Wednesday, August 31, 2016


UPDATED/11th September 2016

Report from Allende's Chile by Graham Greene. Published in The Observer magazine [2nd Jan 1972]. Photos: Roman Cagnoni.[The Generalist Archive]
'June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled “Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.” Computers are like children, he sang, and Chilean bureaucrats must not abandon them". 

'The song was prompted by a visit to Santiago from a British consultant who, with his ample beard and burly physique, reminded Parra of Santa Claus—a Santa bearing a “hidden gift, cybernetics.” 

'The consultant, Stafford Beer, had been brought in by Chile’s top planners to help guide the country down what Salvador Allende, its democratically elected Marxist leader, was calling “the Chilean road to socialism.” 

'Beer was a leading theorist of cybernetics—a discipline born of mid-century efforts to understand the role of communication in controlling social, biological, and technical systems. Chile’s government had a lot to control:  Allende, who took office in November of 1970, had swiftly nationalized the country’s key industries, and he promised “worker participation” in the planning process. Beer’s mission was to deliver a hypermodern information system that would make this possible, and so bring socialism into the computer age. The system he devised had a gleaming, sci-fi name: Project Cybersyn...
'At the center of Project Cybersyn (for “cybernetics synergy”) was the Operations Room, where cybernetically sound decisions about the economy were to be made. Those seated in the op room would review critical highlights—helpfully summarized with up and down arrows—from a real-time feed of factory data from around the country. The prototype op room was built in downtown Santiago, in the interior courtyard of a building occupied by the national telecom company. It was a hexagonal space, thirty-three feet in diameter, accommodating seven white fibreglass swivel chairs with orange cushions and, on the walls, futuristic screens. Tables and paper were banned. Beer was building the future, and it had to look like the future.'

These three paragraphs, are from the opening  page of Evgeny Morozov's 'The Planning Machine: Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation.' You can read the whole article here.  ['A Critic at Large' New Yorker 13 Oct 2014]

**Since this was originally posted, my attention has been drawn to the controversy over this article in a blog post by Lee Vinsel entitled 'An Unresolved Issue: Evgeny Morozov, The New Yorker, and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism" [October 11, 2014].  Its essence refers to Eden Medina's book 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries' [see later in this post] 

'Indeed, Morozov's essay was ostensibly a review of 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries'. Yet, Morozov only once mentioned Medina, and the mention came well into his text. To add insult to injury, citation was glancing at best: "As Eden Medina shows in 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries,' her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, [Stafford] Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced." The placement of the mention as well as its wording could and did give many readers the impression that all of the ideas and the work that went into the essay were Morozov's, but they weren't.'


This is a story within the story. Back in 1975, I had made contact with Stafford Beer via letter (no trace in Archives) and received a gracious letter back in elegant handwriting. Sometime later I was on the train from Euston to Aberystwyth and arrived as the sun was going down, at the end of the line. 

I was 25 at the time and this was the first proper interview I had done solo, first time I was in charge of tape recorder. I had no idea of what to expect. I was met at the station by a large bearded man with a commanding voice and a large (blue?) Bentley - Stafford Beer, larger than life. He basically took control and I happily just followed along. We drove somewhere and parked before stepping back in time into the public bar of an old hostelry, festooned with old fishing nets and glass balls, with only a few of the locals in. We began drinking, somebody started singing and playing a guitar (I think) and as the beer went down, the Beer began joining in the singing.

We decamped to an Indian restaurant. Beer was known there. It was noisy, somebody's birthday, If I had been more experienced I would have waited or moved to a quieter spot. as it is the tapes survived and it's possible to catch 95% of a very long monologue, only interrupted by my brief questions, mouthfuls of food and calls for more sherry. The noise dies down. That's when he calls for more sherry.

In my memory, Stafford starting crying. I wasn't sure how to deal with this. Its not on the tape. I must have turned that off. I think because we had been talking about Allende.
Thinking back on it, I am sure Stafford was driving over the limit but this was 1975, hardly any traffic around and a fairly brief journey to a guest house by a small river. A low-lying cottage, We were in the kitchen with a really stunning woman and her grandmother. I don't know whether we drank any more but Stafford encouraged the woman to sing which she did, a most beautiful voice, ancient Welsh folk song, magical.

Next morning I felt a bit thick in the head. Had a hearty breakfast. Walked out to look at the river which was also a bit magical and, when I had cleared my head, sat down with Stafford for another session when he told me about all the other cyberneticians like Wiener, McCullough and Ashby and Pask and Maturana.

I think he then drove me to the station. When I emerged into the London sunshine I had to call my colleague Mike Marten to explain that I had this amazing interview.

Listening to the tapes now is like time-travel.

The interview was meant to form part of the second volume of a proposed trilogy of 'An Index of Possibilities.' The first volume's theme was 'Energy & Power'. The second volume was 'Structures & Systems' which was going to include a section on cybernetics.

Stafford's work in Allende's Chile was known about in 1975. I have clippings from The Observer and 'Architectural Design' (AD), reviewing two of his new books 'Designing Freedom' and 'Platform for Change'; in the latter, he outlines the Cybersyn project in some detail. However it was not certainly not mainstream press.

In December 1977, Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalogue sent a message that he was interested in reading the interview. 

I must have written to Stafford as a result and sent him a copy of our new book 'Worlds Within Worlds' - the first popular book providing an overview of scientific imagery, from the micro to the macro. By this time we had had to abandon our work on Index 2. He wrote me a letter in Feb 1978 which said of WWW: 

'Well- thanks a million for the book. I have read the whole thing. It is the most beautiful book that I have seen for a long time. And it manages to say so much about the perception of systems that can't be communicated in words.. I particularly like the intro on SCALE. I've written a lot about that; but people hang on to their own scale, and the rest is not 'for real'. Scale is a kind of virginity that must not be violated - at the risk of loss of identity...Only Buddhism seems to understand. Tat tvam asi.' [Thou art that].

I wrote two letters to him, one after he had his letter published on Sept 13th 1985 in The Times correspondence page castigating the government over its recent approach to the riots in Handsworth; another a catch-up letter in December 1985. No response came. 


Stafford died in 2002, a month shy of his 76th birthday.

** [Rewrite] The following year, came the first major press coverage of Cybersyn, a 2,000 article by Andy Beckett, whose book 'Pinochet in Piccadilly' was published in 2002. In his piece in The Guardian, Beckett billed Stafford  as an 'eccentric scientist'.

Andy Beckett writes: 'In June 1973, after being advised to leave Santiago, [Beer] rented an anonymous house on the coast....For a few weeks, he wrote and stared at the sea and travelled to government meetings under cover of darkness.'

'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... destroyed it.' [Allende, in fact, took his own life.]

 '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 [his son].


The year before he died, Eden Medina met him, was invited to his house in Toronto, and was able to conduct a two-day long interview. She writes:

'I was a third-year doctoral student hoping to learn more about the history of Project Cybersyn. I had stumbled on the Cybersyn story by chance several months earlier while searching for information on the history of computing in Latin America. It felt like a good story.'

 For the next ten years, Eden conducted a huge research programme which included fifty interviews in eight countries, locating people who worked on the project and consulting both personal and national archives. The result is 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries' a remarkable work which is the definitive account and seems likely to remain so. 

I was aware of Eden Medina's book but was reluctant to read it for some reason. Perhaps I thought it was my story. It was certainly a very powerful personal experience. I finally got the book (now in paperback) earlier this year, I almost immediately wrote to her and we have been in correspondence since. It has taken many months to finally attempt to assemble all these thoughts and memories as well as explaining more of the actual factual story.

For personal reasons I wanted to understand the context of the interviews I'd done in mid-1975.
We're jumping to the end of the story.

Medina writes: 'The Chile project had been a turning point in Beer's life, and it had change him in profound and lasting ways. As the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana put it, 'Beer came to Chile a business man and left a hippie...'

'In 1974, he embarked on  a journey of spiritual and material re-invention, first by taking extended trips to the Welsh countryside. By 1976 he had relocated permanently to a small cottage [in a quarry] in Wales that lacked running water.'

'In 1981, he met Allenna Leonard at a cybernetics conference in Toronto [and she] became his partner for the rest of his life,' establishing a second home on the west side of downtown Toronto. From then on, he lived part of the year in both residences.

No doubt Stafford was distressed not only by the shocking end of Allende's regime. He felt a personal responsibility to help many of the people who'd been involved with in Project Cybersyn.

Medina reminds us that, during the Pinochet regime (1973-1990), more than 3,000 Chileans were "disappeared" or murdered by the government. On estimate is that 100,000 people (1% of the population) were tortured at that time. Medina writes: 'After the coup, Beer worked tirelessly to get his friends out of Chile and used his vast web of professional connections to help them establish new lives in other parts of the world.'


'In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it. I find it good cybernetics.' - Stafford Beer, February 1973

Eden Medina's scholarly investigation tells a complex tale at length. What follows is attempt to grasp the outlines of the story and to draw your attention to some aspects of the story I found most fascinating.

In her intro piece she writes:
'This book tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was an attempt to implement social change peacefully and through existing democratic institutions. The second was an attempt to build a computer system for real-time economic control more than twenty years before the internet became a feature of everyday life.'

This was at a time when the US ARPANET, the predecessor of the internet, was still in its infancy and the Soviet Union had already tried and failed to build a national computer system for managing a planned economy.

In 1970 Chile had approximately 50 computers in the whole country, installed in the government and private sector. Most of them were out of date. Telephones were a scarce resource and connections were unreliable.

Stafford's system, with its Stanley Kubrick-style control centre, ran on one IBM mainframe and a network of telex machines at workplaces all over the country. These would send production date to a central telex. Chilean computer experts would then punch the data on to cards and feed them into the mainframe running a statistical analytic program. Any variations in the data could be feedbacked to the factory or port. The idea was good in principle but they only owned tow telex machines. Fortunately they did locate 400 unused telex machines in storage at the national telecoms centre.

The technical aspects of running such a system, including the design of the control centre, is a remarkable geek tale of problem-solving on the hoof with scant resources using huge human ingenuity. Its Apollo 13 time. 

Cybernetics at that time was not even considered a scientific discipline. Christened by Norbert Wiener in 1948 [drawn from the Greek kubernetes meaning 'steersman'], he defined it as the study of 'control and communication in the animal and the machine'. Attempts were made to make it a universal science but later it was widely realised that cybernetics assumed a variety of forms in different contexts. Another way of defining it that Medina quotes is 'a universal language for the scientific study of machines, organisms and organisations.'

Beer received a letter from Fernando Flores in July 1971 inviting him to set up a cybernetic project in Chile. Flores was a 28-year old engineer who had a leadership role in Allende's nationalisation project. Medina reports that Beer's intellectual reaction produced by the Chilean invitation was: "I had an orgasm."

Beer, Flores and a small team had to come up with a conceptual design and then turn that into a
real-life engineering project, produced to an aggressive timeline. An additional team was established in London to write the software. Beer presented the whole plan to Allende personally and secured his blessing.

Good progress was made but Nixon had authorised a CIA operation almost from the moment that Allende was elected to try and unseat them. Later came news that the telecoms giant ITT were working with the CIA and plans for a full economic blockade of Chile was put together by a considerable number of US corporatuons whose holdings in Chile had been nationalised.

When there was a nationwide October Strike in 1972 in which 40,000 truck owners went on strike, the Cybersyn set-up did help the government survive. They manged to get 99 telexes operating across the country connected to the Cybernet network. But the system in the end was too slow for office managers.

Apparently Beer was greeted in Chile as being a cross between Orson Welles and Socrates and the Cybersyn project had good press. But interestingly Beer's project was vilified in Britain by people who he might have expected to be on his side. Most damaging was a story in The Observer (7th Jan 1973) with the provocative headline 'Chile Run by Computer'.  'The article', Medina writes, ' portrayed the system in a way that was both damaging and untrue. It claimed: "The first computer system designed to control and entire economy has been secretly brought into operation in Chile" and described it as  having been "assembled in some secrecy so as to avoid opposition charges of 'Big Brother' tactics." {Medina found no evidence that is was a covert government initiative]. She continues: '..this early misreading of Project Cybersyn proved extremely difficult for Beer to correct.'

[Right: a picture of Victor Jara whose songs were the anthem of Chile's left. The article is captioned: 'First they took him to the stadium and broke his hands so he would never be able to play again...They took him out and shot him. He was defiant even as he died.' Article by Seamus Milne The Guardian. 22 Oct 1988. See trailer for 'The Resurrection of Victor Jara'

[The Generalist Archive]

The other person who has done most to bring knowledge of Stafford Beer's many achievements to a broader audience is the bookseller, writer, independent researcher and publisher David Whittaker.                                                                                                             He struck up a correspondence with Stafford in 1980 which went for 20 years. He published this 64pp book in 2003, under his own imprint Wavestone Press. It contains some 50 letters with linking text and interesting digressions  
This was followed in 2009 by a much chunkier 382pp volume entitled 'Think Before You Think: Social Complexity and Knowledge of Knowing' It includes a heterogenous collection of papers written by Stafford, almost entirely from 1974 onwards, after the Chilean experience. It also includes numerous poems and paintings. In the appendix is a valuable chronology of Stafford's life and his own account of his time in Chile. Stafford's vast knowledge base is very apparent as is his interest and knowledge of eastern thinking and beliefs. [Both books available from Wavestone Press]

I have left one of the most extraordinary facts about these books until last. The first contains an interview with Brian Eno; the second has an introductory essay by Eno. Yes, the same Eno who is one of the most influential figures in modern music, the inventor of Ambient. It turns out that Eno was actually taught by a cybernetician at art school and that Beer's 'Brain of the Firm' was the great influence on Eno's concept of self-generating music. Beer visited Eno's flat in Maida Vale in 1973 and Eno reciprocated with a visit to Beer's Welsh hideout in 1977, an event he describes in detail. It is clear from both pieces the important influence Beer exerted on Eno's thinking and music-making practice. Whittaker's first book also contains two short letters from Robert Fripp - another Beer fan. 
David Whittaker was first turned on to Stafford Beer through an interview with Eno by Ian MacDonald in the NME [Dec 3rd 1977]

** THE GENERALIST has been heartened by the fantastic reaction to this piece which has had 645 hits in the last 10 days (now 11/9/16), largely due to the fact that Eno liked my tweet on this post and retweeted it to his 77,000+ followers.

A remarkable man

No comments: