Project Cybersyn

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Technocracy in action.

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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 with it.  

Stafford Beers

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 business communications.

  • 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 automatically.

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 be Beers's 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.

How 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 impressive.

The only problem was that it was all stagecraft.  Those computer screens weren't computer screens and those graphics weren't computer generated.  In fact, there was nothing digital about any of the setup.  None of it had any more functionality than the control panels from 2001:a Space Odyssey.  The screens were slide projectors.  The graphics were hand-drawn and set up by a small army of workers.  In fact, the entire process from gathering data at the factories to displaying the results in the control room was mind-bogglingly labour intensive. 

Worse, the control room didn't control anything.  The buttons on the Star Trek chairs only operated the slide projectors.  There wasn't a telex, a recorder,  an ordinary phone or even a writing desk to give orders from.  Information went in, but nothing came out.  It was Technocracy in action with a vengeance, but with no action.

In many ways, Cybersyn's control  room harkened back to the exhibits of the 1964 New York World's Fair with its displays decked out to look like control panels that only needed to have the gubbins stuck in to make the future arrive.  That's amusing at a world's fair or a museum, but for running a national economy it left a lot to be desired. 

Some supporters of Chile's flirtation with Communism are quick to point out that the control room was never meant to control anything; that it was a place to look at information and find solutions.  That, however, is the point.  It's very concept made it an absurdity; a control room where information is gathered and presented at a great waste of manpower, but has no means of using that information.  A plain table with a stack of file folders and a telephone would have been more productive.

Mind you, Cybersyn, did have its sole success when in October 1972 a worker's strike broke out and 50,000 lorry drivers blocked the streets of Santiago.  Cybersyn was able to contact 200 loyal lorry drivers and goods still managed to get through the picket lines.  Aside from the fact that this may have had more to do with the Telex machines than Cybersyn, it's ironic that a Marxist government's biggest success was in breaking a strike.

In 1973, the Marxists in Chile were overthrown by General Pinochet's military coup and Allende had the good luck for a Marxist leader of dying before he caused too much damage and thus sealing his reputation in certain quarters as a martyr; though whether this was suicide, at the hands of the army, or by his KGB and Cuban  minders is still a matter of debate.  Beers returned to Britain and Cybersyn fell into the hands of the Pinochet government.  Leftist legend has it that the "Socialist internet," decades ahead of its time, was "destroyed" by the military because it was "too egalitarian" or because they didn't understand it.  You can usually hear "Fernando" playing in the background at this point.

In truth, they probably took a close look at it and decided that it's greatest value was as scrap.

 

Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science Fictions .

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