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The forgotten story of Chile's "socialist internet" 40 years ago (project Cybersyn) + movie "Colossus: The Forbin Project"

019Stafford Beer achieved the hardest of all pedagogic tasks: he changed the way people think. His protean influence stretches from generations of inspired students, through Salvador Allende’s Chile, to the collective brain. A huge, life-affirming figure has passed, but his work will long survive. When Pinochet's military overthrew the Chilean government 40 years ago, they discovered a revolutionary communication system, a 'socialist internet' connecting the whole country. Its creator? An eccentric scientist from Surrey.


During the early 70s, in the wealthy commuter backwater of West Byfleet in Surrey, a small but rather remarkable experiment took place. In the potting shed of a house called Firkins, a teenager named Simon Beer, using bits of radios and pieces of pink and green cardboard, built a series of electrical meters for measuring public opinion. His concept - users of his meters would turn a dial to indicate how happy or unhappy they were with any political proposal - was strange and ambitious enough. And it worked. Yet what was even more jolting was his intended market: not Britain, but Chile. Unlike West Byfleet, Chile was in revolutionary ferment. In the capital Santiago, the beleaguered but radical marxist government of Salvador Allende, hungry for innovations of all kinds, was employing Simon Beer's father, Stafford, to conduct a much larger technological experiment of which the meters were only a part. This was known as Project Cybersyn, and nothing like it had been tried before, or has been tried since.

Stafford Beer attempted, in his words, to "implant" an electronic "nervous system" in Chilean society. Voters, workplaces and the government were to be linked together by a new, interactive national communications network, which would transform their relationship into something profoundly more equal and responsive than before - a sort of socialist internet, decades ahead of its time.


On Cybernetics / Stafford Beer


When the Allende administration was deposed in a military coup, the 30th anniversary of which falls this Thursday, exactly how far Beer and his British and Chilean collaborators had got in constructing their hi-tech utopia was soon forgotten. In the many histories of the endlessly debated, frequently mythologised Allende period, Project Cybersyn hardly gets a footnote. Yet the personalities involved, the amount they achieved, the scheme's optimism and ambition and perhaps, in the end, its impracticality, contain important truths about the most tantalising leftwing government of the late 20th century.

Stafford Beer, who died 2002., was a restless and idealistic British adventurer who had long been drawn to Chile. Part scientist, part management guru, part social and political theorist, he had grown rich but increasingly frustrated in Britain during the 50s and 60s. His ideas about the similarities between biological and man-made systems, most famously expressed in his later book, The Brain of the Firm, made him an in-demand consultant with British businesses and politicians. Yet these clients did not adopt the solutions he recommended as often as he would have liked, so Beer began taking more contracts abroad.

In the early 60s, his company did some work for the Chilean railways. Beer did not go there himself, but one of the Chileans involved, an engineering student called Fernando Flores, began reading Beer's books and was captivated by their originality and energy. By the time the Allende government was elected in 1970, a group of Beer disciples had formed in Chile. Flores became a minister in the new administration, with responsibility for nationalising great swathes of industry. As in many areas, the Allende government wanted to do things differently from traditional marxist regimes. "I was very much against the Soviet model of centralisation," says Raul Espejo, one of Flores's senior advisers and another Beer disciple. "My gut feeling was that it was unviable."

But how should the Chilean economy be run instead? By 1971, the initial euphoria of Allende's democratic, non-authoritarian revolution was beginning to fade; Flores and Espejo realised that their ministry had acquired a disorganised empire of mines and factories, some occupied by their employees, others still controlled by their original managers, few of them operating with complete efficiency. In July, they wrote to Beer for help.

They knew that he had leftwing sympathies, but also that he was very busy. "Our expectation was to hire someone from his team," says Espejo. But after getting the letter, Beer quickly grew fascinated by the Chilean situation. He decided to drop his other contracts and fly there. In West Byfleet, the reaction was mixed: "We thought, 'Stafford's going mad again,' " says Simon Beer.

When Stafford arrived in Santiago, the Chileans were more impressed. "He was huge," Espejo remembers, "and extraordinarily exuberant. From every pore of his skin you knew he was thinking big." Beer asked for a daily fee of $500 - less than he usually charged, but an enormous sum for a government being starved of US dollars by its enemies in Washington - and a constant supply of chocolate, wine and cigars.

For the next two years, as subordinates searched for these amid the food shortages, and the local press compared him to Orson Welles and Socrates, Beer worked in Chile in frenetic bursts, returning every few months to England, where a British team was also labouring over Cybersyn. What this collaboration produced was startling: a new communications system reaching the whole spindly length of Chile, from the deserts of the north to the icy grasslands of the south, carrying daily information about the output of individual factories, about the flow of important raw materials, about rates of absenteeism and other economic problems.

What is Cybernetics? Conference by Stafford Beer

Until now, obtaining and processing such valuable information - even in richer, more stable countries - had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o'clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious computer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

Allende himself was enthusiastic about the scheme. Beer explained it to him on scraps of paper. Allende had once been a doctor and, Beer felt, instinctively understood his notions about the biological characteristics of networks and institutions. Just as significantly, the two men shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people. On the contrary, it was hoped that the system would allow workers to manage, or at least take part in the management of their workplaces, and that the daily exchange of information between the shop floor and Santiago would create trust and genuine cooperation - and the combination of individual freedom and collective achievement that had always been the political holy grail for many leftwing thinkers.

It did not always work out like that. "Some people I've talked to," says Eden Miller, an American who is writing a PhD thesis partly about Cybersyn, "said it was like pulling teeth getting the factories to send these statistics." In the feverish Chile of 1972 and 1973, with its shortages and strikes and jostling government initiatives, there were often other priorities. And often the workers were not willing or able to run their plants: "The people Beer's scientists dealt with," says Miller, "were primarily management."

But there were successes. In many factories, Espejo says, "Workers started to allocate a space on their own shop floor to have the same kind of graphics that we had in Santiago." Factories used their telexes to send requests and complaints back to the government, as well as vice versa. And in October 1972, when Allende faced his biggest crisis so far, Beer's invention became vital.

Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them. The control rooms in Santiago were staffed day and night. People slept in them - even government ministers. "The rooms came alive in the most extraordinary way," says Espejo. "We felt that we were in the centre of the universe." The strike failed to bring down Allende.

In some ways, this was the high point for Cybersyn. The following year, like the government in general, it began to encounter insoluble problems. By 1973, the sheer size of the project, involving somewhere between a quarter and half of the entire nationalised economy, meant that Beer's original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists. There was constant friction between the two groups. Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism; testing his son's electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service; and even organising anchovy-fishing expeditions to earn the government some desperately needed foreign currency.

All the while, the rightwing plotting against Allende grew more blatant and the economy began to suffocate as other countries, encouraged by the Americans, cut off aid and investment. Beer was accused in parts of the international press of creating a Big Brother-style system of administration in South America. "There was plenty of stress in Chile," he wrote afterwards. "I could have pulled out at any time, and often considered doing so."

In June 1973, after being advised to leave Santiago, he rented an anonymous house on the coast from a relative of Espejo. For a few weeks, he wrote and stared at the sea and travelled to government meetings under cover of darkness. On September 10, a room was measured in La Moneda for the installation of an updated Cybersyn control centre, complete with futuristic control panels in the arms of chairs and walls of winking screens. The next day, the palace was bombed by the coup's plotters. Beer was in London, lobbying for the Chilean government, when he left his final meeting before intending to fly back to Santiago and saw a newspaper billboard that read, "Allende assassinated."

The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and called in Espejo and others to explain it to them. But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it. Espejo fled. Some of his colleagues were not so lucky. Soon after the coup, Beer left West Byfleet, his wife, and most of his possessions to live in a cottage in Wales. "He had survivor guilt, unquestionably," says Simon.

Cybersyn and Stafford's subsequent, more esoteric inventions live on in obscure socialist websites and, more surprisingly, modern business school teachings about the importance of economic information and informal working practices. David Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Blair's new head of policy, Geoff Mulgan, have all cited Beer as an influence.

But perhaps more importantly, his work in Chile affected those who participated. Espejo has made a good career since as an inter- national management consultant. He has been settled in Britain for decades. He chuckles urbanely at the mention of Pinochet's arrest in London five years ago. Yet when, after a long lunch in a pub near his home in Lincoln, I ask whether Cybersyn changed him, his playful, slightly professorial gaze turns quite serious. "Oh yes," he says. "Completely."

Stafford Beer: the man who could have run the world

by Rosemary Bechler......................... Stafford Beer, philosopher, scientist, poet, painter, founder of Management Cybernetics and world leader in operational research, who has died at the age of 75, was much larger than life. His handsome photograph in the Guardian obituary is entitled ‘Subversive Showman’. If he fitted neatly into neither the British establishment, nor the academic nor indeed the business world, it was partly because of the sheer impact of the man – but also because of what he had to say.


His self-appointed task was to bring an often unwelcome message to whoever would listen, including the twenty-two governments who hired him as a consultant over the years, about the need for ‘effective organisation’ in companies, social services, great institutions, whole countries, and international communities, if they were not to be left behind by technological advance, threats to economic survival, and loss of faith in established authority – by, in short, complexity and change.

Some people ‘got it’: they joined the band of friends and followers from around the world, and were rewarded by Stafford’s patient and loyal interest in their own efforts to apply what they had learnt. They were inspired by his various favourite dicta, such as ‘Don’t bite my finger: look where it’s pointing’, or ‘You accuse me of using big words that you find hard to understand. But you need big words for big ideas. And you should find it hard to understand.’

Many more, who were nevertheless profoundly influenced by his work, found these admonitions unfashionable and irritating, and his many books unreadable. They often failed to see the indefatigable energy which he devoted to trying to make himself better understood: Stafford’s ideas in Latin, in thirteen languages, in poetry, in a summary for business schools, as applied to car engines, hospitals, prisoners or stars.

Understanding a dynamic system

Even in recent years, when the prophetic vision was accompanied by a bardic white beard and much frustration at the shrinking amount of time he had left to do what he wanted, those of us lucky enough to meet him will never forget the feeling that you had been put on alert by a life-force far larger than your own.

There are two of us in this office. Rob Passmore, currently wrestling with our marketing plan, simply says: ‘He altered people’s lives. He changed my life. I think about what he had to say on systems, every day.’ Rob’s encounter took place in the mid-1990s at Swansea University, having opted for a third-year course in Managerial Cybernetics. ‘The first thing you registered was that he was absolutely different to any other lecturer you had ever met. He simply wasn’t harnessed to the system.’ His interests ranged across disciplines, cultures and faiths. With the class swiftly divided over his ‘showmanship’, Rob was one of those who liked the twinkle in Stafford’s eye as he helped himself to another tot from the half-litre bottle of ‘apple juice’, which everyone knew was the white wine spritzer favoured by Lord Byron.

They repaired to the pub to talk about the day’s ideas after every lecture, and were frequently invited out for sessions (perhaps including Stafford’s own special brand of yoga and Sanskrit readings) at the small stone cottage in Ceredigion, mid-Wales, which was his retreat once he renounced worldly possessions in the mid-1970s. Stafford, who was tremendously proud when his many visiting chairs, presidencies and honorary degrees were capped by the rare award to him of a DSc from the University of Sunderland in 2000, nevertheless cut his own path. He made his way determinedly down the academic food chain to an undergraduate level where he felt able to work, untrammelled by the closed mind-sets of the higher reaches of the British academic system. Rob for one, considered himself lucky.

‘What some people never forgave him for was that he was right. The Viable System Model he was teaching was the most effective model of any and every system that I’ve ever come across. In his most profound work, The Brain of the Firm and the Heart of Enterprise, he takes as his subject no less complex and dynamic a system than the human body itself, to show how that system, in order to be viable, must stand up in its own right: what kind of processes it needs for effective decision-making, development and implementation, and what kind of measurement.’

The Intelligent Organization, PART I Stafford BEER

‘Of course, Beer’s idea of a “system” was not that of common parlance, as in a “sales system” set up to operate like a machine in any eventuality. Beer’s “system” is completely dynamic. Take the circulation of the blood, for example. You cannot map how that works in a static way, by showing someone a picture of his or her veins. What you have to understand is the circulatory system as a system of control. Beer’s thinking revolved around that.’

‘But there again, his notion of “control” was not quite the same as anyone else’s. It wasn’t authoritarian. The system exists anyway, whether it works or not. And the trick is to make yourself conscious of its workings, by seeing how things change, each time they come past you. Hence his abiding interest in appropriate feed-back loops, and his constant emphasis on the advantage to be derived from a system that gives the greatest possible autonomy of action to every level of its organisation, not just the top.’

‘Once I’d finished the course, I read all the books, and I’ve got signed copies of all of them, because I just knew that this was one man, a great soul, who could not only change, but actually run the world…’

Chile: from theory to practice

The nearest Stafford Beer came to the latter was the period in the early 1970s he spent as an independent consultant to Chile’s president, Salvador Allende. From 1970, Stafford was working on a national communications system, a new cybernetics-based control system to be applied to the entire social economy of Chile.

It is still moving (not least because of the inclusion of a marvellously evocative story describing Allende’s encounter with System 5 of Stafford’s VSM) to read the third Richard Goodman Lecture he wrote for delivery in February 1973, in which he describes the planned NOW and FUTURES systems which would provide Allende’s government with an instrument for investigating the systemic consequences of alternative courses of action.

Stafford is himself on an exponential learning curve, and his excitement is palpable. He is clearly aware that the regime is under attack from all sides, but so proud of the experiment that is underway in Chile, and of the ‘lessons for humanity’ which he believes to be unfolding there. The death of the president and all his close colleagues only months later (which he learned from an Evening Standard newsboard) left Stafford (see letters in the Guardian) with an abiding hatred for the role of the United States in the world: and, for him as for so many others, the strong sense of a destiny unfulfilled.

A syntegrity of minds

So I first heard of him as the man who had worked to include Chilean trade unionists in the decision-making processes for the Chilean economy. I was part of a small left-wing organisation that, as we hurtled towards the demise of the socialist state system, had become increasingly interested in democracy, but was seemingly unable to practise what it preached. Luckily, our leader had read Stafford’s books, and realised that this was also an organisational problem. She was rewarded by Stafford and his partner and co-worker, Allenna Leonard, taking a thorough interest in our fragile structures, and adopting us as a guinea-pig to try out Stafford’s latest participatory method for enabling large groups to solve their own problems: Team Syntegrity.

Cybernetics, History & Origins 1994 - Stafford Beer explains to a group of students his relationship with Cybernetics, the Science of Control and Communications in the animal and the machine.

A syntegration is a non-hierarchical, participatory form of conference, inspired by Stafford’s realisation that all the good ideas at a conference come from the corridors and the bars. It is based on the mathematical qualities of an icosahedron (which we all began by making, with cocktail sticks and jelly babies), and takes three-and-a-half days, and thirty people. In those early days in 1990, it took a little longer, while enthusiasts sorted out the computer algorithm. But the people who participated felt that what they understood there, they might never have learnt in two or three years of the most conscientious decision-making. The agreements we secured were beyond the normal kind of ‘consensus’, as Stafford promised us they would be. They were based on a much more thorough-going understanding of each other’s point of view, and some core insights which soon emerged from very different types of small-group conversation to ‘reverberate’ throughout the whole event.

As Rob and I mull over what we learned from Stafford, the two of us realise all over again how much pleasure was involved, and how simple some of the best ideas are. Take Rob’s favourite anecdote for explaining how you assess a system’s ‘requisite variety’: Take a football pitch, and eleven people on one side. What do you need in order to stop them from scoring millions of goals? Answer: eleven people on the other side, which is why football is such a great game…and why the thirty people at a syntegration need to be as ‘various’ as members of one organisation can get, if you want to plan effectively for the future.

CYBERNETICS: The super science of interconnectedness; definitions, origins, & map. - CYBERNETICS has the capability no other science has. It deals with very complex systems such as those that have a purpose, whether natural or man made. It has evolved to become a different scientific paradigm that will save the planet from authoritarian, reductionistic, anti-democratic, or just plain stupid GOVERNANCE.

Or take the concept best calculated to transform any political organisation, the idea of the necessary porosity of any viable system to its outside environment…‘Oh yes, VSM system four’, interjects Rob, happily…. It seems obvious. But take it together with ‘requisite variety’, ‘reverberation’, ‘recursion’, and a few other vital processes, and nothing will ever be the same again….

Rob and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that understanding Beer is easy after all. Like most good things, it’s a life work. (For those who would like to dip a toe in the water, we recommend his 1992 essay, World in Torment: A Time whose Idea Must Come .

About Professor Stafford Beer

In a series of ground breaking books culminating in "Brain of the Firm", reprinted Wiley 1995, and the companion volumes "Heart of Enterprise", reprinted Wiley 1988, and "Diagnosing the System for Organisations", reprinted Wiley 1991, he produced models applicable to the problems of structure, innovation, autonomy, participatory development, accountability and even pain and alerting in organisations. In the neurophysiological Viable System Model (VSM) he applied Homeostasis and Variety to neuroanatomy. Thus he was able to distinguish Identity maintaining Decisions, Development, Operational and Regulatory management. This supported a strict foundation for evolutionary control and founded Management Cybernetics.

Within months of the publication of "Brain" Beer was propelled into International public prominence with a commission to apply the model to Chile  for the newly elected President Salvador Allende. Management Cybernetics was applied to Government. Sadly short-sighted American foreign policy turned an heroic project into tragedy. But now as the "Steward of Accountability" America and the World is seeing that with cheap, reliable, computing and telecommunications Beer's methods can bring Justice not only to Wall street but to the tribal and unaccountable for whom only terror seems a solution.

Early critics of Beer's work thought the hierarchical structure of VSM, an imperative from Set Theory, made it in some way authoritarian and unable to adapt to a flatter more equal and democratic management. Such critics failed to recognise the need to make responsibility unambiguous and that the levels of management in VSM need not represent managers but management policies applicable from short to long term.

In his later years, "Beyond Dispute" Wiley 1994, Beer invented Team Syntegrity. He found that the icosahedron represented the largest structure that management participants could occupy and retain the potential for similar contexts and perspectives. He developed it as a tool, amongst other things, to realise  World Government.

The beginnings of a potential "Six Degrees of Separation" or "Small World Phenomenon"   process was described by Joe Truss while friends and practitioners gathered at the University of Hull for a Staffordian Syntegration to discuss "What should we do with Stafford's legacy/gift?"  on 26th to 29th June 2003. One team, for example, considered "Deploying Syntegration to Resolve Conflict and Stop War". Dr. Allenna Leonard recommended Stafford's paper "World in Torment" as an introduction.

The Metaphorum Society organised CybCon2004 "Cybernetics and Public Adminstration" in London at St James's Park and LSE on September 3rd and 4th.

An Announcement of Stafford's death by the  World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics  includes some tributes and reference to Beer's "On the Nature of Models: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Women, Too (from Warren McCulloch to Candice Pert)".

Stafford's last address "What is Cybernetics?" on being awarded an honorary degree from University of Valladolid in Spain.

Leonid Ototsky from Magnitogorsk in Russia famous for the giant MMK steelworks has a setup personal tribute.

THis video shows Stafford Beer and his friends and family celebrating his 66th birthday, plus the inauguration of the Requiem Exhibit. This video belongs to John Moore University's Stafford Beer collection, provided to me to upload in YOUTUBE and share with everyone.


The Viable System Paradigm

The Viable System Model was developed by Stafford Beer from his neuroanalytic T, U and V machines produced to construct a "Cybernetic Factory".



Ashby's pioneering work on variety and homeostasis and Pask's work in electrochemical concept growth are important citations, for example.The Beer VSM paradigm is relevant as ever to developing Nano Technology Assemblers and Replicators, for example, because of its deep insights into Organisation in the face of almost inconceivable complexity.

The Five parts correspond to Decision or Identity (System Five) Development (System Four), Operation (System Three), Regulation  (System Two) and System One where the whole structure repeats. Systems 3-2-1 form an Autonomic Loop with Four and Five corresponding to cognitive and higher mental functions.

Stafford's core idea was to take human neurophysiology and make an abstraction that mapped into the business or industrial process. The relevant statistic drives his models with actual performance statistics compared to capabilities and potentials.

If Actuality deviates from Capability too much an exception signal is sent to the responsible manager.
An index of Potential established from current Development Plans and representing what can be achieved if the plan is implemented.
Capability is what can be done on a good day when everything is working as it should- a standard.
Alerting Algedonic Feedback- analogous to pain in an organism- tells senior 5-4-3 management when life threatening events occur. In the Public Service, for example, when performance is non-compliant with a service delivery agreement a manager is informed. This principle is recursive: it repeats throughout the Organisation.

Thus Beer founded Management Cybernetics



Colossus: The Forbin Project (movie)


In the midst of the Cold War the world's most brilliant scientist, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), devises a supercomputer for the Pentagon to control America's nuclear arsenal. Dubbed Colossus, this gargantuan mainframe is constructed inside a mountain in Colorado where, protected by automated defenses, it is impregnable to sabotage and attack. Its function is to detect, evaluate and respond to all strategic threats to the U.S. and her allies. Its creator hopes that with peace and freedom secured and the threat of accidental war eliminated, Colossus can then focus its attention on researching new scientific discoveries. Upon activating the vast machine, Forbin electronically seals the tomblike complex. Outside he is warmly greeted by the President of the United States (Blacula's Gordon Pinset), praising him for his monumental achievement








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