“During the early 70s, a rather remarkable experiment took place. Chile was in revolutionary ferment. In the capital Santiago, the beleaguered but radical marxist government of Salvador Allende, hungry for innovations of all kinds, was employing Stafford Beer to conduct a technological experiment known as Project Cybersyn, and nothing like it had been tried before, or has been tried since. Stafford Beer attempted, in his words, to “implant” an electronic “nervous system” in Chilean society. Voters, workplaces and the government were to be linked together by a new, interactive national communications network, which would transform their relationship into something profoundly more equal and responsive than before – a sort of socialist internet, decades ahead of its time.
As in many areas, the Allende government wanted to do things differently from traditional marxist regimes. “I was very much against the Soviet model of centralisation,” says Raul Espejo. Until then, obtaining and processing such valuable information – even in richer, more stable countries – had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o’clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious supercomputer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace. Allende had once been a doctor and, Beer felt, instinctively understood his notions about the biological characteristics of networks and institutions. Just as significantly, the two men 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 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 and collective achievement that had always been the political holy grail for many leftwing thinkers.
In October 1972, Allende faced his biggest crisis so far. Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. 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. The control rooms in Santiago were staffed day and night. People slept in them – even government ministers. The strike failed to bring down Allende. On September 10, a room was measured in La Moneda for the installation of an updated Cybersyn control centre, complete with futuristic control panels in the arms of chairs and walls of winking screens. The next day, the palace was bombed by the coup’s plotters. Beer was in London, lobbying for the Chilean government, when he left his final meeting before intending to fly back to Santiago and saw a newspaper billboard that read, “Allende assassinated.” The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and called in Espejo and others to explain it to them. But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it.”
Viable System Model
“Stafford is considered the ‘Father of Management Cybernetics” and at the heart of Stafford’s genius is the “Viable System Model” (VSM). Eden explains that “Cybersyn’s design cannot be understood without a basic grasp of this model, which played a pivotal role in merging the politics of the Allende government with the design of this technological system. They settled on an existing telex network previously used to track satellites. Like the Internet of today, this early network of machines was driven by the idea of creating a high-speed web of information exchange. Stafford had hoped to install “algedonic meters” or early warning public opinion meters in “a representative sample of Chilean homes that would allow Chilean citizens to transmit their pleasure or displeasure with televised political speeches to the government or television studio in real time.” [Stafford] dubbed this undertaking ‘ The People’s Project ’ and ‘ Project Cyberfolk ’ because he believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.”
from Fanfare for Effective Freedom, by Stafford Beer
“I am a scientist, but to be a technocrat would put me out of business as a man. I believe that cybernetics can do the job better than bureaucracy – and more humanely too. What is cybernetics that government should need it? It is, as I should prefer to define it today, “the science of effective organisation”. This is not to argue that all complex systems are really the same, nor yet that they are all in some way “analogous”. It is to argue that there are fundamental rules which, disobeyed, lead to instability, or to explosion, or to a failure to learn, adapt and evolve, in any complex system. And those pathological states do indeed belong to all complex systems – whatever their fabric, whatever their content – not by analogy, but as a matter of fact. Homeostasis is the tendency of a complex system to run towards an equilibrial state. This happens because the many parts of the complex system absorb each other’s capacity to disrupt the whole. If the system is to remain viable, if it is not to die, then we need the extra concept of an equilibrium that is not fixed, but on the move. Revolutions, violent or not, do blow societies apart – because they deliberately take the inherited system outside its physiological limits. The cybernetician will expect the politician to adopt one of two basic postures in the face of these systemic troubles. The first is to ignore the cybernetic facts and to pretend that the oscillations are due to some kind of wickedness which can be stamped out. The second is to undertake some kind of revolution, violent or not, to redesign the faulty instruments of government. It seems very clear to me as a matter of management science that if in these typical circumstances you do not like violence, then you should quickly embark on a pacific revolution in government. If you do not, then violence you will certainly get. Outstandingly it was Chile that embarked on this recommended course of pacific revolution. But in the wider world system, Chile’s experiment was observed as an oscillation to be stamped out.”