Cybersyn Control Room (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Cybernetics and Stafford Beer were introduced to me by a friend who was a former mainframe systems analyst interested in using Beer’s Viable Systems Model for the design of peace processes more resilient to spoiler dynamics in the erstwhile Sri Lankan peace process. Never quite grasped it, though words like algedonic feedback and taxonomic change sounded quite delicious.
I was reminded of Beer when I was sent a link by Patrick Meier recently on the use of ICTs in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Two countries, a continent and decades apart, demonstrate just how powerful technology can be in fostering social change. I bring up the example of Chile in particular because Beer’s system called Cybersyn (pictured above) was able in the 70’s to use information and communications to thwart the first strikes against Allende’s government sponsored by the CIA. As Andy Beckett notes in the Guardian,
Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them.
This, mind you, was in 1973!
Using nothing more than telex machines connected to central control rooms, Cybersyn was able to leverage the power of near real time communication to thwart the workers strikes. Field based needs and information fed into effective and timely national needs based responses. That’s the kind of operational effectiveness that humanitarian information systems still struggle to achieve today.
The interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.
An important legacy of Beer’s work and research is the approach to communications systems design at a local and national level. Both he and Allende did not perceive (or use) Cybersyn as a means through which an Orwellian surveillance state could be brought about, such as that we see in the United Kingdom today with its millions of CCTVs. As Andy Beckett avers,
[Beer and Allende] shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people. On the contrary, it was hoped that the system would allow workers to manage, or at least take part in the management of their workplaces, and that the daily exchange of information between the shop floor and Santiago would create trust and genuine cooperation – and the combination of individual freedom and collective achievement that had always been the political holy grail for many leftwing thinkers.
There were other non-technological innovations, such as bringing together diverse and sometimes opposing groups into the control rooms to discuss national affairs, a precursor to the virtual One Text process we pioneered in Sri Lanka. As Eden Media notes in “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”, although Cybersyn was technically ambitious, from the outset it could not be characterised as simply a technical endeavour to regulate the economy. From the perspective of project team members, it could help make Allende’s socialist revolution a reality – ‘ revolutionary computing ’ in the truest sense.
And it is important to underscore here that Beer’s work was not about processing power, but about processing communications. Information management in its truest sense.
Which neatly ties in with Patrick’s link on Operation Vula, an encrypted communications systems for the African National Congress designed in the 1980’s. Patrick’s post and the excerpts from the article he quotes from showcase an interesting similarity with Cybersyn in that both systems ran on hardware less powerful than our mobile phones today. Both were successes in their own right, though Vula perhaps to a greater degree than Cybersyn. Both carry important lessons for us today in the design of ICT frameworks for peacebuilding, reconciliation processes and humanitarian aid.
As Tim Jenkins notes in The story of the secret underground communications network of Operation Vula,
The lessons of Vula are clear. Without first-class communications you cannot carry out a successful underground operation. Underground does not mean silence, it simply means operating at a different level – one that operates in parallel but separately from the above-ground. Both levels need to be able to communicate in order to operate effectively but in the underground communication links are more critical as they are the cement that binds together the parts… Vula should serve as an example for the present. The need for good communications are as important today as they were in the days of the underground.