For some people, the
future can't come fast enough. Unfortunately, a lesson we must
learn over and over again is that no matter what we do, it still comes
at us one second at a time.
In 1971, Chile under
then-President Salvador Allende was in trouble. Within less than a
year of narrowly winning election with 36.2 percent of the vote in a
three-way race, the fledgling government's policy of pushing
Chile sharply to the Left had put the Marxist state in the sort of shape
that one only sees in, well, Marxist states. Mines and
factories sat idle, goods weren't moving, food shortages were frequent,
and despite constant cries of CIA sabotage, the entire country was in
danger of collapsing and taking Allende's dreams of proletarian revolution
In an effort salvage the
situation, Allende's 28-year old finance and economic minister
Fernando Flores bet everything on an incredible
gamble that promised to hurl Chile into the 21st century. If the
theories of Marx couldn't bring forth the worker's state, perhaps
technology could. To achieve this, he hired pioneer cyberneticist
and university drop-out Stafford Beers at $500 a day (a large sum
in the '70s) to change Chile into the world's first cybernetic nation.
With the help of
colleagues back in Britain and enthusiastic assistants he trained in
Chile, Beers came up with what has become known as Project Cybersyn;
short for Cybernetic Synergy.
The idea was incredibly ambitious.
What Beers envisioned was nothing less than the ultimate in command and
control economy with the centre of power linked to the factories,
distribution centres, and so on by a vast network of computers that
could continually monitor information about the economy, analyse it, and
in real time provide the government with the correct solutions.
Thanks to cybernetics, workers and the ruling party would be connected
as one and would work as one.
When completed, Cybersyn would
consist of three major elements:
Cybernet: Something like the Internet to allow for government and
Cyberstride: Programmes to monitor individual industries and the economy
and to provide alerts for trouble.
Chaco: A computer simulation of the Chilean economy.
With the clock ticking, Beers had
only a short time and limited budget to build Cybersyn. When it
was finally up and running, Beers and his assistants were terribly
excited by what they were doing and Allende was certain that Cybersyn
would give Chile and the entire Communist block a great PR Victory.
With Beers at the helm, Chile would have a state-of-the-art system that would
predict and debug the economy smoothly, efficiently and virtually
In theory, it looked incredible; a
combination of Hugo Gernsback and Star Trek, but in practice it was
unimpressive. Stripped of its stagecraft and cybernetic glosses,
Cybersyn was merely a way of gathering a few simple economic statistics
and subjecting them to very basic analysis using extremely inefficient
methods that wasted time, money and manpower. Allende would
have been better off hiring an economist, a couple of statisticians and
a clerical staff to process production reports.
The Cybernet did not become a vast
array of computers. That wouldn't even be remotely possible until
the Internet was up and running twenty years later. It also didn't
help that Chile didn't even run to computers. It was more like
"computer". All Beers had to work with in the beginning was an aging
IBM 360/50 mainframe
in Santiago with
the memory power of an old 21st century mobile phone. This didn't
even have a network of automatic sensors to gather information.
Instead, the government found 500 second-hand Telex machines that
factory managers used to manually transmit information, which would then
be entered into the computer by hand.
The next unfortunate thing was
that Chaco looked more impressive on paper than it did in real life. Far from
providing an omniscient view of the Chilean economy, Chaco was nothing more than a very simple economic modelling programme that an
iPhone app would run rings around.
As for Cyberstride, that proved to
pipe dream based on his theories of
cybernetics and living organisms that never went anywhere in Cybersyn.
Things got even worse for Cybersyn.
The problem of data lag was never considered.
That is, an economy moves much faster than its
possible to gather information and analyse it. It's like trying to
hit a moving target that's constantly changing shape and size.
Even if Beers had been
able to get all the information he needed, by the time it was gathered
the economy would have changed before his system ever had a chance to analyse it.
It's a lesson that every economist learns and even today the idea of an
entire nation run by computer is ludicrous.
far the dream of Cybersyn exceeded the Chilean Marxists' grasp was
embodied in the
control room seen at the top of this page and at the left. Here, the entire
economy would be controlled by seven men sitting in Star Trek chairs
staring at futuristic computer screens as they made profound decisions.
With it's flashing lights, graphic displays, and big control buttons, it
looked like the epicentre of a Technocratic revolution. It was