Before ’73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

Before the 1973 coup, Chile tried to find the right software for Socialism — and what they tried was “cybernetic” software running on an IBM 360/50 hooked up to 500 telex machines:

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.

From Wikipedia:

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).

Beer’s own Fanfare for Effective Freedom explains further:

What is the alternative to these inherited systems of lagged quantized reporting on what has happened and lagged, quantized response to projected change? The answer from the mid-sixties onward has been and remains real time control. We have the technology to do it. This concept was fundamental to the plan we drew up for Chile in late 1971. We would abandon the hare-and-tortoise race to make relevant statistics overtake the lag in data, capture, and analysis, and implant a real-time nervous system in the economy instead. We would forget about the bureaucratic planning systems that talk in terms of months and years, norms and targets, and implant a continuously adaptive decision-taking, in which human foresight would be permanently stretched as far in any context as this real-time input of information could take it. Above all, we would use our cybernetic understanding of filtration to deploy computers properly as quasi-intelligent machines instead of using them as giant data banks of dead information. That use of computers taken on its own as it usually is, in my opinion, represents the biggest waste of a magnificent invention that mankind has ever perpetrated. It is like seeking out the greatest human intellects of’ the day, asking them to memorise the telephone book, and then telling them to man ‘Directory Enquiries’ at the telephone exchange.

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