On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic.
Beer—a towering middle-aged man with a long, dark beard—sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy—transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more—could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.
In the early 1970s the scale of Beer’s proposed network was unprecedented. One of the largest computer networks of the day was a mere fifteen machines in the US, the military progenitor to the Internet known as ARPANET. Beer was suggesting a network with hundreds or thousands of endpoints. Moreover, the computational complexity of his concept eclipsed even that of the Apollo moon missions, which were still ongoing at that time. After several hours of conversation, President Allende responded to the audacious proposition: Chile must indeed become the world’s first cybernetic government, for the good of the people. Work was to start straight away.
Stafford Beer practically ran across the street to share the news with his awaiting technical team, and much celebratory drinking occurred that evening. But the ambitious cybernetic network would never become fully operational if the CIA had anything to say about it.
The United States’ fascination with Chilean politics began when Salvador Allende Gossens became a viable candidate for the presidency in 1970. He was openly affiliated with the Cold War S-word “socialism”, which was evidently intolerable in respectable hemispheres. But the Chilean people were consistently disappointed with the prior political parties and they were considering a switch. Unwilling to risk a democratically elected socialist in their “backyard”, the Nixon administration deployed covert CIA support for Allende’s presidential opponent. But their clandestine counterparts at the KGB also fortified their preferred candidate, and mutually assured distraction was achieved.
Upon hearing that Allende had won the presidency, President Richard Nixon convened an emergency war breakfast with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Attorney General John Mitchell, Chilean newspaper owner Augustín Edwards, and Pepsi Cola chairman Donald Kendall. The businessmen expressed grave concerns about their enterprises in Chile, and the quintet concurred that a Socialist president could not be permitted on a neighboring continent, democracy be damned. When breakfast was adjourned, Nixon met with CIA Director Richard Helms, possibly over brunch, and instructed him to arrange for a military coup d’etat to prevent Allende from ever assuming the presidency. He allocated $10 million to the meddlesome endeavor which would come to be known as Project FUBELT.
Five weeks later, on 22 October 1970, a posse of CIA-funded right-wing extremists ambushed a government car in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Inside was General René Schneider, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army. The CIA considered him an obstacle owing to his misgivings about military intervention in the political process. When the General drew a gun to defend himself, the proxy overthrowers revised their kidnapping plan into an improvised homicide. The consequent national outrage cemented the country’s support for their president-elect, and Allende was confirmed two days later.
When Allende learned of Stafford Beer’s cybernetic Viable System Model, he was intrigued. Cybernetics was an obscure but burgeoning area of study which sought to maximize organizational efficiency through data gathering and statistical analysis, and Beer was among its most flourishing practitioners. Mr Beer’s model suggested that large organizations are like living, thinking, feeling organisms, therefore they should mimic the successes that evolution had refined in humans. Beer felt that business departments should be seen as largely autonomous but interdependent “organs” managed by a “brain” of automated and manual systems. Allende, in spite of his Socialist leanings, was an outspoken proponent of civil liberties and industrial autonomy, and he saw that Beer’s cybernetics could foster both in Chile.
Stafford Beer was only 44 years old at the time of the fateful meeting, yet by that time he had amassed considerable wealth and prestige by applying his cybernetic principles for multinational organizations. He had also authored a menagerie of books and papers about cybernetics, one of which was The Liberty Machine, wherein he described a hypothetical utopian government that used cybernetics to supersede bureaucracy and respond to the needs of the populace. Beer saw Chile’s new Socialist government as a perfect laboratory to test cybernetic theory on a scale never before attempted.
Upon approval of the experimental project, Beer and his team began immediately. Beer labored alongside a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores, the general technical manager of the Corporación de Fomento de la Producción (CORFO), the organization in charge of nationalizing Chilean industries. Flores was one of Beer’s greatest admirers—in fact it was he who had initially invited the British cybernetician to proposition the President.
Beer had arrived in Chile with a well-developed plan of action. Anticipating a small budget and poor infrastructure, Beer’s idea for the hundreds of network endpoints was to employ telex (aka “teletype”) machines. These contraptions were a bit dated even at the time, but they were numerous and inexpensive. A single unit looked like the bizarre offspring of a rotary phone and an electric typewriter. When one telex unit connected to another via phone line, the clacking print heads printed output from the remote keyboard, and vice-versa, making them a paper-pounding progenitor to modern instant messaging. Telex machines could also print output as coded holes punched into a long paper strip. These could then be fed into the mainframe as old-timey data input. This collection of remote telexes all feeding data to the central mainframe would come to be known as Cybernet. In an astonishing stroke of luck, it turned out that the telephone company had about 400 spare telex machines cultivating cobwebs in a warehouse.
The software for the mainframe, codenamed Cyberstride, would be developed primarily by a British programming firm using the DYNAMO programming language. This suite of algorithms would use realtime and long-term data to detect and predict problems in the economy. Beer and his team would design the futuristic central control room where a group of Chilean policy makers could view these data in various ways and intervene in the economy when necessary. They would also have access to a sophisticated economic simulator, allowing them to test their hypotheses prior to implementation.
The sum of all of these parts would ultimately come to be known as Project Cybersyn, a portmanteau of “cybernetics” and “synergy” from before the words were corporate-speak. True to Beer’s Viable System Model, industrial and business sites were the vital organs; Cybernet was the spinal cord to facilitate communication among organs; Cyberstride was the lower brain monitoring these interactions; the control room was the midbrain linking voluntary and involuntary control; and lastly the cerebral cortex was made up of the thinking meat inside the control room.
Stafford Beer also envisioned a parallel system for measuring the happiness of the populace, a system he referred to as Project Cyberfolk. Randomly selected households would be wired with a small electronic box featuring a single volume-style pleasure knob. At any time users could turn the knob to indicate their present level of satisfaction with the government. If multiple meters in an area were set low it would equate to a signal of cybernetic “pain”, allowing government to respond appropriately.
At first, Fernando Flores and the CORFO team didn’t know what to think of their imported overseer. Stafford Beer was tall, stout, and he wore a long beard from which a cigar frequently protruded. He was seldom seen without his whiskey flask, and he was fond of festooning his scientific papers with bits of original poetry and artwork. But his series of indisputable international successes corroborated his cybernetic insight. By day he was an intense phosphorus bulb of intellect, and by night he engaged his colleagues in alcohol-enhanced ponderings on science and philosophy. Cybersyn was to be the ultimate realization of his entire body of theoretical work, and he worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.
Meanwhile, the United States’ ongoing efforts to undermine the democratically elected Chilean president were beginning to bear toxic fruit. Despite no formal declaration of unpleasantries, the Nixon administration and the CIA urged governments, banks, and corporations to “drag their feet” in sending money, supplies, machinery, and other such sundries into socialist Chile. Foreign aid dwindled, demand for Chilean copper evaporated, and spare factory parts became scarce. As shortages mounted, the government enacted tax reforms and mandated middle- and lower-class wage increases so consumers could afford necessities, which in turn inflated inflation. Opposition politicians feasted upon the economic gangrene.
The Cybersyn team, aware that their economy-monitoring system might help curtail economic collapse, hurried to establish the central telex communications hub within two months. By early July 1972 about 65 state-owned sites were feeding information into the prototype Cyberstride software running on a Burroughs 3500 mainframe. A month later, as politicians exchanged incendiary blames for the deteriorating economy, violent demonstrations erupted in the streets of Santiago. The government declared a state of emergency. In October, forty thousand truckers went on strike, hindering the distribution of food, fuel, and raw materials. Truckers blocked city streets using men, trucks, hodgepodge roadblocks, and miscellaneous violence. Simultaneously, opposition rabblerousers were said to be hoarding or destroying basic consumer goods. Essentials became scarce, and the military became cantankerous.
Fernando Flores stood in the recently completed Cybernet hub and looked upon the silent rows of telex machines. He had an idea. Cybersyn already possessed some cybernetic limbs, organs, and a nervous system, all it lacked to become useful was a functioning brain. He and CORFO programmers began coding. With astonishing swiftness they assembled and inserted a stopgap software brain onto the mainframe. They sent instructions to loyal telex operators around the country, and turned on the power for the slapdash Cybersyn. Soon the previously placid telex communications center was filled with a concurrent mechanical clattering unlike any the men had heard before. ”IT’S ALIIIIIVE!” Flores may or may not have screamed.
Throughout the October strike, Cybernet operators around the country dutifully identified the locations of available trucks, loyal drivers, unblocked routes, supplies, and demands. Cybernet alpha collated these data, and CORFO sent drivers along safe, circuitous routes through cities to deliver food, fuel, spare parts, and other necessities. One senior government official, referring to the particularly bleak 17 October, later asserted, “the government would have collapsed that night if it had not had the cybernetic tool.”
A little more than a month later, on 30 December 1972, Fernando Flores brought President Allende to a CORFO facility to inspect the newly constructed Cybersyn control room. It was a glistening hexagonal chamber of modern magnificence, whiffing vaguely of carpet glue and fresh fiberglass. There were large, flat viewscreens ensconced in two of the wood-panel walls. Another wall featured an array of lights representing the sectors of the economy, each blinking at a frequency corresponding to the attention needed. The fourth wall, dear reader, held a large metal board where magnets shaped as various symbols could be used to assemble economic flowcharts. The sixth and final wall featured a glowing graphic of Beer’s Viable System Model; a shrine to cybernetics. Tucked into one corner of the room was a mini-bar where these economic custodians could mix cocktails.
Every aspect of the room’s design was intended to foster open decision-making among a small cabal of well-informed, intelligent men. In the center of the carpet was affixed a circle of seven sleek white fiberglass swivel chairs. The circular arrangement was to prevent participants from self-organizing an hierarchy, and the odd number of operators ensured there would never be a tied vote. Designers had also taken into account recent research on human memory indicating that the human brain can usefully consider a maximum of seven simultaneous data points. On each identical chair there was an ashtray at the left elbow and a cluster of glowing electronic toggles on the right. These control panels allowed each chair’s occupant to navigate the graphs, trends, and photos on the viewscreens like a rudimentary hypertext.
Allende sat in one of the chairs and briefly held power over the room. He scanned the hand-designed slides displayed on the colorful rear-projection viewscreens, and breathed in the new-control-room scent. It was still somewhat a facade, but it represented what Chile could become. This was Stafford Beer’s cybernetic brain, and it seemed so close to completion. But the president did not savor the unboxing experience for long. There was the more pressing matter of a rumored military coup to attend to.
By early 1973, the Cyberstride software was beginning to solidify even as the undermined Allende government was crumbling. Beer and Flores decided to announce Cybersyn in the hopes that world leaders would see this forward-thinking cybernetic economy monitor and thaw their policies towards Chile. But shortly before the planned announcement, the British Observer newspaper ran a story headlined “Chile Run by Computer”. The article misrepresented the system as an impenetrable computerized dictator which would rule the economy with a silicon fist, indifferent to the humans it manipulated like so many pixelated chess pieces.
Stafford Beer and Fernando Flores attempted to error-correct the kerfuffle, explaining that Cybersyn did not give computers any actual control over the economy, and that it was merely a tool to furnish better information to the people who already make economic decisions. But the science fiction was too intoxicating. Reporters made alarming, inaccurate assertions about the abilities of the system and likened it to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. An editorial in New Scientist perhaps most succinctly misrepresented Cybersyn and Cyberfolk: “If this is successful, Beer will have created one of the most powerful weapons in history.”
By June 1973 the situation was looking grim. There was a slew of new labor strikes throughout Chile, consumer goods were becoming scarce, and hunger became a common concern. On 29 June a column of tanks commanded by Colonel Roberto Souper rumbled into the capital city of Santiago and encircled the presidential palace as residents fled in panic. The colonel ordered his rebel squadron to attack. The majority of the military was still loyal to the constitutional government, however, and they hastily arrived to set the coup attempt asunder. Several weeks later a right-wing paramilitary contingent assassinated President Allende’s assistant. Beer and Flores observed these events with consternation, feeling that the quick completion of Cybersyn may be the only way to patch up the economy and ease tensions in time to save Allende’s presidency. They worked to exhaustion to finish the system and bring it online, but it seemed increasingly likely that the foreign meddlers would get their way.
During the month of August, opposition saboteurs damaged oil pipelines and the electrical grid. The violence from public demonstrations claimed the lives of at least 20 citizens. Shops closed due to lack of goods, and citizens waited in long lines for food. General Prats, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, resigned his position after failing to restore order. He was replaced by his second in command General Augusto Pinochet.
Early in the morning on 11 September 1973, President Allende received word that the Chilean navy had turned against him. Navy forces were systematically seizing seaports, deploying infantry, and silencing television and radio broadcasts on their way to the capital. Allende attempted to phone Admiral Montero, commander of the Navy and loyal ally, but rebels had cut the Admiral’s phone lines and disabled his car. Allende attempted to phone the general of the Air Force and the new commander-in-chief General Pinochet, but they declined to answer. Your call is unimportant to us, please continue to be deposed.
Men and machines from the army, navy, and air force surrounded the barricaded presidential palace on all axes. The president’s telephone rang. Minister of Finance Fernando Flores, who had become one of President Allende’s closest aides, spoke to the caller. The voice demanded Allende’s immediate resignation and unconditional surrender. The president declined. Instead he walked to the palace’s radio room and addressed the citizenry of Chile with a live broadcast. An excerpt follows:
“Workers I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Go forward knowing that sooner rather than later avenues will open along which free men will walk to build a better society. Long live Chile. Long live the people. Long live the workers.”
General Pinochet, one of the primary instigators of the coup, grew weary of phone negotiations and ordered the air force to attack the historic palace. Low-flying jet aircraft pounded the building with a democracy-seeking rocket. Sections collapsed as a column of smoke billowed from the roof. Sometime around 2:30pm, amidst the explosions and choking smoke, Allende ordered his fellow defenders to surrender lest they all be killed. They did as he asked. Before leaving the building, Allende’s personal physician returned to the president’s office. There he found Allende dead. After sending everyone away the president had evidently shot himself through the head with his AK-47 assault rifle, a gift from Fidel Castro. He was 65 years old.
Stafford Beer was in London lobbying support for the Chilean government when he saw the news on a newspaper billboard. The headline was technically incorrect but sufficient in substance: “Allende Assassinated.” Beer had missed his deadline.
Nixon and Kissinger’s political broken eggs soon congealed into a colossal, appalling omelette with extra demagogue sauce. As the presidential palace still burned, General Pinochet suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress, and installed himself and other military leaders as the new government. This junta imposed strict censorship and curfew upon the populace. Troops gathered and imprisoned citizens who disapproved of the administration’s politics. The National Stadium of Chile, a sports arena, was repurposed into a detention center where over 40,000 people would eventually be held. Men were kept in the field and gallery, and women were locked away in the swimming pool changing rooms. Interrogations were carried out in the bicycle track.
Under Pinochet’s leadership the police and military imprisoned, tortured, killed, or “disappeared” tens of thousands of Chileans on suspicion of incorrect politics. CIA officers observed and reported these human rights violations, but the United States declined to intervene further. Pinochet’s men found and destroyed Cybernet and the Cybersyn control room, ending the cybernetic experiment. Stafford Beer did all he could from afar to assist his Chilean colleagues to escape the deteriorating Chile, but Fernando Flores was already imprisoned. Flores spent three years in military concentration camps, and he was subjected to prolonged psychological torture.
In 1975, the United States Senate assembled the uneconomically monikered United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. This investigative body concluded that the CIA and Nixon administration had indeed funded and fomented the attempted Chilean coup in 1970; and following that failure they applied pressure and propaganda to undermine democratically elected President Allende. The report summed up the sentiment thusly: “US officials in the years before 1973 may not always have succeeded in walking the thin line between monitoring indigenous coup plotting and actually stimulating it.” Many documents regarding the US intervention in Chile remain classified today.
Flores was finally released and exiled in the late 1970s, and he relocated to California with the assistance of Amnesty International. He spent the remainder of the Pinochet years earning a PhD in philosophy and making a small fortune programming software. Meanwhile Stafford Beer abandoned most of his worldly belongings and moved to a small cottage in Wales. He gave up such luxuries as telephone service and indoor plumbing, and devoted much of the rest of his life to his poetry, his artwork, and his beard. He advocated and practiced cybernetic techniques for the rest of his days.
General Augusto Pinochet remained the de facto dictator in Chile until 1988, when he acquiesced to pressure from the citizenry, the UN, and the Catholic church to reform the constitution and hold a new presidential election. The Chilean people declined to re-elect him. He stepped down in 1990, though he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army. In 1998, the new government indicted the general for crimes against humanity, and a magistrate in Spain issued an international arrest warrant. Six days later—nearly a decade after leaving office—Pinochet was apprehended in a London clinic where he was undergoing back surgery. Following a 16-month legal battle, Britain ruled to allow Pinochet to return to Chile rather than extradite him to Spain. Back in his homeland the elderly ex-dictator lived a mostly quiet life while Chilean courts argued over his eligibility for incarceration. He died of heart failure on 10 December 2006, aged 91, having never been convicted of any crime.
Fernando Flores eventually returned to his native Chile. In 2001 he was elected as a senator there, and in 2004 and 2006 he made bids for the Chilean presidency, but he was ultimately unsuccessful. He still lives there today. His friend Stafford Beer died in 2002 at the age of 75.
Thanks to dubiously motivated foreign interference, it is now impossible to say whether Cybersyn could have revolutionized the Chilean economy. Given its utopian ambitiousness, quite possibly not. But it is almost certain that President Allende, despite his un-American political affiliation, would have been preferable to Pinochet—a dictator most famous for his Caravan of Death program. As it is, Cybersyn stands as yet another interesting idea sacrificed in the volcano of human tribalism. At least we can take comfort in the fact that we have reasonable, rational humans in charge of our societies rather than those cold, calculating computers.
Update: Stafford Beer’s son Simon wrote in to Damn Interesting to share his personal insights.
Some small corrections have been made regarding Pinochet’s whereabouts after stepping down from his dictatorship.