Celestial Weasel (celestialweasel) wrote,
Celestial Weasel

9/11 (73)


When the short-lived Allende government was elected to power in Chile and needed a means of balancing the unfortunate country's precarious economy, Allende appealed to the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer.
Who announced that as few as ten significant quantities, reported from a handful of key locations where adequate communications facilities existed, would enable the state of the economy to be reviewed and adjusted on a day-to-day basis.
Judging by what happened subsequently, his claim infuriated nearly as many people as did the news that there are only four elements in the human genetic code."

(The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner - towards the end - p234 in my edition)

So, what to say about Beer and Cybersyn? This falls squarely into the 'there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of in your philosophy, Mr. Stephenson' category. Another book I don't have the time or talent to write. Also, clearly there is a novel to be written based on the premise that the 1973 coup really was because of the threat to America from state central planning being shown to work so well.

Of course, back in the 70s we didn't view it as axiomatic that the Market was the best way of allocating resources, and the Operational Research community did dream of doing it all with a suitable mathematical model and a good way of solving mixed integer equations.

Beer's paper on Cybersyn can be found here http://lispmeister.com/downloads/FanfareforEffectiveFreedom.pdf, but probably the best article is the first link on this page
http://informatics.indiana.edu/edenm/publications/publications.html (the author was kind enough to send me a PDF of the paper before it came out). The paper contains a black and white photo of the Star Trek style 'ops room', which can be found in colour here http://varnelis.net/blog/kazys/project_cybersyn, although I am not 100% convinced of the accuracy of the account on that page.

It has to be said that Beer was obviously a rather strange character, and comparison of his paper on Cybersyn with other accounts suggests that he had a perhaps slightly complex relationship with the truth. Or, to be more charitable, it could be said that in his paper he uses what is known as the 'optimistic present tense', a grammatical form that the computer industry has made its own. It does, however, appear that the communication network and software were used, and did help the Chilean economy, particularly during a strike of lorry drivers, which another book I have read claims was bankrolled by the CIA.

Beer tends to use his own bizarre jargon. It doesn't help, for example, that he uses the word 'recursion' to mean something rather different from the way everyone else uses it. As far as I can tell (having read as much of the two books of his that I own as I have been able to bring myself to) he means 'feedback mechanism'.

The following quote from Eden Medina's paper gives a flavour of the strangeness of Beer and the whole endeavour: "At Beer's request,the famous Chilean folksinger Angel Parra composed an original song entitled Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born for use on the factory oor. The baby in the title refers to the rebirth of Chilean people through socialist transformation.The chorus of the song similarly conveyed the political intentions of the project
"We must stop those who do not want the people to win this fight
We must bring together all of science
Before we run out of patience".

Beer was, however, clearly not just a crank. He was president of the O.R. society at one point, and the fact that Wiley published Platform For Change, despite it being a rather odd work, containing pages of multiple colours and a mixture of academic lectures and blank verse must testify to this.

There is no denying he was a man of insight, there is a lovely quote in one of the sections of blank verse that I must share with you, as to me it distills into seven lines the essence of what it is like to try to get British management to embrace technology:

As to industry
one great company
spent many months examining the idea:
we are inspired by this thinking
they said finally
to make a study
of our use of telephones

Brian Eno sites Beer as a key influence. I have a small press book of reminiscences of Beer, including an interview with Eno who says, inter alia,
"He was very energetic, That day I arrived around lunch time and hadn't had any lunch so I was quite hungry but there was no food forthcoming. The talk was very intense and about four or five o'clock in the afternoon I said 'you don't have anything to eat do you?' He said 'Oh, I'm sorry I should have offered' and he got some potatoes, put them in a pot with some water and put them on a very low gas. They were sitting there for hours and hours, there was moisture coming from them adding to the general fug in the room. There was steam coming from the pots, his cigars, the fire, the general humidity of that day and my stomach was going and going. Eventually is aid 'I am so hungry I've got to eat something'; the potatoes were eventually dished up with nothing else - it was just potatoes'.
"During that conversation he said 'I carry a torch, a torch that was handed to me along a chain from Ross Ashby, it was handed to him from [...] Warren McCulloch. He was telling me the story of the lineage of this idea, this body of ideas and said 'I want to hand it to you, I know it's a responsibility and you don't have to accept, I just want you to think about it'., It was a very strange moment for me, it was a sort of religious initiation of some kind."
To cut the story short, Eno declined :-)(Ashby was one of The Ratio Club along with Alan Turing).

At this point in the ramble I should have a grand conclusion, but really this is another example of an obscure and visionary use of technology which worked to some extent, but not enough to be more than a footnote in history. But what would have happened if the 1973 coup hadn't succeeded?

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