long comment Vincent Henry claims to be familiar with Project Cybersyn but he gets many factual details wrong and he has obviously not even read Beer’s own account! For example, Henry claims that I am wrong to say that the computers involved were IBM 360s (or machines on that order.) Here is Stafford Beer (1981), Brain of the Firm. p. 265 “The problem of adequate computer time was solved by switching the work from the IBM 360/50 to the new Burroughs 3500…” Also, regarding this point: “Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism.” Henry first of all incorrectly attributes this quote to me when it is clear from the post that it is from Beckett (very much a supporter of Project Cybersyn). Moreover, Henry suggests this is unreferenced. Once again this is well known material and it comes straight from Beer himself who says he began to spend “every spare minute” hanging out with artists, poets and musicians. Beer then convinced Angel Parra, a famous folk singer, to write a song about Project Cybersyn which he did titling it “Litany for a Computer and a Baby about to be Born.” You can find more lyrics in Brain of the Firm, p. 290. I have no idea why Henry would want to deny that the goal was to control the economy in real time when he himself says the goal was “controlling the day to day requirements of a complex economy.” This is simply strange. In anycase, do remember that Allende was a Marxist politician who was nationalizing large sectors of the economy. Project Cybersyn was about controlling or “managing,” if you like, the nationalized sector, the commanding heights. You can find plenty of references to the importance of real-time control in Brain of the Machine. Henry also puts a lot of weight on the copper industry while in fact, although this was one of the nationalized sectors, it was not key to the project precisely because the recent nationalization raised political difficulties. Thus Beer writes (p.271) “As to the copper industry, newly nationalized amid an international furore, new moves of whatever kind might aggravate existing difficulties.” Thus, rather than go full throttle with the worker participation schemes used elsewhere they worked more closely with copper management and made fewer changes in that sector. Henry is correct that that the projection scheme was top-notch for the time. Beer was a genius and a visionary and he saw in Allende the chance to apply his principles to an entire country but he bit off more than he could chew. Like Harnden above I recommend Medina’s work, Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile, it can be fond iin the Journal of Latin American Studies, 2006, for whose who want to know more. Here is a link http://informatics.indiana.edu/edenm/EdenMedinaJLASAugust2006.pdf

Vincent Henry March 29, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Having read some of the comments above, I felt inclined to dismiss the ramblings of ill informed youth with a smile and leave it at that.
That was until I came to Harry Beer’s comments and realise that there may be people who will read these comments and think that they bear some resemblance to reality and to what actually happened in Chile in 1973 when President Salvador Allende and most of his government were murdered by American troops and General Augusto Pinochet was installed as a CIA puppet.
So for those of you who have open minds I offer these comments;
Why should my opinion count?
Well, I did my doctoral thesis on this subject (Allende, Beer and Cybersyn) and was lucky enough to interview nearly all the survivors who escaped the awful terrors of Santiago on that other ‘September 11’ in 1973.
President Salvador Allende;
12 years earlier, Kennedy said in his inaugural address;
“To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.†

(ref; Library of Congress; John F. Kennedy/Inaugural AddressFriday, January 20, 1961)

To assist free men and free governments?
President Salvador Allende had been democratically elected by the people of Chile. He was arguably a very successful leader despite the repeated attempts by American foreign policy to undermine his position.
On March 25, 1970 the White House ‘Committee of 40’ was set up to monitor and fund subversive activities in Chile. It was chaired by the National Security Council Director, Henry Kissinger. Effectively Kissinger was now in charge of the ‘303 Committee’, a group of US officials including CIA representatives tasked with discrediting Allende; and the ‘Special Group’ founded to insure that Eduardo Frei got into office instead of Allende.
Kissinger and the ‘Committee of 40’ channelled millions of US dollars into Chile to insure that Allende did not get elected as President.
But the trouble with democracy is that you can’t always control it.
Let us not forget Henry Kissinger’s oft quoted comment;
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people†
( ref Henry Kissinger to the ‘ Committee of 40’)
On June 20th 1975, General Pinochet declared;
“there will be no elections in Chile during my lifetime, nor in the lifetime of my successor†
Then, on 4 July, Pinochet refuses to allow the UN commission on human rights to enter the country. And so the clampdown on freedom in Chile begins. It will stay that way, with the blessing of the White House, until Pinochet leaves office in 1990

So let’s be clear. American foreign policy was to get rid of Allende at any cost. They did their job well. And then they set out to discredit anything and everything Allende had achieved.
I would urge anybody who wants to know more about what happened then to read;
‘Salvador Allende Reader. Chile’s Voice of Democracy.’
Edited with an introduction by James D Cockcroft
Library of Congress card number 00-100395
Ocean Press 2000
For although this is a far from flattering account of Allende’s period in office; it is meticulously researched and dogmatically truthful.
Anybody who wants to know what it was like caught up in that awful time should type ‘Charles Horman’ into their search engine.
He was a young American photojournalist who witnessed too much of the American involvement in the coup. He disappeared. And the State Department lied through their teeth. (Subsequently a film ‘Missing’ was made about this young man)
Let’s all try and remember that thousands of people were herded into the football stadium in Santiago and machine gunned.
That matters!
———–
So who then is this Stafford Beer?
‘dearieme’ offers the anonymous opinion that Beer was ‘an arse’
whilst m3t00 offers the anonymous assertion that Beer was in a ‘silly wanker’
So let’s check the validity of their assertions.
Let’s look at what society in general thought of Stafford Beer;
Stafford Beer is the founder of Management Cybernetics.
He was a past president of the Operational Research Society and of the International Society for Social System Sciences.
He was presented with the McCulloch award of the American Society for Cybernetics.
He was the president of the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics.
He was awarded the ‘Norbert Wiener’ gold-medal.
He was a governor of the International Council for Computer Communication.
He was awarded the ‘Lanchester Prize’ of the American Operational Research Society.
He was awarded the Silver Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy for Engineering Sciences.
He holds an honorary Doctorate from the Concorde University in Montréal.
And was awarded the ‘Freedom of the City of London’. (That’s a sort of Congressional medal of honour.)
He is the author of over 200 publications including 11 books variously translated into 13 languages.

He was a professor at several universities including;
Manchester; Durham Business School; The Open University (the first professor of general systems); The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; University College Swansea; University of Toronto and Liverpool John Moores University.
He also also an Honorary Professor of Organisational Transformation.
His first application of cybernetics was with United Steel when he revolutionised continuous steel production at their plant in Sheffield in the early 50s.
He was also the Technical Director of the International Publishing Corporation (the biggest publishing corporation in the world) where his work with Remote Set Printing and his early pioneering work with lasers both speeded up and radically simplified the newspaper industry. He pushed IPC into new technologies, many IT-based. He coined the term “data highway”, 30 years before “information highway” came into vogue.
(Ref The International publishing Corporation, Dalton 1999)

He was a Director of several international companies and Chairman of the Board of several more.
Which bit of ‘silly arse wanker’ am I missing here?
It appears to me that Stafford Beer operates many levels above the pay grades of both dearieme and m3t00 so perhaps it’s understandable that these readers are unable to grasp some of the more subtle points of Stafford Beer’s books. (Assuming they’ve even tried)
I prescribe several of Stafford Beer’s books as textbooks for my students and whilst I have had students who sometimes disagreed with Beer’s approach, I have never had any student who failed to understand Beer’s abilities.
Let’s also remember that virtually all Stafford Beer’s texts are still in print. That alone is quite an achievement eight years after his death.
So what did other, well respected, contemporary scientists think of Beer’s work?

‘Stafford Beer is the most integrated holistic thinker that I know. He is unique, a class of one. Why are there so few like him? ’ Russell L Ackoff
(Ref Re-Creating the Corporation: a design of organizations for the 21st century. Oxford Univ. Press: New York. 1999,)
“If anyone can make Operations Research understandably readable and positively interesting it is Stafford Beer. Everyone in management should be grateful to him for using clear and at times elegant English and even elegant diagrams.†
(Ref The Economist)

A book (Platform for Change) which has already become a management ‘standard’ both in universities and on the bookshelves of managers and their advisers. It shows a first-rate intellect at work and provides concepts, models and inspiration for both practitioners and teachers.”
Sir Douglas Hague, CBE
“Stafford Beer is undoubtedly among the world’s most provocative, creative, and profound thinkers.” Dr Russell L Ackoff,
(Ref The Institute for Interactive Management, Pennsylvania, USA.)

‘Stafford Beer is both one of the few universal thinkers of this century and – what is more important – one of the most original thinkers ever.’ Fredmund Malik, Professor of Management at the University of St Gallen.
(Ref Malik, Stratergie des Managements Komplexer Systeme, fifth edition, the 1996. Malik, Understanding a Knowledge Organisation as a Viable System Model, Espejo R/Schwaninger M. Organisational)
Stafford Beer has to be counted as one of the most gifted management scientists of the century. Ross Ashby,
(Principles of Self-Organization (Sponsored by Information Systems Branch, U.S. Office of Naval Research). Republished as a PDF in Emergence: Complexity and Organization (E:CO) Special Double Issue Vol. 6, Nos. 1-2 2004, pp. 102–126.)

Beer’s ability to identify and understand complex management systems and to write eloquently about their structures makes him unique. Heinz Von Foerster
“Principles of the Self-Organizing System”. Heinz Von Foerster and George W. Zopf, Jr. (eds.),

Stafford Beer achieved the hardest of all pedagogic tasks: he changed the way people think. Rosemary Bechler
(Ref International editor of open democracy)

‘his work is recognised as being the most substantial creative and stimulating in the whole literature of the discipline.’ M C Jackson,
( Department of Management Systems and Sciences. University of Hull)
(Ref An appreciation of Stafford Beer’s Variable System viewpoint on managerial practice.
Journal of management studies 25: 6 November 1988 0022 3280)
Swedish Operational Research Association, Sweden
A celebration of Stafford Beer
‘Here we find the Management scholar and consultant in one person, whose ideas of good management is not just for profits, but in a dignified life for all people, especially those who are poor.’
(Systems practice, volume 10, number 4, 1997)

In 1970 Stafford Beer was invited by ‘The Desk of the President of the United States of America’ to address the House of Representatives.
The Management of Information and Knowledge; US House of Representatives, US Government Printing Office 1970 and Proceeding Ninety First Congress Second Session.

So Stafford Beer was still considered a man of merit by the American establishment up until the time he went to work with Salvador Allende.
After that, he was decidedly persona non grata with the American government who, it would appear, took active steps to minimise and to distort information about Cybersyn in particular, and Chile’s socialist government in general.
So Stafford Beer had many honours awarded to him in his lifetime and was obviously highly thought of by his contemporaries.
I think it fair to conclude then that on the balance of probability, Stafford Beer was indeed a rather gifted management scientist.

So what was Cybersyn?
.
In order to understand why Cybersyn came into existence, you need to know some local knowledge about Chile.
Chile is an incredibly long and very thin country. It’s 2,653 miles long and has an average width of just 110 miles.
Chile was a primary source of copper. This was mined by the Chileans who were paid a pittance for it by the United States of America who ‘owned’ the copper mines.
Allende was elected president and one of his first moves was to nationalise the Chilean copper reserves and mines.
This didn’t make him very popular in America. Now they were going to have to pay for the copper if they wanted it, and they did want it, but they didn’t want to pay for it.
This was the root cause Allende’s problems. Think of it as oil and you’ll get a modern day parallel and it will help you to understand Kissinger’s attitude.
With a country that is so long and thin, it is important to have a good communications infrastructure.
This is 1970 don’t forget, no cell phones, and very few telephone lines.
So here is a country producing copper, yet its planned distribution networks are a logistical nightmare.
What is needed is a country long network where daily production figures of copper can be readily quantified and railway goods wagons with appropriate road transport streamlined to be in the right place at the right time.
The problem is that copper output from the various mines is erratic and transport systems keep bottleneck-ing.
What is needed is a system for defining and reporting the exact output of every copper mine, as well as the location of the transport available, and this must be a fluid variable system and worse, in order to make the system work, the people working in the mines and the transport system must report on this rapidly changing situation every day.
With up-to-date information it is possible to make sure that trucks and trains are available to support mines that are producing large quantities of copper and to minimise the transport facilities of mines where copper production has slowed down.
In the early 70s in the United Kingdom, there was a system for reporting the National Coal Board’s coal output. It took nine months to gather the information and present it.
This usually meant that by the time the Management of the NCB got the figures saying that production quotas were very high, the situation had actually reversed, and the outputs were now low. But the managers of the coal board believing the situation was overproducing, now did their best to stem coal production.
Production was already now falling low, and the action of the managers guaranteed that it plummeted. When they finally got the nine months out of date information that stocks were falling dangerously low, they did everything in their power to speed up production. Unfortunately, production had already picked up, and their efforts to increase production produced a surplus of coal. This rapidly swinging output trend was dangerously unstable and just got more out of control the harder they tried to direct it.
In a country like Chile, the difficulties were far worse and instead of a ‘nine-month’ command and control operational cycle, they had to define their operating parameters as quickly as possible.
But there were many copper mines, and all of them had varying outputs of copper production, on the face of it, gathering information and making decisions was an insurmountable problem.
The amount of information that can be gathered by people working in the mines is enormous. Multiply that by the number of mines and the number of transport hubs and any reporting system will fail almost immediately overburdened by the sheer quantity of information.
What is needed is a system with many active filters. Today, it would be simple. Then, it wasn’t.
Beer’s genius was to create a ‘synthetic neural pathway’ from one end of the country to the other.
Cybernetic modelling, if I may be extremely simplistic, mimics natural systems to produce answers to complex questions.
In an animal, the nervous system is constantly gathering information.
Most of it is redundant.
The elegance of the neural pathways is that they apply various filters that only let through to the brain information that matters. The decisions have to be made quickly and accurately. It’s no good putting your hand on a hot surface and having to wait for your nervous system to make some decisions before you remove it.
False alarms are okay. You can touch the surface, remove your hand quickly, and experiment to see if the surface really is hot.
Cybersyn was in information gathering system with a central reporting point.
Because Chile only had one computer, and, as has been pointed out, its computing power was somewhat limited, it was necessary to design a system that could quickly filter production information allowing a rapid response to the challenges that the information produced.
This is where the large number of telex machines came into play.
Again, forgive me, but let’s be simplistic about how this worked.
Imagine seven workplaces generating production figures.
All of their information is fed by the telex links to one of the bigger mines. Here the managers at the bigger mine identify and quantify the information from the seven smaller mines, they add their own information, and pass the result to the next ‘hub’ here their information, as well as six others, is quantified and the information passed to the next ‘hub’.
This enabled extremely fast data collection and filtering. Because the filtering was done by the local managers who had an excellent grasp of the local conditions, the information received was of high quality and probably more importantly, was delivered to Santiago within hours.
Ultimately, this information arrived at the ‘control room’. It is just raw information. Now people have to make decisions on how to use this information.
Don’t forget, by now thousands of people have been involved in information gathering and processing, what remains is the result of the conscious decisions made by the men at the mines and these men understand their local problems and are able to almost instantly to relay their concerns to the people tasked with overall management.
Nothing about this information gathering system could be, or would be used as a ‘repressive tool of government’. (Ref Alex Tabarrok)
It stands to reason that if it could have been, Pinochet would have used it.
The basic criticism of the system was that because Chile didn’t have ‘big computers’, the system couldn’t have worked. Few people bothered to examine how the system did work and, knowing that Chile had no computers they were generally happy to say that Cybersyn was the work of a fantasist.
There are many articles written in ignorance, suggesting that this system was never implemented. It didn’t exist other than in Stafford Beer’s writings.
And yet; there are other articles such as Andy Beckett’s misconceived and somewhat fanciful account that was published in the Guardian and is often quoted as if it is factually correct.

[Beer and Allende] shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people. On the contrary, it was hoped that the system would allow workers to manage, or at least take part in the management of their workplaces, and that the daily exchange of information between the shop floor and Santiago would create trust and genuine cooperation – and the combination of individual freedom.(ref Andy Beckett/Guardian)
How the government could spy and control people using Cybersyn was never explained.

It is important to understand that Stafford Beer’s work was not about managing power, but about processing communications. This is Information Management in its truest sense.
If Cybersyn never existed as its critics claim, then there are some other problems to be addressed.
Again, to quote Andy Beckett from the same Guardian article;
Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them.(ref Andy Beckett/Guardian)
The interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving. (ref Andy Beckett/Guardian)
Well either Cybersyn did exist or it didn’t. If it didn’t exist how could the government have used the system as described by Beckett?
The Control Room;
The word ‘cybernetics’ derives from the Greek word for ‘steersman’ as in somebody who steers a ship. It was, and still is, a good description of the branch of management science that Norbert Wiener, Stafford Beer and their contemporaries were using to solve complex management issues.
Today, it is loosely defined as;
“The science or study of communication in organisms, organic processes, and mechanical or electronic systems.†
Most cyberneticions will happily argue about the exact terms of reference for the word, but for the sake of simplicity, this definition will suffice.
It is unfortunate that the word has been ‘borrowed’ and mutilated by popular science fiction which has led to much misunderstanding about the work it describes.
Cybernetics then is about managing the system.
The control room in Santiago, was built as a management tool for controlling the day to day requirements of a complex economy. This type of control environment is now commonplace in all blue chip company headquarters.
The design of the control room has caused much ridicule and mirth. So let’s have a quick look at the construction of this room.
The way the room had to function was defined by Stafford Beer. However the aesthetics were designed by Gui Bonsiepe and although it may look like a work of science fiction, it is in reality just an ergonomic workspace ‘of its time’.
For instance, the chairs where the standard office furniture of the late 60s early 70s. They were ubiquitous, and more importantly, they were cheap. Mass produced in their thousands, these ‘tulip chairs’ were easy to modify to accept the pushbutton controls that operated the information system. So it was cheapness, availability and ease of modification that dictated their style.
Better brains than mine will be able to tell you whether or not ‘Star Trek’ was actually broadcast in the United Kingdom or Chile in these long ago years, but if it was, I doubt that Stafford Beer was a particular aficionado of the genre.
Much is made of the wooden panelling that encapsulate the room but again, this was cheap and easily available. To criticised the operation of this room because it had ‘wooden panels’ seems a little infantile.
So forgive me ‘William’ if I burst your bubble.
When ‘Zamfir’ asks did the buttons control a PowerPoint presentation I do find myself wondering about children and history.
1970s – PowerPoint? have a quick look at the description of the computer (IBM 360) as outlined in the article.
But don’t feel too bad, I don’t suppose you stopped and thought for a moment before writing it and I don’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just that it really is a long time ago.
On the other hand, I have no compunction at all about embarrassing Alex Tabarrok. Read this again;
“its goal was to control the Chilean economy in real-time using computers and “cybernetic principles.” “ (Ref Alex Tabarrok)
No references are given for this statement which isn’t surprising as it is completely fictitious. I have never seen any literature in any of the studies of Stafford Beer’s work that could possibly be used to support this claim.
And furthermore;
“The control room is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in another respect–both are stage sets. Nothing about the room is real, even the computer displays on the wall are simply hand drawn slides projected from the other side with Kodak carousels. (sic) † (Ref Alex Tabarrok)
Let’s have a look at this statement.
If the control room is a stage set, and nothing in the room is real, what are the slides projected from the Kodak slide carousels (sic) for?
With the very minimum of research, Mr. Tabarrok could have very easily found out (as I did) that the Kodak projectors did not just project slides ‘from the other side’ but projected slides from an intricate and cleverly designed back projection system.
There were five Kodac SAV2020 slide projectors on each screen. Each projector held 80 slides
These slide projectors were highly modified (by an English company called Electrosonic) so that they could random access any one of 400 slides available in 0.8 of a second.
So not exactly a ‘PowerPoint’ presentation then, but perhaps the next best thing. An extraordinary sophisticated data handling system designed, installed and working in 1972.
(Ref Bob Simpson Effective Audiovisual)
Again, all the mechanical and electrical drawings for this amazing piece of equipment are freely available on the Internet.
And finally then; ‘using hand drawn slides’; well without being too pedantic, if you add up the number of screens and stop and think for a moment, you’ll see there is an enormous amount of collated data to be displayed across the multiple screens.
How exactly could this information be presented in the 1970s if it wasn’t hand drawn?
bearing in mind that this was information that was changing on a daily basis.
And finally; it should be realised that this was a system that was operational 40 years ago. It was a precursor to a PowerPoint presentation and a video projector that Stafford Beer designed and implemented years before anybody had even thought of such things. Is it any wonder that Stafford Beer is held in such high esteem by those who have bothered to look at his work?
The man tasked with managing and operating this room was Raul Espejo and he escaped Pinochet’s murderous cohorts. Espejo has written extensively on both the system and the mechanics of the control room. He now lives and works in England.
With such a broad wealth of both technical information and documentation (including all Stafford Beer’s notes on how they were using the system) there really is no excuse for the wilful ignorance displayed by Mr. Tabarrok.

The two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines on that order)(ref Alex Tabarrok)
I’m sure Stafford Beer would have loved to have had two such computers. He wasn’t that lucky. He had one somewhat defunct computer nowhere near as modern as the gleaming IBM 360.
The computer was used to perform the Recursive Bayesian estimations necessary to identify and predict production performance anomalies over time. The program that was written by 12 British computer programmers was called Cyberstride and again much has been written about the details of this program.
Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism.(ref Alex Tabarrok)
Really? I’m not sure personally that I would call the likes of John Lennon, Brian Eno and Bob Dylan ‘publicists for the principles of high-tech socialism’. What’s more, no reference is given for this statement which is not only sloppy, but it makes it hard to understand its full meaning.
Stafford Beer obviously enjoyed an extremely eclectic collection of friends. To me, this rather indicates a vibrant and questioning mind.

‘testing his son’s electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service;'(ref Andy Beckett/Guardian)
Andy Beckett refers to Stafford Beer’s son as having made this ‘public opinion voting system’ “ in a potting shed †¦.using bits of radios and pieces of pink and green cardboard†.
And yet when you look at the circuit diagrams of this voting system (again all freely available) it is apparent that this was quite a sophisticated analog computer. A little further digging and you discover that Simon Beer was actually working in the Research and Development Laboratories of the British Aircraft Corporation with such eminent people as Barnes Wallis (of bouncing bomb fame).hardly a ‘potting shed’.
A little more digging and you find that this voting system was used throughout the summer of 1973 to judge the overall depth of feeling about various specific decision-making questions. Instead of simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers to a problem, people were able to indicate whether they felt particularly strongly one way or the other, not only that, if the general feeling was against them, they could increase their measure of response in compensation.
It strikes me, here today, is an eminently sensible tool for judging opinion on shifting subjects during a roundtable management meeting.
Perhaps by now you begin to understand my incredulity when I read the somewhat biased account that Harry Beer referred to as ‘bollocks’. I have to say, I’m inclined to agree with his eloquent assessment.
Mr. Tabarrok suggests that people should look at Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein’s travesty that they call ‘Inverted Panopticon’.
I would agree with him as it shows these college students playing well out of their depth.
Apart from not being able to pronounce most of the big words correctly, and showing a breathtaking lack of understanding of virtually every aspect of the political and managerial aspect of Salvador Allende and Stafford Beer’s work in Chile, you will find that their little offering has been roundly condemned by a wide variety people who do understand Beer’s work and also by some of the people who designed and built the equipment for him.
E. Barandiaran suggests that somebody is trying to rewrite history. I would agree.
But possibly we wouldn’t share the same perspective.
Vincent Henry.

Leonid Ototsky March 30, 2010 at 8:16 am

The Global World challenges at the beginning of the XXI Century have made more clear that warnings which had been made by Stafford Beer at the beginning of the nineties of the XX Century . Without active using
of his heritage it will be impossible “to change the World† .–>
http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/presentations/VSM21.htm
——
“Soviet communism accepted its own demise; Western capitalism has not accepted it yet†. -> http://ototsky.mgn.ru/vsm/

Barry Clemson March 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thank you, Vincent Henry!

Stafford was my friend and intellectual mentor and I met several of the people who worked on the Chilean project.

I spent most of the last 45 years grappling with questions of how we might make large government and corporate organizations more human-friendly, more supportive of freedom, equality, and justice. Stafford’s work generally and the Chile project specifically offer critical insights that are just beginning to be widely applied.

The misinformation and distortion of the Chilean project is discouraging and is, I believe, another demonstration of the power of the reactionary forces of the world.

Those of us committed to freedom, equality, and justice should recognize that Stafford fought for these things all his life and provided vital tools for managing organizations in a way that helped to achieve them.

Vincent Henry April 12, 2010 at 8:01 am

In his courteous comment, Alex Tabarrok suggests I get ‘many factual details wrong’ and lists them.

In his article he claims;

‘The two computers supposedly used to run the Chilean economy were IBM 360s (or machines of that order).’

As he now concedes there was only one IBM 360/50 ‘which was quickly replaced with a Burroughs 3500 as Beer describes (page (265 1981)’ (page 264 second edition) Brain of the Firm)

My, admittedly poorly written, statement ‘nowhere near as modern as the gleaming IBM 360’, should have said ‘nowhere near as modern as the gleaming IBM 360 – AS SHOWN IN THE PICTURE.

My comment ‘I’m sure Stafford Beer would have loved to have had two such computers’ referred to the picture shown in the article.

Unfortunately I am unable to attach photographs to this reply but Stafford Beer’s computer room was nothing like the IBM photograph depicted.

Beer’s team did start out with ONE IBM 360/50 and indeed this was quickly replaced with ONE Burroughs 3500.

As for the statement “meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism†

And: “Beer himself who says he began to spend every spare minute hanging out with artists, poets and musicians.†

‘Hanging out?’ hardly Stafford Beer’s words surely? Perhaps we could have a reference?

I would contend that both of these statements have a deliberate inbuilt literary ‘sneer’ about them. What was this famous management scientist doing mixing with such riffraff?

Let’s look at what Beer actually says then; “The central figure among the musicians with whom I mixed and became friends was the famous folklorist Angel Parra.† (page 289 second edition Brain of the Firm).

No talk of “spending every spare minute ‘hanging out’ with artists poets and musicians† then.

No talk of “using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism†

Beer goes on to describe the writing of the song ‘Litany for a computer and a baby about to be born’

Stafford Beer had a very wide circle of friends from all walks of life. He did of course know many of the Chilean musicians and singers of the era. Chile had a hugely influential part to play in the music of South America. Such people as Victor Jara, Angel Parra and his mother Violeta were national heroes. Angel Parra survived the revolution, The guitarist Victor Jara was not so lucky for he was one of the 7000 people who were rounded up and held in the infamous stadium in Santiago. First they broke his fingers so he would never play the guitar again and two days later he was machine-gunned with the other faceless occupants of the stadium.

Today, that stadium is named after Victor Jara it is a fitting tribute to all those who died there.

My point is that these were immensely significant people. To me, such friendships indicate that Stafford Beer was not an ‘elitist’, ‘blinkered’, management scientist (as he is often portrayed in the popular media), but a well rounded, eminently sensible and exceedingly likeable human being with his feet firmly on the ground.

So Mr. Tabarrok doesn’t understand why I object so strongly to the assertion that ‘the goal of Cybersyn was to ‘control’ the economy’

He says “Project Cybersyn was about controlling or ‘managing’ if you like†¦†

Some definitions for you.

‘Control’:- ‘to limit or restrict somebody or something’

‘Manage’:- ‘to be in charge of something such as a shop, department, or project and be responsible for its smooth running and for any personnel employed’

Spot the difference Mr. Tabarrok?

So yes please, ‘manage’ I most emphatically do prefer.

Cybersyn was a tool that was put in place to help manage, (not control) the economy.

Ignorance of how it worked led to statements such as “Chile run by computer,† (The Observer Jan. 7, 1973)

You can use an axe to clear a forest. But the axe is not ‘in control’ of clearing the forest. You couldn’t do the job without it, and the axe couldn’t do it alone, but with the correct application of the axe, you can clear the forest.

Of course the axe could be used for other less benign applications. It could be used to break into a bank. This isn’t the fault of the axe. It is the fault of the person who uses it.

Cybersyn was a brilliantly conceived ‘tool’ put in place to help understand the complex management issues that people were identifying 1000 miles either side of Santiago. Stafford Beer’s remarkable design enabled everybody up and down the 2500 miles of Cybersyn to cooperate and work together to manage an extremely complex system in real time.

Some “‘totalitarian control’ system† then?

Cybersyn worked as intended. It was never intended or used as a method of ‘controlling’ people.

If you start with the premise that Cybersyn was a system for ‘controlling people’, it’s no wonder you come to the conclusion that it didn’t work.

Back to my axe analogy; if you describe the axe as a chainsaw, and point out that nobody had any fuel, and use this to demonstrate that the forest was never cleared, you lay yourself open to criticism of lacking understanding.

“The purpose of the system is what it does† said Stafford Beer

Once again I ask, exactly how could Cybersyn be used as a ‘repressive tool of government’? (Ref Alex Tabarrok)

When it comes to the copper industry I apologised for the necessity of simplifying an extremely difficult system model. I used copper as an easily understandable paradigm to demonstrate a system. Once more than, I apologise for the simplicity of my example.
The system description however is robust.

Of necessity, space is limited here, but there are many excellent books and articles written about Cybersyn that tell of how the system was installed and operated.

I’m delighted that Mr. Tabarrok agrees that ‘the projection system was top-notch for the time’. The information display systems designed and used by Stafford Beer in the control room in Santiago, are an apt demonstration of his ability to squeeze every last ‘drop of juice’ out of the technology available to him. He worked closely with Bob Simpson and Mike Ray at Electrosonic in London to produce what I would still consider to be a masterpiece of optical and electronic engineering.

Thank you Mr. Tabarrok for investigate the technology involved and correcting the record. I’m not being cynical, all the information I’ve given is on the public record and I appreciate Mr. Tabarrok’s reappraisal of the technology involved.

I am genuinely surprised and slightly confused by Mr. Tabarrok’s closing paragraphs. The whole tone of the original article was, to me at least, derogatory and disrespectful to Allende, Stafford Beer, the Chilean control room, Cybersyn and the memory of the men and women involved in that period of Chilean history.

To now see Beer now described as ‘a genius and a visionary’ by Mr. Tabarrok, somewhat confused me.

Did Stafford Beer ‘bite off more than he could chew’? We will never know. American foreign policy, ably assisted by Augusto Pinochet, successfully murdered most of the participants so how will we ever ‘know’ how things could have turned out?

All I know is that ill informed writings such as this article and Andy Beckett’s ‘Santiago Dreaming’ (Guardian 8th September 2003) do nothing to expose Stafford Beer’s work to critical review. On the contrary, they perpetuate the ongoing myths that the control room ‘didn’t exist’ and was just a ‘Star Trek inspired fantasy’.

A challenge then Mr.Tabarrok. As you suggest that Stafford Beer was a ‘genius and a visionary’, then perhaps you could write an ‘informed’ article putting the historical and technological record straight. As you are now aware, many of us would welcome some reality and truth be told about Stafford Beer and his work in Chile.

Your chance then Mr. Tabarrok to put the real ‘Stafford Beer’ into the public arena.

Perhaps I may suggest the following link. It is a lecture by an academic who has actually studied the subject.

http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/interactive/events/2009/02/medina

Vincent Henry.

Vincent Henry May 9, 2010 at 8:15 am

You raise a very interesting question.

After the coup, Fernando Flores spent three years as a ‘political prisoner’ under Pinochet. Subsequently, Amnesty International negotiated his release. (Beer was a member of Amnesty International and he worked tirelessly telephoning and writing letters to all and sundry to try and secure the release of all ‘his’ people and many of the other unfortunates)
Fernando Flores subsequently settled in California where, I believe, he understandably kept rather quiet about Chile and settled to his new career.

If we look at the facts, we can say beyond doubt that Stafford Beer and his team had implemented the operations room which was a fully operational facility.

There is much evidence in existence to say that Cybersyn, the network of 500 telex machines was operational.
(There are many accounts of how the telex network was used during the ‘strike’ in October 1972 to alleviate the problems.)

The software that ran on the single computer available to the team was called Cyberstride and the people who worked on this software have also written widely about it. So I believe we can say that this software was operational.

In conclusion therefore I think we can confidently say that the entire system was in place by the time Pinochet seized power.

Now we move into the realms of opinion. It appears to me that the first major stumbling block that Beer encountered was that contemporary computer scientists pointed out that it wouldn’t be possible to achieve the results that Stafford Beer was claiming without a great deal of ‘computing’ power, and, as he only had a very small computer available to him, he could not have achieved the results that he claimed of the system.

Let me try an analogy.

If you’re a scientist, working on transporting people between Europe and America in 1927 you know that it takes the fastest ship about eight days to travel from one continent to the other. Then you hear somebody called Lindbergh has travelled the 3,600 miles in just 33.5 hours. You know beyond any shadow of a doubt that no ship could possibly travel at that speed. You could give many good reasons why not. Water displacement, engine technology and the amount of fuel required to be carried would all preclude the possibility that this could have happened.

Therefore you can confidently state that it couldn’t possibly have happened.

Stafford Beer’s ability to utilise the available resources shows extraordinary flexibility and intellect.

By using people who worked with the information being collected, he was able to use their knowledge and abilities to ‘filter’ the information using a simple table of requirements.

This enabled the system to collate all the information that needed to be analysed. The computer then was free to use Cyberstride, a program that used ‘Recursive Bayesian Estimation’ to identify the unknown probability density functions over time, using incoming measurements and a mathematical process model.

In short, the computer kept repeatedly scanning the incoming information for anomalies, and then presented the anomalies to the operations room for due consideration.

Obviously, when you look at the size of Chile, setting up the human chain required to input the information into the telex system was quite an undertaking.

It is this aspect of Beer’s work that was not fully implemented at the time of the coup.

So whilst I can’t refute your “understanding that later references and descriptions of the project had been part of attempts to re-write the history of the UP government†, it would be my opinion that these references where contemporaneous with the known facts and stand up to close scrutiny.

What is more, I think that the exact opposite is true. It would be my contention that Stafford Beer’s work was so revolutionary (in management terms), that it is only just being understood today.

I don’t believe that this is a conspiracy. But I do believe that ignorance and a willingness not even to bother trying to understand, has left a background level of incredulity simply because it was such an amazing step forward.

The overwhelming academic response to Beer’s work is positive. His reputation today is probably bigger than it was when he died in 2002.

This doesn’t stop children like Jeremiah BC Axelrod and Greg Borenstein et al (Free as in Beer) having their somewhat infantile fun and propagating their silliness. Unfortunately, it’s this type of ill informed nonsense that gets promulgated and remembered. Presumably this was the source of Alex Tabarroks original article.

It is my opinion that Stafford Beer’s work is both valid and pertinent. Time alone will be his judge. (But it’s doing okay so far)

Vincent Henry

mbt July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm

thank you! I like this news, I also have information to share, here is my message.mnbm

rosetta stone spanish July 30, 2010 at 4:43 am

“Don’t talk to me about sordid links or flying puffins, I’m going anchovy fishing.”

fendi handbags August 9, 2010 at 10:33 pm

A Woman’s answer
A husband said to his wife, ” Why did God create women to be beautiful but foolish?” fendi handbags
“Well,” his wife answered at once.” The reason is very simple. God made us beautiful so

men would love us; God made us foolish so we would marry them.”

the north face jacket August 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

When a group of women got on the car, every seat was already occupied. The conductor noticed a man who seemed to be asleep, and fearing he might miss his stop, he nudged him and said: “Wake up, sir!” prada handbags

   ”I wasn’t asleep,” the man answered.
   ”Not asleep? But you had your eyes closed.”
   ”I know. I just hate to look at ladies standing up beside me in a crowded car.”
“You can’t imagine how difficult it is for me to deal with my wife,” the man complained to his friend. “She asks me a question, then answers it herself, and after that she explained to me for half an hour why my answer is wrong. the north face jacket

links of london jewellery September 24, 2010 at 3:33 am

for trams the minority groups say, well go down to the tempe bus museum and tram shed on the princes highway and

cybersyn web site October 21, 2010 at 7:26 am

I can share some information about this chapter of the chilean pacific revolution, visit http://www.cybersyn.cl & http://www.multinode-metagame.cl

Allenna Leonard November 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm

The contentions mentioned above especially those quoting Alelrod and Borenstein’s unsubstantiated allegations are far off the mark and displaygross ignorance of the situation.

For instance, the project was neither ‘dropped’ nor ‘destroyed’ by the Pinochet regime. Allende’s team knew they were under threat and built in a delete function to prevent the information being used against those who had worked to compile it.

Reliable information can be found in Beer’s 2nd edition of Brain of the Firm, in Enrique Rivera’s film and museum display and in the writings of people such as Raul Espejo and Herman Schwember who were there at the time.

Project Cybersyn was not publicized at the time because it was a work in progress and because much of the information was gathered and evaluated ‘under the hood’ rather than from a policy perspective. These ‘under the hood’ measures were close to the ones Beer had employed in the steel industry relating to standard criteria of productivity and management of resources. Such ideas and techniques are in use today in many companies. Do you believe in managing inventory through bar codes or is this another myth? This is the sort of thing that Project Cybersyn accomplished although with clever filtration and exception reporting rather than massive computer power.

The scorn heaped on anchovy fishing (and wine wasn’t mentioned) is likewise off base. These days, this is called ‘ developing export markets’ and ‘diversification’. In the years since, Chilean anchovies and wine have found markets although copper exports continue to be important. Note that the nationalization of the copper industry was a staged process that was completed under Allende – and that Pinochet did not change its status.

I’m afraid it will always be easy to distort events and twist them in aid of a political position or a reputation. But, it does a disservice – both to the people, including Beer, who put their minds to doing more with fewer resources and to organizations and countries that insist that their ways of doing and thinking are the only valid ones. They ignore the many opportunities to meet challenges and design sustainable and humanitarian solutions to their peril and our own.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: