Cybernetics and Planned Economies

Great New Yorker story on project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende’s failed effort to create a cybernetic system to centralize control of Chile’s economy. Stafford Beer—an important figure in the cybernetics world—consulted on the design of the system. He left Chile before Allende was overthrown in the coup that led to the Pinochet dictatorship. But Beer had become disillusioned with the project before then:

One of the participating engineers described the factory modelling process as “fairly technocratic” and “top down”—it did not involve “speaking to the guy who was actually working on the mill or the spinning machine.” Frustrated with the growing bureaucratization of Project Cybersyn, Beer considered resigning. “If we wanted a new system of government, then it seems that we are not going to get it,” he wrote to his Chilean colleagues that spring. “The team is falling apart, and descending to personal recrimination.” Confined to the language of cybernetics, Beer didn’t know what to do. “I can see no way of practical change that does not very quickly damage the Chilean bureaucracy beyond repair,” he wrote.

This doesn’t surprise me. While I can see the allure of using computer technology to gather real-time feedback on the state of an economy, the control aspect of the Cybersyn project eludes me—especially given the enormous practical and technical constraints the team was facing. What would lead intelligent people to think they could 1) build an accurate model of an entire country’s economy, 2) that would be flexible enough to adapt to the changes that invariably happen in such a complex system, 3) that they could control, 4) using early 1970s computing technology? Hubris? Naïveté? Wishful thinking? More to the point, what lessons does this effort hold for today’s world, which we are wiring up with feedback and control mechanisms Cybersyn’s designers could only dream of? (I’ve long had the book Cybernetic Revolutionaries, which deals with the project’s history, on my reading queue. This New Yorker story has nudged me to move it up a couple of places in the line.)

The Planning Machine: Project Cybersyn and the original of the Big Data nation