Cybersyn

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= famous industrial and economic planning project under the Allende administration in Chile, stewarded by Stafford Beer

Contents

Definition

"Cybersyn’ comes from a synthesis of the two concepts driving the project, ‘cybernetics’ and ‘synergy’. The abbreviation ‘Synco’ conveyed the objective of the project, namely ‘Sistema de Informacion y Control’. The project name has also appeared as ‘Sinco’ or ‘Cinco'," (http://informatics.indiana.edu/edenm/EdenMedinaJLASAugust2006.pdf)

Description

1. From the Wikipedia:

"Project Cybersyn was a Chilean attempt at real-time computer-controlled planned economy in the years 1970–1973 (during the government of president Salvador Allende). It was essentially a network of telex machines that linked factories with a single computer centre in Santiago, which controlled them using principles of cybernetics. The principal architect of the system was British operations research scientist Stafford Beer." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn)


2.

"In 1971, an innovative system of cybernetic information management and transfer began developing in Chile during the government of President Salvador Allende; the CYBERSYN project, cybernetic synergy or SYNCO, information and control system. In Chilean State owned companies a system for capturing, processing and presenting economic information to be managed in “quasi” real time, becoming an absolute pioneer in the application of a cybernetic model in mass socio-economic contexts, and based on a convergence of science, technology, politics and cybernetics. The economic system of the Allende Government, after annexing and nationalising diverse State companies, was faced with the necessity to coordinate information regarding state companies and those that had been recently nationalised, so it required the creation of a dynamic and flexible system for a proper management of the companies. In 1970 Fernando Flores was appointed Technical Director General of CORFO (Production Development Corporation of Chile), and was responsible for the management and coordination between nationalised companies and the State. He had known the theories and solutions proposed by Britain’s Stafford Beer since he was an engineering student, and subsequently in the course of his professional relationship with SIGMA, the Beer consultancy firm. He and Raúl Espejo, who also worked at CORFO, wrote to Stafford Beer inviting him to implement VSM (the Viable System Model) in Chile, which had been developed in Beer’s “THE BRAIN OF THE FIRM” (1967 – PP). Beer accepted immediately, and the project entered its development stage in 1971." (http://www.cybersyn.cl/ingles/cybersyn/index.html)


3. The context:

"In 1970, the year in which Salvador Allende Gossens took office, Chile, under the presidency of Eduardo Frei Montalva, had initiated a series of new State reforms that were consolidated by the Salvador Allende Government. One of the most important of these measures, the Agrarian Reform or CORA, was applied in the agricultural sector, and consisted in balancing the inequity that existed between the enormous amounts of farmland in the hands of a few, and the lack of farmland owned by the people.

This spirit of popular equality was represented by a splinter group of the Christian Democratic Party called MAPU.

During the Allende Presidency, many of the members of the emergent new MAPU obtained strategic posts in the socialist government, steeping the system with innovative ideologies based on the hopes of the Allende project, avid for new ideas for the system proposed by them.

Fernando Flores, Political Director of the Cybersyn project was a MAPU sympathiser.

As he was in charge of the technical management of CORFO, he was able to fulfil one of his dreams as a young engineering student of the Catholic University: the application of cybernetic concepts in the socialist project. This political scenario was perfect to apply the revolutionary ideas of Stafford Beer.

After the beginning of the project, Fernando Flores was appointed Minister of Finance, acquiring new responsibilities and giving the project partial encouragement from an external post. The Cybersyn project saw this scenario revert, when it was directly opposed by companies controlled by opposition politicians. The UP (Popular Unity), the Government coalition created to support the Allende Government, started to disintegrate rapidly owing to the different disagreements and the impatience of both political groups.

Internationally, the country was viewed with curiosity and mistrust, and in terms of internal affairs, different political groups wasted no time in planning a strategy to produce the debacle of the Socialist government, joining forces with the powers that be in the US, ending in the military coup of 1973, organised by a military junta headed by President Allende’s trusted member in the armed forces, Commander in Chief Augusto Pinochet.

The socialist economy proposed by the Allende government was replaced by Milton Friedman’s neoliberalistic experiment (through a group of Chilean economists who travelled to Chicago, with the mission to apply this scheme in Chile)." (http://www.cybersyn.cl/ingles/context/context.html)


Details

Patrick Meier:

"Eden writes that Project Cybersyn eventually consisted of four sub-projects: Cybernet, Cyberstride, Checo and Opsroom.

Cybernet: This component “expanded the existing telex network to include every firm in nationalized sector, thereby helping to create a national network of communication throughout Chile’s three-thousand-mile-long territory. Cybersyn team members occasionally used the promise of free telex installation to cajole factory managers into lending their support to the project. Stafford Beer’s early reports describe the system as a tool for real-time economic control, but in actuality each firm could only transmit data once per day.”

Cyberstride: This component “encompassed the suite of computer programmes written to collect, process, and distribute data to and from each of the state enterprises. Members of the Cyberstride team created ‘ quantitative flow charts of activities within each enterprise that would highlight all important activities ’, including a parameter for ‘ social unease ’[...]. The software used statistical methods to detect production trends based on historical data, theoretically allowing [headquarters] to prevent problems before they began. If a particular variable fell outside of the range specified by Cyberstride, the system emitted a warning [...]. Only the interventor from the affected enterprise would receive the algedonic warning initially and would have the freedom, within a given time frame, to deal with the problem as he saw fit. However, if the enterprise failed to correct the irregularity within this timeframe, members of the Cyberstride team alerted the next level management [...].”

CHECO: This stood for CHilean ECOnomy, a component of Cybersyn which “constituted an ambitious effort to model the Chilean economy and provide simulations of future economic behaviour. Appropriately, it was sometimes referred to as ‘Futuro’. The simulator would serve as the ‘government’s experimental laboratory ’ – an instrumental equivalent to Allende’s frequent likening of Chile to a ‘social laboratory’. [...] The simulation programme used the DYNAMO compiler developed by MIT Professor Jay Forrester [...]. The CHECO team initially used national statistics to test the accuracy of the simulation program. When these results failed, Beer and his fellow team members faulted the time differential in the generation of statistical inputs, an observation that re-emphasized the perceived necessity for real-time data.

Opsroom: The fourth component “created a new environment for decision making, one modeled after a British WWII war room. It consisted of seven chairs arranged in an inward facing circle flanked by a series of projection screens, each displaying the data collected from the nationalized enterprises. In the Opsroom, all industries were homogenized by a uniform system of iconic representation, meant to facilitate the maximum extraction of information by an individual with a minimal amount of scientific training. [...] Although [the Opsroom] never became operational, it quickly captured the imagination of all who viewed it, including members of the military, and became the symbolic heart of the project." (http://irevolution.net/2009/02/21/project-cybersyn-chile-20-in-1973/)


History

Leigh Phillips:

"Allende, a doctor by training, was attracted to the idea of rationally directing industry, and upon Flores' recommendation, Beer was hired to advise the government, and the scheme he plunged himself into was called Project Cybersyn, a ‘nervous system’ for the economy in which workers, community members and the government were to be connected together transmitting the resources they had on offer, their desires and needs via an interactive national communications network. The whole idea would seem, frankly, eccentrically ambitious, even potty, if today the internet were not such a quotidian experience.

Although never completed, by the time of the coup, the advanced prototype of the system, which had been built in four months, involved a series of 500 telex machines distributed to firms connected to two government-operated mainframe computers and stretched the length of the narrow country and covered roughly between a quarter and half of the nationalised economy. Factory output, raw material shipments and transport, high levels of absenteeism and other core economic data pinged about the country and to the capital, Santiago – a daily exchange of information between workers and their government, easily beating the six months on average for economic data to be processed in this way in most advanced countries.

Paul Cockshott, a University of Glasgow computer scientist who has written about the possibility of post-capitalist planning aided by computing, is a big admirer of Cybersyn as a practical example of the general type of regulation mechanism he advocates: ‘The big advance with Stafford Beer's experiments with Cybersyn was that it was designed to be a real-time system rather than a system which, as the Soviets had tried, was essentially a batch system in which you made decisions every five years.’

Staff tallied the data and seven government surveyors (seven being the largest number of people who can comfortably participate in a discussion) viewed real-time economic processes for immediate decisions from a space-age, Star-Trek-like operations room, complete with Tulip swivel chairs with built-in buttons, but the aim was to maintain decentralised worker and lower-management autonomy rather than to impose a top-down system of control. The intention was to provide an Opsroom overseeing each industry and within each plant. At the factory level, it was planned that workers’ committees would run the Opsroom. Figures were avoided in favour of graphics displays under the belief that people should be able to engage in economic self-government without formal mathematical or financial training. Vast, economy-wide co-ordination is not the same as centralisation.

When the government faced a CIA-backed strike from conservative small businessmen and a boycott by private lorry companies in 1972, food and fuel supplies ran dangerously low. The government faced its gravest existential threat ahead of the coup. It was then that Cybersyn came into its own, when Allende's government realised that the experimental system could be used to circumvent the opposition’s efforts. The network allowed its operators to secure immediate information on where scarcities were at their most extreme and where drivers not participating in the boycott were located and to mobilise or redirect its own transport assets in order to keep goods moving and take the edge of the worst of the shortages. As a result, the truck-owners' boycott was defeated.

After that other September 11 almost forty years ago, when the bombs fell on La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende took his own life rather than surrender to Pinochet’s fascists, the fires that destroyed democracy in Chile also took the world's first non-Stalinist experiment in economy-wide planning with them, replaced by another economic experiment of an altogether opposite character: the monetarist structural adjustment of Milton Friedman, infamously replicated by Margaret Thatcher and her dozens of imitators." (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/allendes-socialist-internet/)


The Outcome

Patrick Meier:

"Cybersyn never really took off. Stafford had hoped to install “algedonic meters” or early warning public opinion meters in “a representative sample of Chilean homes that would allow Chilean citizens to transmit their pleasure or displeasure with televised political speeches to the government or television studio in real time.”

[Stafford] dubbed this undertaking ‘ The People’s Project ’ and ‘ Project Cyberfolk ’ because he believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.

As Cybersyn expanded beyond the initial goals of economic regulation to political-structural transformation, Stafford grew concerned that Cybersyn could prove dangerous if the system wasn’t fully completed and only individual components of the project adopted. He feared this could result in “result in ‘ an old system of government with some new tools … For if the invention is dismantled, and the tools used are not the tools we made, they could become instruments of oppression.” In fact, Stafford soon “received invitations from the repressive governments in Brazil and South Africa to build comparable systems.”

Back in Chile, the Cybernet component of Cybersyn “proved vital to the government during the opposition-led strike of October 1972 (Paro de Octubre).” The strike threatened the government’s survival so high-ranking government officials used Cybernet to monitor “the two thousand telexes sent per day that covered activities from the northern to the southern ends of the country.” In fact, “the rapid flow of messages over the telex lines enabled the government to react quickly to the strike activity [...].”

The project’s telex network was subsequently—albeit briefly—used for economic mapping:

[The] telex network permitted a new form of economic mapping that enabled the government to collapse the data sent from all over the country into a single report, written daily at [headquarters], and hand delivered to [the presidential palace]. The detailed charts and graphs filling its pages provided the government with an overview of national production, transportation, and points of crisis in an easily understood format, using data generated several days earlier. The introduction of this form of reporting represented a considerable advance over the previous six-month lag required to collect statistics on the Chilean economy [...].

Ultimately, according to Stafford, Cybersyn did not succeed because it wasn’t accepted as a network of people as well as machines, a revolution in behavior as well as in instrumental capability. In 1973, Allende was overthrown by the military and the Cybersyn project all but vanished from Chilean memory." (http://irevolution.net/2009/02/21/project-cybersyn-chile-20-in-1973/)


Discussion

Nights of Labour blog:

"Owen Hatherley, the author of Militant Modernism, pointed out to me a project called Cybersyn, from the former socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s. I regret that I did not know before this project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn), which was a real-time, computer controlled planning system, coordinating 500 nationalised factories in Chile. I then read the PhD thesis of Eden Miller submitted to MIT in 2005, which follows the traces of the project, the engineers who set it up, Chilean history in the 1970s. The thesis is a history of technology thesis, yet gives brilliant insights regarding possible models and designs which can be put at the service of a socialist practice…which is exactly what the communist laboratory is for. In this post I want to summarise the findings of Dr. Miller, which is the unique authoritative source on the subject and interpret them in my own way, by also offering some comparative outlook with Red Star’s statistical system of labour allocation.

Cybersyn originates in the work of a British professor called Stafford Beer who developed cybernetic ideas during the 1960s. A group of engineers was influenced by those ideas and when they took a position in Allende’s government invited Beer to set up a computerized system to coordinate 500 factories in Chile with the aims to increase worker participation and achieve efficiency at the shop floor. When Beer came to Chile, there was only one computer, which would be the main government computer at the center. The Cybersyn team used a telex network, which had been used to track satellites. Even though telex networks were only able to transmit ASCII characters, they were based on a high speed of information exchange similar to the Internet.

The first component of the system, Cybernet used the existing telex network in order to make every factory communicate with the main computer. Production information was sent from the factories to a telex control room where employees transferred the data onto punch cards and fed them into the mainframe computer for processing. The system was designed as a real-time economic control, similar to the Red Star’s statistical agencies, but in practice data was transmitted once a day. Telex networks are a brilliant bricoleur’s solution to the lack of available technology in the context of a developing country, which is subject to political hostility by imperialist powers. It shows how available resources can be creatively used for new purposes by change-driven individuals in a change-inducing environment.

The second component of the Cybersyn system, Cyberstride produced quantitative flow charts of activities within each factory. It did ‘statistical filtration on the numbers output from the factory models, discarding the data that fell within the acceptable system parameters and directing the information deemed important upward to the next level of management’ (Miller, 2005). The software developed certain methods to identify production trends and if a variable fell outside of the range determined by the system, the system made a warning, which was called an ‘algedonic signal’. The relevant person from the factory emitting the signal was given time and freedom to solve the problem. In case he was unsuccessful, the central management had the right to interfere. This principle was to preserve the autonomy of the lower-levels managers.

According to Miller, Cyberstride could be seen as an instrument to predict and map the behaviour of Chilean factories. The algorithm was based on Bayesian probability theory to foresee industrial performance. Since the government could rely on possible trends, it could intervene in advance. Beer wanted to keep the problem signals as simple as possible: sources of energy, raw materials, worker satisfaction present on a given day.

...

The third part of the Cybersyn project, CHECO (Chilean Economy) aimed at providing simulations of future economic behaviour. CHECO was designed to create the tools for planning and flexibility. But it was not really put into practice.

The fourth component of the system, Opsroom, created a new environment for decision making, which modeled after a British World War II War room. It consisted of seven chairs in an inward facing circle and a series of projection screens, each of them displaying the data collected from the nationalized (Miller, 2005). To enable individuals with minimal scientific training to understand the information, all industries were standardized with a uniform system of iconic representation. One of the walls in the room contained four screens, which represented structural information. The large screen contained instructions for changing the images displayed below, a mix of flow diagrams, factory photographs and unitless mappings of actual and potential production capacities. Two screens recorded algedonic signals on another wall, which represented overall production trends and listed urgent problems which required government intervention. This was based on Beer’s metaphor of the economy as a biological organism: Brain (government) intervening from the Opsroom in case problems in the lungs (factories) are not solved.

Miller shows, in her thesis, how ideas similar to Cybersyn were implemented in Soviet Union after several years of the publication of Red Star, when the utopia of Bolshevik Revolution became a reality. For instance, a complex three-tiered computer network that would use thousands of local computer centers collecting primary information was built. Those local centers would be linked to 30 to 50 computer centers in major cities and then all information would travel to one central government in Moscow. It was realized that this scheme would require the manipulation of fifty million variables more than the three thousand variables required to manage the Chilean economy with Cybersyn. Soviet economists tries to simplify this problem by using indirect centralization in which the state was responsible for determining optimal prices and efficiency levels and companies were allowed to make their own decisions. According to Miller, this solution seems very similar to Cybersyn, but there were important differences. In its infancy, the Chilean planning was more receptive to new ideas and challenges. The state development agency CORFO underwent a series of changes that allowed it to grow in different areas (public and mixed property) and to increase new management capabilities (such as adding of new layers of bureaucracy to pre-existing administrative hierarchy) In the Soviet context, factory autonomy contradicted the Soviet economic theory and threatened the centralised power of the State. Rather than being instruments of change, computer technology strengthened centralised control in Soviet Union. In other words, I would argue, it was not simply the combination of creative ideas of a crazy British professor and the dedication of a socialist team, which was behind the transformative capacity and efficiency of Cybersyn. Soviet Union had much more capacity to enact those. Rather, it was being open to new things, a critique of centralized planning of already existing socialist experiences and a very strict emphasis on worker participation which pushed individuals to think differently while playing with similar instruments. A different mind set made a difference in Chile as compared to Soviet Union.

Chilean system aimed to improve the efficacy of human interventions in the factory system. Automated functions were aimed to increase participation and intervention. The emphasis on worker control and participation was a recurrent theme in the debates on and implementation of Cybersyn." (http://nightsoflabour.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/cybersyn-further-thoughts-for-a-communist-laboratory/)

More Information

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