The Time When A Single Computer Ran An Entire Country

A British computer scientist and cybernetic pioneer named A. Stafford Beer was invited in 1971 by the socialist/Marxist government of Chile, under the democratically elected Salvador Allende, to "run the country."

A high ranking cabinet official had read Beer's work on cybernetics, and convinced the Allende government – which would be swiftly removed by a CIA-backed coup only two years later in 1973 – to create an experiment in a high tech socialist state.

Beer's vision for controlling society included cybernetic managers who would sit in futuristic chair with buttons, panels and displays straight out of Star Trek. 

They would track data fed from the arms and legs and outposts of the country, which spans 3,000 miles North-to-South. Live data feeds would include feedback from ordinary citizens, who would express their satisfaction/or lack-thereof through a volt-o-meter in their living room that Beer called the "algedonic meter" – which expressed the pleasure or pain of the individuals and ultimately the whole of society.

Back to reality, in the two years Stafford Beer had to manage Chile's economy and government with little funding, and used one computer to network data feed from points throughout the nation via Telex machines connected through the nation's telecom.

Ironically, these communications lines were ultimately owned and controlled by the American corporation ITT, which was closely connected with the CIA overthrow of Allende.

Until that point, it had been the nervous system of Stafford Beer's cybernetically-controlled society of the future.

Did anyone bother pointing out that the pleasure/pain centers are most useful for Pavlovian conditioning – training the responses of lab animals, or carefully managed "sheeple" who do as they're told in society?

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In November of 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende was inaugurated president of Chile. A short, squat man, with thick glasses and a penchant for elegant clothing, he had made several prior attempts for the presidency, beginning in 1952. He was a Marxist, the first elected to so high an office in any country. His election could almost be described as sheer accident, and his party, Popular Unity (PU), was a hodgepodge of socialists, communists, social democrats, and Christian democrats. His days were numbered, as we know, but his naiveté was not total. His vision was only an impossible delusion in the political sense – in the economic sense his administration had a remarkably profound understanding of socialist economics and their implementation. 


The program of nationalization, implemented immediately, experienced several structural problems in early 1971. It is enough to say that more organization was necessary, as was more monitoring, or surveillance. For the most part, the directors (“interventors”) of the new state industries were competent, however, some were not, and it was difficult to determine the difference with the few existing channels of communication between industry and state. In August of that month, Fernando Flores, the young intellectual who had been named General Manager of the CORFO, the state institution that regulated the recently nationalized factories, flew to England to meet with a very peculiar man. Bearded and eccentric, lacking any formal degree in cybernetics or computer sciences, Stafford Beer was a visionary in the mold of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, with one key difference – he was a socialist, even a techno-communist. He spoke no Spanish. However, he communicated to Flores – in broken Latin – that he very much desired to offer his expertise to the Chilean project. In November, 1971, Beer landed in Santiago. With a daily salary of 500 US dollars, he began to construct the Cybersyn project, also known as Synco. 

The first achievement of the Cybersyn was the Cybernet, a communications system of daily updates on resources consumed and goods produced in each popular factory. It also included a statistical component that traced economic trends over time and could, theoretically, prevent distribution issues before they arose. At the same time, there were several complex and highly recursive systems that governed, or would have governed, the hierarchy of each factory and the relevant workers counsels, infrastructure, and, eventually, the entire economy, up to the level of macroeconomic trends. But the Cybernet was the most central and most developed component of the project. It was what saved the government during the Gremial strike of 1972, after which Allende appointed Flores as the new Economic Minister. The Cybernet system became more efficient over time, and the daily economic reports which it produced for La Moneda Palace were of vital importance over the following year. On September 8, 1973, Allende requested that the center of operations of Cybersyn be transported to the presidential palace. On the tenth, a room of La Moneda was measured for a new center of operations. 

The next day, among the ashes of the regime, the soldiers entered the control room and looked around them. Here was a dilemma. Over the following weeks, a great deal of debate followed on the subject of what to do with this cybernetic beast. With all of the personnel dead or fled, the military government never managed to understand the system. They dismantled it. This was not the end of cybernetics of Chile, but the beginning of a new cybernetics, as we will see, but the Cybersyn was interred with its patron. 

“We are and will always be partisans of a centralized economy: every enterprise will have to develop the production plans set by the government.” – Salvador Allende 

“The Allende administration is decentralizing power…” – Stafford Beer 

Eyewar - Cybernetics and Project Cybersyn

A history of real-time information technlology, war, politics, commerce and the rise of the idea of organisational cybernetics.

Project Cybersyn was a Chilean project from 1971--1973 (during the government of President Salvador Allende) aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy.

Project Cybersyn was based on Viable system model theory and a neural network approach to organizational design, and featured innovative technology for its time: it included a network of telex machines (Cybernet) in state-run enterprises that would transmit and receive information with the government in Santiago. Information from the field would be fed into statistical modeling software (Cyberstride) that would monitor production indicators (such as raw material supplies or high rates of worker absenteeism) in real time, and alert the workers in the first case, and in unnormal situations also the central government, if those parameters fell outside acceptable ranges.

In July 1971, Stafford Beer was contacted by Fernando Flores, then a high-level employee of the Chilean Production Development Corporation (CORFO), for advice on incorporating Beer's theories of cybernetics into the management of the newly nationalized sector of Chile's economy. Beer saw this as a unique opportunity to implement his ideas of cybernetic management on a national scale, and also sympathized with the stated ideals of Chilean socialism, which aimed to maintain Chile's democratic system and the autonomy of workers instead of imposing a Soviet-style system of top-down command and control. More than just offering advice, Beer stepped aside from most of his other consulting business and devoted a great deal of time to what became Project Cybersyn, [...] However, after the military coup on September 11, 1973, Cybersyn was abandoned and the operations room was destroyed. 

- "IU professor analyzes Chile's 'Project Cybersyn'". UI News Room. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
- Project Cybersyn | varnelis.net
- Eden Medina (2011). Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile, 1st edn. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01649-0. section 4, p. 121
- Eden Medina (2006). "Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende's Chile". J. Lat. Amer. Stud. 
(Cambridge University Press) (38): 571--606. doi:10.1017/S0022216X06001179.

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