Project Cybersyn | “At last, el pueblo”

While talking about cybernetics it comes to our mind future scenarios where Artificial Intelligence or bioengineering are part of our daily lives.

Even this discipline was fully developed at the second half of the last century, we can find amazing facts in the short history of cybernetics. That is why we were surprised that one of the first attempts [if not the first one] of applying cybernetics in the regulation of the social property of a country, occurred in the early 70’s at Chile almost at the same time when this discipline was maturing… and that even people at MIT [a place of origin of cybernetic thinking] haven’t heard about it.

It was due to the PhD research carried out by Eden Medina that this amazing chapter of cybernetic history has come to the surface. We found it through her contribution to Situation Room a project developed by Pablo de Soto and hackitectura.

The story goes like this:

In November 1970 Dr Salvador Allende became President of the Republic of Chile. In November 1971 the British cybernetician Anthony Stafford Beer met the President in Santiago; after some exchange of letters, a meeting in London and some previous work. The project they were discussing was Project Cybersyn, a Chilean attempt at real-time computer-controlled planned economy in the years 1970–1973 [during the government of president Salvador Allende]. The project is described as an network of telex machines that linked factories with a single computer centre in Santiago, which controlled them using principles of cybernetics. Kazys Varnelis describe it with these words:

Through Project Cybersyn, Beer hoped to implant an electronic “nervous system” into Chilean society. The country would be linked together via a vast communications network to create what the Guardian calls a “socialist Internet.”

The project contemplated the transmission of information in real time to support the management of the country’s industrial economy. At its core was an Operations Room constantly receiving information and transmitting decisions. A network of about 500 telex machines linking the country from north to south supported all this.

Photo from IBM Chile

The Cybersyn Operations room was a prototype – it was not fully functional, nor was it used. However, components of the Cybersyn system helped the government, especially during the truck drivers strike (Paro de Octubre) that took place in October 1972, according to Eden Medina.

According to the research project CYBERSYN, Cybernetic Synergy, internationally, the country was viewed with curiosity and mistrust, and in terms of internal affairs, different political groups wasted no time in planning a strategy to produce the debacle of the Socialist government, joining forces with the powers governing in the US, ending in the military coup of 1973, organised by a military junta headed by President Allende’s trusted member in the armed forces, Commander in Chief Augusto Pinochet. The socialist economy proposed by the Allende government was replaced by Milton Friedman’s neoliberalistic experiment [through a group of Chilean economists who travelled to Chicago, with the mission to apply this scheme in Chile].

In the book Situation Room, Medina wrote this anecdote:

Allende, having trained previously as a pathologist, immediately grasped the biological inspiration behind Beer’s cybernetic model and knowingly nodded throughout the explanation. This reaction left quite an impression on the cybernetician. “I explained the whole damned plan and the whole viable system model in one single sitting… I’ve never worked with anybody at the high level who understood a thing I was saying.” Once Allende gained a familiarity with the mechanics of Beer’s model, he began to reinforce the political aspects of the project and insisted that the system behave in a “decentralizing, worker-participative, and antibureaucratic manner”. When Beer finally reached the top level of his systematic hierarchy, the place in the model Beer had reserved for Allende himself, the president leaned back in his chair and said, “At last, el pueblo.”

We want to highlight the construction of an unorthodox system like this especially in those years and in that context, and how the socialist ideology of the Allende government was reflected. The system was designed as a form of decentralized control that was congruent with the ideas of democratic socialism that characterized the Popular Unity government and at the same time, it gave the government a technological means to increase worker participation in national production processes.

El Sueño Cibernético de Allende. Source

The software designed for the Cybersyn project was called Cyberstryde. Its function was to process incoming information from the companies and turn it into predefined variables. Information was transmitted and received by Telex machines and processed by an IBM 360 computer. The objective was to send incoming information from companies to the operations room in an easily understood format.

In his lifetime Stafford Beer used cybernetics as his basis for understanding subjects as diverse as ecology, development, socialism, management science, terrorism, and even tantric yoga. In his book “The Brain and the Firm”, Beer had identified and explained the need to build an operations room, which would be the place that would receive and store the information sent by the companies and would be available for making decisions. As described at the CYBERSYN, Cybernetic Synergy web-site, the room was hexagonal, an organic shape that permitted the correct layout of the elements. It had 7 swivel chairs, built in Linares, a screen called Futuro, a VSM (Viable Systems Module) graph, exception reports in real time and a Data Feed. The right hand arm of the chair had an interactive control device, which had a set of buttons (geometric objects), the combination of which activated projection orders on the screen according to the requirements of the users, thus optimising internal and external communications.

The Cybersyn Operation Room, revisited at CYBERSYN, Cybernetic Synergy

The project Cybersyn was supported by IBM 360 Computer [room view]. Source the Computer Museum

The fast expansion of Internet has intensified a series of technological, methodological and social problems, as Leonid Ototsky has pointed, and the problem of increasing the complexity of “artifacts” in different areas of human activities is becoming more significant. Their complexity, their actual capabilities and development, is surpassing the scope envisaged by their creators. But as Beer once said, this complexity deals with a very large subject: how the science of effective organization, which we call cybernetics, joins hands with the pursuit of elective freedom, which we call politics.

What a new – and what a vital issue those words betoken.

Recommended and related readings:
– Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science Fictions at vimeo [VIDEO]
– Situation Room, edited by Pablo de Soto and Hackitectura. Complete preview, here
– The CYBERSYN, Cybernetic Synergy project
– FANFARE for EFFECTIVE FREEDOM by Stafford Beer. PDF here


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