When military forces loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet staged a coup here in September 1973, they made a surprising discovery. Salvador Allende’s Socialist government had quietly embarked on a novel experiment to manage Chile’s economy using a clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines.
The project, called Cybersyn, was the brainchild of A. Stafford Beer, a visionary Briton who employed his “cybernetic” concepts to help Mr. Allende find an alternative to the planned economies of Cuba and the Soviet Union. After the coup it became the subject of intense military scrutiny.
In developing Cybersyn, Mr. Beer changed the lives of the bright young Chileans he worked with here. Some 35 years later, this little-known feature of Mr. Allende’s abortive Socialist transformation was remembered in an exhibit in a museum beneath La Moneda, the presidential palace.
A Star Trek-like chair with controls in the armrests was a replica of those in a prototype operations room. Mr. Beer planned for the room to receive computer reports based on data flowing from telex machines connected to factories up and down this 2,700-mile-long country. Managers were to sit in seven of the contoured chairs and make critical decisions about the reports displayed on projection screens.
While the operations room never became fully operational, Cybersyn gained stature within the Allende government for helping to outmaneuver striking workers in October 1972. That helped planners realize — as the pioneers of the modern-day Internet did — that the communications network was more important than computing power, which Chile did not have much of, anyway. A single I.B.M. 360/50 mainframe, which had less storage capacity than most flash drives today, processed the factories’ data, with a Burroughs 3500 later filling in.
Cybersyn was born in July 1971 when Fernando Flores, then a 28-year-old government technocrat, sent a letter to Mr. Beer seeking his help in organizing Mr. Allende’s economy by applying cybernetic concepts. Mr. Beer was excited by the prospect of being able to test his ideas.
He wanted to use the telex communications system — a network of teletypewriters — to gather data from factories on variables like daily output, energy use and labor “in real time,” and then use a computer to filter out the important pieces of economic information the government needed to make decisions.
Mr. Beer set up teams of computer programmers in England and Chile, and began making regular trips to Santiago to direct the project. He was paid $500 a day while working in Chile, a sizable sum here at the time, said Raúl Espejo, who was Cybersyn’s operations director.
One early challenge was how to build the communications network. Short of money, the team found 500 unused telex machines in a warehouse of the national telecommunications company.
Cybersyn’s turning point came in October 1972, when a strike by truckers and retailers nearly paralyzed the economy. The interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.
The strike dragged on for nearly a month. While it weakened Mr. Allende’s Popular Unity party, the government survived, and Cybersyn was praised for playing a major role. “From that point on the communications center became part of whatever was happening,” Mr. Espejo said.
“Chile run by computer,” blared The British Observer on Jan. 7, 1973, as word of the experiment began leaking out.
But as the country’s political and security situation worsened, Mr. Beer and his Chilean team realized that time was running out.
Mr. Allende remained committed to Cybersyn to the end. On Sept. 8, 1973, he gave orders to move the operations room to the presidential palace. But three days later the military took over; Mr. Allende died that afternoon.
There were 500 unused telex machines bought by the previous government, each was put into one factory. In the control center in Santiago, each day data coming from each factory (several numbers, such as raw material input, production output and number of absentees) were put into a computer, which made short-term predictions and necessary adjustments. There were four levels of control (firm, branch, sector, total), with algedonic feedback (if lower level of control didn’t remedy a problem in a certain interval, the higher level was notified). The results were discussed in the operations room and the top-level plan was made.
The software for Cybersyn was called Cyberstride, and it used Bayesian filtering and Bayesian control. It was written by Chilean engineers in consultation with a team of 12 British programmers.
The futuristic operations room was designed by a team lead by the interface designer Gui Bonsiepe. It was furnished with seven swivel chairs (considered the best for creativity) with buttons, which controlled several large screens that could project the data, and other panels with status information.
The project is described in some detail in Beer’s book, Platform for Change (including such social innovations as bringing representatives of diverse ‘stakeholder’ groups into the control center).