"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

The New Yorker OCTOBER 13, 2014 - by Evgeny Morozov


Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation.

In 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 midcentury 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 nationalised 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.

Beer was an unlikely saviour for socialism. He had served as an executive with United Steel and worked as a development director for the International Publishing Corporation (then one of the largest media companies in the world), and he ran a lucrative consulting practice. He had a lavish life style, complete with a Rolls-Royce and a grand house in Surrey, which was fitted out with a remote-controlled waterfall in the dining room and a glass mosaic with a pattern based on the Fibonacci series. To convince workers that cybernetics in the service of the command economy could offer the best of socialism, a certain amount of reassurance was in order. In addition to folk music, there were plans for cybernetic-themed murals in the factories, and for instructional cartoons and movies. Mistrust remained. "CHILE RUN BY COMPUTER," a January, 1973, headline in The Observer announced, shaping the reception of Beer's plan in Britain.

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 summarised 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.

That was a challenge: the Chilean government was running low on cash and supplies; the United States, dismayed by Allende's nationalisation campaign, was doing its best to cut Chile off. And so a certain amount of improvisation was necessary. Four screens could show hundreds of pictures and figures at the touch of a button, delivering historical and statistical information about production - the Datafeed - but the screen displays had to be drawn (and redrawn) by hand, a job performed by four young female graphic designers. Given Beer's plans to build an entire "factory to turn out operations rooms" - every state-run industrial concern was to have one - Project Cybersyn could at least provide graphic designers with full employment.

Beer, who was fond of cigars and whiskey, made sure that an ashtray and a small holder for a glass were built into one of the armrests for each chair. (Sometimes, it seemed, the task of managing the economy went better with a buzz on.) The other armrest featured rows of buttons for navigating the screens. In addition to the Datafeed, there was a screen that simulated the future state of the Chilean economy under various conditions. Before you set prices, established production quotas, or shifted petroleum allocations, you could see how your decision would play out.

One wall was reserved for Project Cyberfolk, an ambitious effort to track the real-time happiness of the entire Chilean nation in response to decisions made in the op room. Beer built a device that would enable the country's citizens, from their living rooms, to move a pointer on a voltmeter-like dial that indicated moods ranging from extreme unhappiness to complete bliss. The plan was to connect these devices to a network - it would ride on the existing TV networks - so that the total national happiness at any moment in time could be determined. The algedonic meter, as the device was called (from the Greek algos, "pain," and hedone, "pleasure"), would measure only raw pleasure-or-pain reactions to show whether government policies were working.

Project Cybersyn can also be viewed as a dispatch from the future. These days, business publications and technology conferences endlessly celebrate real-time dynamic planning, the widespread deployment of tiny but powerful sensors, and, above all, Big Data - an infinitely elastic concept that, according to some inexorable but yet unnamed law of technological progress, packs twice as much ambiguity in the same two words as it did the year before. In many respects, Beer's cybernetic dream has finally come true: the virtue of collecting and analysing information in real time is an article of faith shared by corporations and governments alike.

Beer was invited to Chile by a twenty-eight-year-old technocrat named Fernando Flores, whom Allende had appointed to the state development agency. The agency, a stronghold of Chilean technocracy, was given the task of administering the newly nationalised enterprises. Flores was undeterred by Beer's lack of socialist credentials. He saw that there was a larger intellectual affinity between socialism and cybernetics; in fact, both East Germany and the Soviet Union considered, though never actually built, projects similar to Cybersyn.

As Eden Medina shows in Cybernetic Revolutionaries, her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced. How was he to nationalise hundreds of companies, reorient their production toward social needs, and replace the price system with central planning, all while fostering the worker participation that he had promised? Beer realised that the planning problems of business managers - how much inventory to hold, what production targets to adopt, how to redeploy idle equipment - were similar to those of central planners. Computers that merely enabled factory automation were of little use; what Beer called the "cussedness of things" required human involvement. It's here that computers could help - flagging problems in need of immediate attention, say, or helping to simulate the long-term consequences of each decision. By analysing troves of enterprise data, computers could warn managers of any "incipient instability." In short, management cybernetics would allow for the reengineering of socialism - the command-line economy.

To take advantage of automated computer analysis, managers would need to get a clear view of daily life inside their own firm. First, they would have to locate critical bottlenecks. They needed to know that if trucks arrived late at Plant A, then Plant B wouldn't finish the product by its deadline. Why would the trucks be late? Well, the drivers might be on strike, or lousy weather might have closed the roads. Workers, not managers, would have the most intimate knowledge of these things.

When Beer was a steel-industry executive, he would assemble experts - anthropologists, biologists, logicians - and dispatch them to extract such tacit knowledge from the shop floor. The goal was to produce a list of relevant indicators (like total gasoline reserves or delivery delays) that could be monitored so that managers would be able to head off problems early. In Chile, Beer intended to replicate the modelling process: officials would draw up the list of key production indicators after consulting with workers and managers. "The on-line control computer ought to be sensorily coupled to events in real time," Beer argued in a 1964 lecture that presaged the arrival of smart, net-connected devices - the so-called Internet of Things. Given early notice, the workers could probably solve most of their own problems. Everyone would gain from computers: workers would enjoy more autonomy while managers would find the time for long-term planning. For Allende, this was good socialism. For Beer, this was good cybernetics.

Cybernetics was born in the mid-nineteen-forties, as scholars in various disciplines began noticing that social, natural, and mechanical systems exhibit similar patterns of self-regulation. Norbert Wiener's classic Cybernetics: Or, Control And Communication In The Animal And The Machine (1948) discussed human behaviour by drawing on his close observation of technologies like the radar and the thermostat. The latter is remarkable for how little it needs to know in order to do its job. It doesn't care whether what's making the room so hot is your brand-new plasma TV or the weather outside. It just needs to compare its actual output (the temperature right now) with its predefined output (the desired temperature) and readjust its input (whatever mechanism is producing heat or cold).

Wiener held that a patient suffering from purpose tremor - spilling a glass of water before raising it to his lips - was akin to a malfunctioning thermostat. Both rely on "negative feedback" - "negative" because it tends to oppose what the system is doing. In a way, our bodies are feedback machines: we maintain our body temperature without a specially programmed response for "condition: bathhouse" or "condition: tundra." The tendency to self-adjust is known as homeostasis, and it's ubiquitous in both the natural and the mechanical worlds. For Beer, in fact, corporations are homeostats. They have a clear goal - survival - and are full of feedback loops: between the company and its suppliers or between workers and management. And if we can make homeostatic corporations why not homeostatic governments?

Yet central planning had been powerfully criticised for being unresponsive to shifting realities, notably by the free-market champion Friedrich Hayek. The efforts of socialist planners, he argued, were bound to fail, because they could not do what the free market's price system could: aggregate the poorly codified knowledge that implicitly guides the behaviour of market participants. Beer and Hayek knew each other; as Beer noted in his diary, Hayek even complimented him on his vision for the cybernetic factory, after Beer presented it at a 1960 conference in Illinois. (Hayek, too, ended up in Chile, advising Augusto Pinochet.) But they never agreed about planning. Beer believed that technology could help integrate workers' informal knowledge into the national planning process while lessening information overload.

Project Cybersyn, to be sure, lacked the gizmos available to contemporary organisations. When Beer landed in Santiago, he had access only to two mainframe computers, which the government badly needed for other tasks. Beer chose the "cloud" model: one central computer, analysing reports sent by telex machines installed at state-run factories, could inform the firm of emerging problems and, if nothing was done, alert agency officials.

But computer analysis of factories was only as good as the underlying formal model of how they actually work. Hermann Schwember, a senior member of Cybersyn, described the process in a 1977 essay. The modelling team dispatched to a canning plant, for example, would start with a list of technical questions. What supplies - tin cans, sugar, fruit - were critical to its over-all activity? Were there statistics - say, the amount of peeled fruit, the number of cans in the factory line - that offered an accurate snapshot of the state of production? Were there any machines that might automatically provide the indicators sought by the team (the counter of the sealing unit, perhaps)? The answers would yield a flowchart that started with suppliers and ended with customers.

Suppose that the state planners wanted the plant to expand its cooking capacity by twenty per cent. The modelling would determine whether the target was plausible. Say the existing boiler was used at ninety per cent of capacity, and increasing the amount of canned fruit would mean exceeding that capacity by fifty per cent. With these figures, you could generate a statistical profile for the boiler you'd need. Unrealistic production goals, overused resources, and unwise investment decisions could be dealt with quickly. "It is perfectly possible... to capture data at source in real time, and to process them instantly," Beer later noted. "But we do not have the machinery for such instant data capture, nor do we have the sophisticated computer programs that would know what to do with such a plethora of information if we had it."

Today, sensor-equipped boilers and tin cans report their data automatically, and in real time. And, just as Beer thought, data about our past behaviours can yield useful predictions. Amazon recently obtained a patent for "anticipatory shipping" - a technology for shipping products before orders have even been placed. Walmart has long known that sales of strawberry Pop-Tarts tend to skyrocket before hurricanes; in the spirit of computer-aided homeostasis, the company knows that it's better to restock its shelves than to ask why.

Governments, with oceans of information at their disposal, are following suit. That's evident from an essay on the "data-driven city," by Michael Flowers, the former chief analytics officer of New York City, which appears in Beyond Transparency: Open Data And The Future Of Civic Innovation, a recent collection of essays (published, tellingly, by the Code for America Press), edited by Brett Goldstein with Lauren Dyson. Flowers suggests that real-time data analysis is allowing city agencies to operate in a cybernetic manner. Consider the allocation of building inspectors in a city like New York. If the city authorities know which buildings have caught fire in the past and if they have a deep profile for each such building - if, for example, they know that such buildings usually feature illegal conversions, and their owners are behind on paying property taxes or have a history of mortgage foreclosures - they can predict which buildings are likely to catch fire in the future and decide where inspectors should go first. The appeal of this approach to bureaucrats is fairly obvious: like Beer's central planners, they can be effective while remaining ignorant of the causal mechanisms at play. "I am not interested in causation except as it speaks to action," Flowers told Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the authors of Big Data (Houghton Mifflin), another recent book on the subject. "Causation is for other people, and frankly it is very dicey when you start talking about causation... You know, we have real problems to solve."

In another contribution to Beyond Transparency, the technology publisher and investor Tim O'Reilly, one of Silicon Valley's in-house intellectuals, celebrates a new mode of governance that he calls "algorithmic regulation." The aim is to replace rigid rules issued by out-of-touch politicians with fluid and personalised feedback loops generated by gadget-wielding customers. Reputation becomes the new regulation: why pass laws banning taxi-drivers from dumping sandwich wrappers on the back seat if the market can quickly punish such behaviour with a one-star rating? It's a far cry from Beer's socialist utopia, but it relies on the same cybernetic principle: collect as much relevant data from as many sources as possible, analyse them in real time, and make an optimal decision based on the current circumstances rather than on some idealised projection. All that's needed is a set of fibreglass swivel chairs.

Chilean politics, as it happened, was anything but homeostatic. Cybernetic synergy was a safe subject for the relatively calm first year of Allende's rule: the economy was growing, social programs were expanding, real wages were improving. But the calm didn't last. Allende, frustrated by the intransigence of his parliamentary opposition, began to rule by executive decree, prompting the opposition to question the constitutionality of his actions. Workers, too, began to cause trouble, demanding wage increases that the government couldn't deliver. Washington, concerned that the Chilean road to socialism might have already been found, was also meddling in the country's politics, trying to thwart some of the announced reforms.

In October, 1972, a nationwide strike by truck drivers, who were fearful of nationalisation, threatened to paralyse the country. Fernando Flores had the idea of deploying Cybersyn's telex machines to outmanoeuvre the strikers, encouraging industries to cordinate the sharing of fuel. Most workers declined to back the strike and sided with Allende, who also invited the military to join the cabinet. Flores was appointed Minister of Economics, the strike petered out, and it seemed that Project Cybersyn would win the day.

On December 30, 1972, Allende visited the Operations Room, sat in one of the swivel chairs, and pushed a button or two. It was hot, and the buttons didn't show the right slides. Undaunted, the President told the team to keep working. And they did, readying the system for its official launch, in February, 1973. By then, however, long-term planning was becoming something of a luxury. One of Cybersyn's directors remarked at the time that "every day more people wanted to work on the project," but, for all this manpower, the system still failed to work in a timely manner. In one instance, a cement-factory manager discovered that an impending coal shortage might halt production at his enterprise, so he travelled to the coal mine to solve the problem in person. Several days later, a notice from Project Cybersyn arrived to warn him of a potential coal shortage - a problem that he had already tackled. With such delays, factories didn't have much incentive to report their data.

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 bureaucratisation 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.

It was Allende's regime itself that was soon damaged beyond repair. Pinochet had no need for real-time centralised planning; the market was to replace it. When Allende's regime was overthrown, on September 11, 1973, Project Cybersyn met its end as well. Beer happened to be out of the country, but others weren't so lucky. Allende ended up dead, Flores in prison, other Cybersyn managers in hiding. The Operations Room didn't survive, either. In a fit of what we might now call PowerPoint rage, a member of the Chilean military stabbed its slides with a knife.

Today, one is as likely to hear about Project Cybersyn's aesthetics as about its politics. The resemblance that the Operations Room - with its all-white, utilitarian surfaces and oversized buttons - bears to the Apple aesthetic is not entirely accidental. The room was designed by Gui Bonsiepe, an innovative German designer who studied and taught at the famed Ulm School of Design, in Germany, and industrial design associated with the Ulm School inspired Steve Jobs and the Apple designer Jonathan Ive.

But Cybersyn anticipated more than tech's form factors. It's suggestive that Nest - the much admired smart thermostat, which senses whether you're home and lets you adjust temperatures remotely - now belongs to Google, not Apple. Created by engineers who once worked on the iPod, it has a slick design, but most of its functionality (like its ability to learn and adjust to your favorite temperature by observing your behaviour) comes from analysing data, Google's bread and butter. The proliferation of sensors with Internet connectivity provides a homeostatic solution to countless predicaments. Google Now, the popular smartphone app, can perpetually monitor us and (like Big Mother, rather than like Big Brother) nudge us to do the right thing - exercise, say, or take the umbrella.

Companies like Uber, meanwhile, insure that the market reaches a homeostatic equilibrium by monitoring supply and demand for transportation. Google recently acquired the manufacturer of a high-tech spoon - the rare gadget that is both smart and useful - to compensate for the purpose tremors that captivated Norbert Wiener. (There is also a smart fork that vibrates when you are eating too fast; "smart" is no guarantee against "dumb.") The ubiquity of sensors in our cities can shift behaviour: a new smart parking system in Madrid charges different rates depending on the year and the make of the car, punishing drivers of old, pollution-prone models. Helsinki's transportation board has released an Uber-like app, which, instead of dispatching an individual car, coördinates multiple requests for nearby destinations, pools passengers, and allows them to share a much cheaper ride on a minibus.

Such experiments, however, would be impossible without access to the underlying data, and companies like Uber typically want to grab and hold as much data as they can. When, in 1975, Beer argued that "information is a national resource," he was ahead of his time in treating the question of ownership - just who gets to own the means of data production, not to mention the data? - as a political issue that cannot be reduced to its technological dimensions.

Uber says that it can monitor its supply-and-demand curves in real time. Instead of sticking to fixed rates for car rides, it can charge a floating rate depending on market conditions when an order is placed. As Uber's C.E.O. told Wired last December, "We are not setting the price. The market is setting the price. We have algorithms to determine what that market is." It's a marvellous case study in Cybersyn capitalism. And it explains why Uber's prices tend to skyrocket in inclement weather. (The company recently agreed to cap these hikes in American cities during emergencies.) Uber maintains that surge pricing allows it to get more drivers onto the road in dismal weather conditions. This claim would be stronger if there were a way to confirm its truth by reviewing the data. But at Uber, as at so many tech companies, what happens in the op room stays in the op room.

Stafford Beer was deeply shaken by the 1973 coup, and dedicated his immediate post-Cybersyn life to helping his exiled Chilean colleagues. He separated from his wife, sold the fancy house in Surrey, and retired to a secluded cottage in rural Wales, with no running water and, for a long time, no phone line. He let his once carefully trimmed beard grow to Tolstoyan proportions. A Chilean scientist later claimed that Beer came to Chile a businessman and left a hippie. He gained a passionate following in some surprising circles. In November, 1975, Brian Eno struck up a correspondence with him. Eno got Beer's books into the hands of his fellow-musicians David Byrne and David Bowie; Bowie put Beer's Brain Of The Firm on a list of his favorite books.

Isolated in his cottage, Beer did yoga, painted, wrote poetry, and, occasionally, consulted for clients like Warburtons, a popular British bakery. Management cybernetics flourished nonetheless: Malik, a respected consulting firm in Switzerland, has been applying Beer's ideas for decades. In his later years, Beer tried to re-create Cybersyn in other countries - Uruguay, Venezuela, Canada - but was invariably foiled by local bureaucrats. In 1980, he wrote to Robert Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, to gauge his interest in creating "a national information network (operating with decentralised nodes using cheap microcomputers) to make the country more governable in every modality." Mugabe, apparently, had no use for algedonic meters.

Fernando Flores moved in the opposite direction. In 1976, an Amnesty International campaign secured his release from prison, and he ended up in California, at Berkeley, studying the ideas of Martin Heidegger and J. L. Austin and writing a doctoral thesis on business communications in the office of the future. In California, Flores reinvented himself as a business consultant and a technology entrepreneur. (In the early 1980s, Werner Erhard, the founder of est, was among his backers.) Flores reentered Chilean politics and was elected a senator in 2001. Toying with the idea of running for President, he eventually launched his own party and found common ground with the right.

Before designing Project Cybersyn, Beer used to complain that technology "seems to be leading humanity by the nose." After his experience in Chile, he decided that something else was to blame. If Silicon Valley, rather than Santiago, has proved to be the capital of management cybernetics, Beer wasn't wrong to think that Big Data and distributed sensors could be enlisted for a very different social mission. While cybernetic feedback loops do allow us to use scarce resources more effectively, the easy availability of fancy thermostats shouldn't prevent us from asking if the walls of our houses are too flimsy or if the windows are broken. A bit of causal thinking can go a long way. For all its utopianism and scientism, its algedonic meters and hand-drawn graphs, Project Cybersyn got some aspects of its politics right: it started with the needs of the citizens and went from there. The problem with today's digital utopianism is that it typically starts with a PowerPoint slide in a venture capitalist's pitch deck. As citizens in an era of Datafeed, we still haven't figured out how to manage our way to happiness. But there's a lot of money to be made in selling us the dials.