Project Cybersyn – Stafford Beer’s Cybernetic Science Fictions


We’d like to take you today on a little trip
down south To Chile because it was there in 1971 amidst the turmoil and excitement of Salvador
Allende’s early days in office as the Americas first legitimately elected socialist head of government that several science fictional cold war technical
developments found their most poignant bizarre expression when Allende came to power by the narrowest
of electoral margins he quickly nationalised scores of companies especially the local branches of multinational
corporations but Chilean workers were even swifter as foreign technical managers began to leave
the country for fear there assets would be expropriated Chilean workers councils simply took over
the factories these councils represented shop floor democracy which fit Allende’s political program perfectly but they often had no idea how to actually
run the factories let alone how to manage the ebbs and flows
of supply and demand president Allende although a life long Marxist was well aware by 1970 of the failures of
soviet style economic planning where arbitrary dictats and grandiose five
year plans were running the economy right into the ground what was needed the Chilean government experts
felt was a comprehensive system of sophisticated
modern and decentralised socialist economic management so in July of 1971 Allende’s planning chief this man Fernando Flores sought to hire one
of the capitalist worlds foremost management experts a cybernetics
guru who had previously helped run the British
steel industry his name was Stafford Beer this was an auspicious choice Beer was profoundly sympathetic both to Allende’s
social ambitions and to the management problem the Chileans
were facing and it couldn’t have hurt that he looks a
bit like Castro as well Beers brand new monograph Brain of The Firm sought to cope with precisely the sort of
large scale administrative problems the Chileans were facing cybernetics which was invented by Norbert
Wiener at MIT during world war two is the study of communication, feedback and
control mechanisms in complex systems and what could be more complex then a nations
entire economy the opportunity seemed a godsend to Beer who immediately flew the fourteen hours from
England to Santiago with several manuscript copies of his new
book in hand Brain of the firm would turn into the Bible
of the Chilean economic management program and Beer himself would return back to Britain sometimes later looking more like Castro all
the time with the brand new title of Chile’s official
scientific director the plan that Beer and his Chilean colleges
devised was terrifically ambitious it was composed of four components which were
to be assembled at a break neck pace with the full financial and logistical support
of the government collectively the system was termed cybersyn or perhaps more accurately should be pronounced
cyber-sin as it stood for cybernetic synthesis in this case the Chileans themselves generally
called it synco the first component of cybersyn was the cybernet an electronic network that would tie most
of Chiles state run factories to the administration in Santiago although Beer wanted to construct this as
a digital computer network perhaps on the model of the United States
new arpanet the resources simply were not available to
do that so the engineers hacked together an ad hoc
system based on a set of abandoned telex machines with human intermediaries then taking the
data that was wired to Santiago and feeding it all into the second component Cyberstryde a program put together by a team of Beer’s
engineers in Britain the software would perform a complex electronic
simulation of the entire Chilean economy or rather a few abstracted elements of it and would run on the two quasi modern mainframes
the government had access to such as this type of IBM model 360 ideally this revolution in economic management would be mirrored by one in actual governance here Beer envisioned a program he called cyberfolk which would link the populace to national
leaders through a technical system akin to the focus
group dial sessions some pollsters use today prehaps most crucially his entire system would
be managed from a control room or operations room both on the factory level where these rooms would ideally be installed
for the workers committees to use and as in this impressive prototype the highest
governmental level indeed when he saw this mock up president Allende ordered that it be installed
directly within La Moneda the presidential palace we’d like to focus on that demonstration operations
room model not because it was the most important functional
component of cybersyn but precisely because it was not this room was the visible manifestation of
the entire cybersyn system and that we’d like to argue both enabled & eventually
doomed the entire grand experiment with the ops room Beer sought to embed Chile’s
leaders in a futuristic fantasy of control made real he achieved this by commingling signs of actual first
world technological culture with theatrical effects derived from science
fictional entertainment the design here was borrowed directly from
the future which is to say it was classically modern this is supposed to be an energising place a place of power and action the wood panelling and indirect lighting evokes the quiet and assured aesthetics of
access and privilege of the British private club while the displays and colour scheme connote
urgency and potency the ops room was an immersive diorama of information arranged to surround the operator with visual
cues this vivid simulation borrows techniques from
the eighteenth centry panorama and diorama to present a sense of
comprehensive perspective situated in an inverted panopticon subjects
sitting at the centre of these screens would be presented with a three hundred and
sixty degree view out into the Chilean economy providing them with the illusion of occupying
an omniscopic perspective from which the market places and factories
beyond La Moneda’s walls were rendered not only visible but legible and this commanding viewpoint emphasised visual
rhetorics of control where knowledge and power were subtly merged and the distinction between command of facts
& command of resources including human resources was effectively
elided when seated there Chile’s leaders found themselves surrounded by glowing screens containing graphically
abstracted summaries of diverse economic metrics the displays convey an impression of having
infinite data at ones fingertips to achieve legibility of the mass of economic
data collected by cybernet cybersyn’s designers drew heavily on the modern
design tradition that began with the German bauhaus and stretched through the iconic New York
subway maps of Massimo Vignelli with which they are precisely contemporaneous this style shown here in one of the ops room
display slides emphase simplicity and reduction bold primary colours clean geometric shapes sans-serif typefaces and grid based layouts its purpose was to free the reader from unnecessary
detail to clarify and abstract translating the real
world into a functional operational schematic that
empowered him to take action the ops room flow charts and many of Beer’s
accompanying design diagrams extend this functional rhetoric by appropriating
actual scientific and engineering symbols such as this zig zag sqiggle the electronic
symbol for resistor and this triangle similar to the electronic
symbol for an operational amplifier further Beer attempts a complex metaphorical
mapping between his own cybernetic ideas and the technical
meanings of these symbols using the symbol for resistor to stand for
his concept of a variety attenuator and the symbol for an op amp for a variety
amplifier note here that Beer uses the word variety
to refer to human autonomy and agency which is being technically regulated occurring within a project that also incorporated copious technical specifications including
actual circuit diagrams such as this one here this visual style served to extend the aura
of authority that emanated from the futuristic technological
aspects of the project to cover its ideological aspects
well even the furniture of the room worked to further
the fantasy Beer modelled the design of the ops room chairs on Finish designer Eero Saarinen’s legendary
tulip chair like other modernist furniture designers Saarinen took advantage of new fangled materials such as fibre glass to create continuous organic
curves and impenetrable shiny surface textures if the tulip chair looks familiar to you its
probably because its the very chair used in another more famous
fantastical control room the bridge of the star ship Enterprise since Star Trek aired in Britain two years
previous these chairs had already acquired a patina
of science fictional futurity more specifically these are the chairs that any self respecting
crew of technological utopians would want to sit in while they navigate the
dangers of Romulans or Christian Democrats Beer modified the tulip chair to include wide
rectangular arm rests with streamlined integrated controls just
like the enterprises captains chair in the ops room each member of the Chilean
governmental elite would live out their own fantasy of being
captain Kirk all these visual touches and physical designs create an impression of modernity and futurism an illusion of assured sophisticated almost
causal control and what could Chile’s leaders desire more
as a third world country cloistered behind an Andean wall from ostentatiously
sophisticated and modern neighbours Argentina and Brazil this visual rhetoric of ultra modernism must
have been tantalising and for a government struggling with the chaos
of economic and social turmoil the promise of panoramic knowledge and direct
control must have also have seemed utterly irresistible but lets look a bit more closely at the actual
technical functions of that ops room Beer made clear in his descriptions to his
clients that this was to be a control room where the rubber of cybersyn hits the road this operations room has to be driven and the people in it are the drivers yet there is no button or control surface
here that actually directly controls anything nowhere in the room is there any provision
for outputs from the ops room only informational inputs even those chair controls so reminiscent to
us today of a video game pad are really just the remote for the various
information displays none of those big buttons actually sends a
signal outside the ops room complex they only call up images on the screens as
shown here now of course presumably one could leave the
inner sanctum and find a telephone somewhere and give orders
verbally even in the traditional office there is one
of those on the desk but there is no desk here no papers to be
signed only lounge chairs with ash trays cup holders
and those over sized buttons for calling up information on to the projection
screens this is a room functionally designed for omniscience not omnipotence for all of its sci-fi trappings its a library
console not a launcher of photon torpedoes the ops room is really a stage set a model
of modernity not an actual control centre at all everything
about it is an illusion a potemkin village cybersyn is the emerald city and the ops room is the curtain that conceals
the wizard of Oz but why was this illusory physical embodiment
of power so important the answer to this question lies deep in Stafford
Beer’s cybernetic theory in Brain of the Firm Beer explains his theory
of how every organisation is a hierarchy of five
managerial functions he illustrates this hierarchy in diagrams
such as this one which indicates the functions of each level
in schematic terms once more much of the authority here lies
in the very visual rhetoric of illustration as with the ops rooms displays Beer appropriates scientific and technical
symbols to imbue his representations with an aura
of intrinsic authority but as the title of his book makes clear let
alone these images from it Beer also appropriated organic metaphorics
to legitimise his theories Beer claimed to have derived his five level
hierarchy from the organisation of the human central
nervous system it was this organic metaphor which originally
according to Beer attracted Dr Allende who had been a pathologist
before entering politics and this is one of the primary reasons the
ops room was so important to Allende’s government despite the actual lack of executive function it was the physical manifestation of large
cerebral diffuse processes and abstract concepts it vividly promised but was actually never
designed to deliver a discrete localised site of operational control
in an economic and technical system which was specifically designed to minimise
such satisfying top down hierarchies the stage set of embodied omnipotence is ancient
political theory as illustrated here famously in Thomas Hobbs
1651 classic Leviathan the ops room provided a simple location for visualising an illusion of encapsulated
governance and that illusion was crucial to the bureaucratic
and political success which enabled cybersyn’s very existence but there is also a mirage of autonomy and
human potency operating at a deeper level throughout the entire cybernetic theory expounded
by Stafford Beer indeed more is going on in these organic metaphors then just a mapping of the corporation on to an abstraction of the human brain stem technical systems here intrinsically incorporate
human components like the faceless teams who collate and manually
enter that cybernet telex data into the cyberstride computers so those ops room displays could be animated
so impressively indeed those very displays are not even computer
screens there only supposed to look that way in fact there slide projections orchestrated by an invisible army of human
helpers who behind the scenes of the ops room laboriously produced the slides and slot them
into old fashioned Kodak carousels the technical artifice in other words is partly even largely composed of living breathing
servomechanisms to actuate its futuristic displays of cybernetic
organic modernity and to actualise the powerful illusion of
omnipotence visualised there and again on a deep level this hybridity of
human and machine is intrinsic to cybernetics itself the science of managing complex institutions
and human organisations as if they were in fact black box instrumental
apparatuses in essence then despite his adamant insistence that he was constructing tools to augment
not interpolate human capacities Beer’s cybernetics is a vision of the cyborg the cybernetic organism which represents the
merger of human and technical elements and in this particular cyborg vision chillingly the hierarchies of control are
reversed the humans labour to augment the capacities
of the machines natural intelligence is subsumed or simply
obscured my mechanical screens this is a dark version of the wizard of Oz
indeed yet without the actual possibility of control what does it matter that the ops room was
constructed upon these metaphorics of ominous cyborg embodiment in early 1973 news of cybersyn which had up until this point been kept as
a great secret leaked to the international and domestic press as both were generally quite hostile to Allende’s
project already news of the scheme to incorporate the nation
into a massive cybernetic control system did not go over very well at all indeed in a sense cybersyn fell victim to
the very mythologies of power and omniscience that it had itself
deliberately inculcated through its futuristic design that illusion of possessive embodied power had proved instrumental in getting the Allende
administration to commit to the risky and fabulously expensive
program and it had worked what national leader would not be attracted
to such a perfect psychical representation of managerial omnipotence but now the rhetoric of cybernetic control
looked like a serious liability Beer’s response in this hand written speech
he prepared for Allende to give in defence of the cybersyn project in January of nineteen seventy three was to insist on the benign nature of the
operations room it is not science fiction he insisted it is not the machine that uses us yet despite these affirmations fear of technocracy dominated responses to the programs unveiling as Beer himself later recounted to the historian
Eden Medina shortly before his died the sort of headlines I was getting was Beer
directs Chile from computer that’s absolutely rubbish that’s
not what I was doing yet as the Chilean right wing magazine Que
Pasa declaimed in September of 1973 less then a week before
the coup cyberstride’s biggest problem however is that
it puts a terrible weapon of control in the hands of the popular
unity that could influence the private life of Chilean
citizens by cybernetic means here was the awful paradoxical product of
cybersyn’s illusions of omnipotence Beer could not very well insist in his defence
that the Chilean government had wasted massive
amounts of precious resources on a system that was in
a word impotent indeed even at this stage the actual state
of the ambitious system was not exactly impressive cybernet was an assemblage of old telex machines cyberstride was really only an extremely simplified economic modelling suite cyberfolk never attracted much enthusiasm
beyond Beer himself and the vaunted ops room was in actuality
just a mock up it wasn’t even plugged in it couldn’t even display real economic statistical
data let alone micromanage the nations economy this all heightens the irony that by the spring of nineteen seventy three Beer was forced into hiding to avoid rumours that this foreigner was secretly delivering
the technology of totalitarian control to the Chilean government Beer was reduced to holing up in an isolated beach front cottage an hour away from Santiago where government ministers occasionally discretely
drove out to consult with him as a result though he was far more fortunate
then many of his Chilean colleagues when the coup
came on September the eleventh nineteen seventy
three unlike president Allende Stafford Beer was
able to flee the country safely while CIA backed military officers
stormed the seat of government at La Moneda in one of its first acts under marshal law the ruling junta destroyed the prototype ops
room and disconnected the cybernet was it that the generals were making a populist
gesture to dismantle the supposed technologies of
control or rather was it that having eagerly examined the supposed technology of governmental totalitarian
omnipotence they discovered that cybersyn was at essence merely a system for coordinating economic
statistics and therefore destroyed it as worthless disappointed to discover the truth behind
the powerful illusions they may have simply felt that the entire
system should be disappeared so many others would share cybersyn’s fate in the dark years to come

29 thoughts on “Project Cybersyn – Stafford Beer’s Cybernetic Science Fictions

  • This reminds me a hollywood movie. ( I'm talking about this video, not Cybersyn ).

    To avoid misinformation, is better to check more sources.

  • I was incensed by the tone of this video. Beer was well aware of the limitations he was working under. Especially that the Chilean was under an economic blockade by the US government externally and internally by allegedly CIA backed guerilla forces of the middle classes. The author of the video appears to be a supporter of the coupe and by extension, Pinochet. Has the author of the video read "Designing Freedom" or the Appendix of the second edition of "Brain of the Firm"?

  • I also don't like the tone of this video. More than anything, the coup happened because Cybersyn demonstrated that a cybernetic government actually could work.

  • What makes you think that? Apart from the 'tone' the what content do you disagree with? It is hard to take any lesson away other then their ambition far outstripped their actual capabilities & that without the hype cybersyn does not seem extraordinary at all.

  • "The author of the video appears to be a supporter of the coup and by extension, Pinochet" That seems to be unsupported libel. The world is not always a dichotomy of good vs evil where if one side is evil the other must be good. Making critical comments about about one side does not imply support of the other. Borenstein's concluding paragraph sums up Allande vs Pinochet as a case of naive vs evil, with no comment on which was preferable at the time.

  • My understanding of cybersyn and cyberstryde is that the ops room would be able to produce "A five year projection of different economic policies on a quantified flowchart on a screen. This would be televised so that the populace could vote on which policy they preferred. And the politicians could also see how the populace felt about different policies. This could well mean "totalitarian control" but in this case control by the entire population.By the way, have you read the books I referred to?

  • I can't help but think you let your emotions get ahead of your comprehension. The preceding word before "totalitarian control" was "supposed" & the whole phrase referred to the sensationalised media reports on cybersyn. Implying just after that Pinochet might have been interested in using such a reputed powerful tool for control. Borenstein apart from the negative digs at Pinochet does not pass moral judgement on the values of the people involved.

  • Axelrod and Borenstein's paper is a fine yet sad example of scholars in the humanities writing about stuff they understand little about. The project was not designed for planning an entire economy like the soviets did, but as a management system to coordinate the state-owned sector in (more or less) real-time, something that many big vertically integrated corporations do nowadays.
    Those guys could use some humility, and actually do their research before judging the project so superficially.

  • Re: "The author of the video appears to be a supporter of the coupe and by extension, Pinochet."

    … whose time in power I believe was described in the video as something like "the following darkness."

    But I look forward to your much, much better video on the subject. Or being directed to one.

  • It is full of factual nonsense. Beer was never involved in running the British steel industry – he worked with United Steel in the 1950s. The UK steel industry was not nationalised until 1967. The video shows Brain of the Firm Second edition, which was not written then, as it had an entire section about his Chile experiences. Multiple mentions of 'Beer's beard looking like Castro'?!. Stafford was anything but naive. Cybersyn inspired companies in the nascent EIS arena like Metapraxis.

  • Hah, complete nonsense the video author. Who are you accusing of technocracy, cybersyn when you ahve your own NSA and the govt that hunted down Allende in and call it governmental totalitarian opnipotence, when you send your drones, and NSA and rage cyber warfare with rest of the world who are not even in your soil with your foreign policy. wHAT A HYPOCRITE! and btw read Stafford Beer and get off your science fiction high horse, so you know what youre talking about.

  • This seems like an overly harsh assessment of a system that clearly was only partially set up by the time of its destruction. If anything it was ahead of its time and killed by the ignorance of the day.

  • http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Киберсин – Киберсин (англ. Cybersyn) — проект централизованного компьютерного управления плановой экономикой, реализуемый в Чили при президенте Сальвадоре Альенде в 1970—1973 годах. Проект осуществлялся под руководством британского теоретика исследования операций Стаффорда Бира.

  • If it worked back then, imagine what we could do now with our current technology. 10 years ago I worked for a big camera company in their warehouse. They had a software program from SAP and they knew exactly where everything was, even when it was on transit on a cart. The system was almost 100% effective. So can systems be made for the economy? They are already here!

  • I don't understand the intent of this video. It seems to try to present a negative image, but I don't see the negative parts. Cybersyn seems to have been awesome!

  • I came here for the room, it looks pretty awesome, it's nice that you had a pretty good coverage of it, but you understand nothing of cybernetics and most of the information in this video is factually wrong or misunderstood.

    For example, do you really think that the Chilean government had no idea what the system's actual capabilities were? Do you think Beer lied to them about this and just sold them expensive furniture? You don't even understand the project's purpose, but just keep talking about omnipotence and omniscience, which I'm pretty sure are not in the project's specifications. Complete rubbish.

  • Do you know OpsRoom design was led by the German immigrant Gui Bonsiepe and coordinated by the chilean Jorge Barrientos? Stafford Beer never designed the aesthetics of the OpsRoom, he just planned the way it worked and stated the requirements he thought relevant. This information was publicly available from CyberSyn website since 2007 -before . This "documentary" mixes lies and truth on purpose. Take a look at CybersynDOTcl if you don't believe me.

  • Please, please! We should take Mr. Borenstein seriously. Keep in mind that he co- wrote ''Godzilla: Awakening-The official graphic novel prequel to the 2014 Godzilla feature film''. Uhhh…..

  • This video betrays handicapped understanding in its historical presentation of Cybersyn. It tries to present Cybersyn as a dark, seductive technology centred on human exploitation and control and yet fails to include any reference Western hegemonic intervention by the CIA to overthrow the Allende government. Its presentation of general cybernetic ideas also signal unsophisticated understanding. Firstly, it creates an association between Beer's understanding of cybernetics, science fiction, and futurism. These latter two words are "dirty" in the sense that they can connote meanings of creative airy-fairness and lack of scientific rigour. Second, I do not believe anyone with appropriate understanding of the ideas of cybernetics would agree that it is a discipline pregnant with ideas of omnipotence and omniscience, except perhaps for Soviet versions of cybernetics. Lastly I think the entire thrust of the general analysis has a rather mundane, cultural theory sloppiness to it. It sounds rather like the dilettante wanderings of a stoned, pseudo-intellectual college English student projecting his lack of understanding onto the very ideas he claims to know enough about to produce a video on. On the basis of the video alone, I wouldn't bother reading the paper it references. Hopefully, with enough time, it will be relegated to the garbage bin that is the entire history of forgotten impoverished ideas conceived by lesser minds.

  • Allende couldn't get away safely? Allende chose to stay inside the Moneda because it's been presidentail tradition that at times of struggle one must not leave the government house, as this is an act of cowardice, leaving the Chilean people while the government gets away. Pinochet on the other had, had a helicopter ready to leave at any time if he failed. Also, do some research on what a planned economy is, that's basic knowledge when you're doing this kind of video, and one of the main points in favor of Project Cybersyn, some might say it's the entire point of the project, yet it seems you have no knowledge of this.

  • so wrong… like US propaganda trying to push down this phantastic experiment for a new world — not only in Chile.

  • Really bad info in this mockumentary. Check out the actual implementation and success which is not mentioned at all. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn

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