Thursday, 22 March 2012

Review of Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2011

March 2012

In this book Eden Medina offers a historic review and reflexion of an unlikely project; Cybersyn. It happened in the Chile of Presidente Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. The book offers a most compelling account of an attempt to use science and technology in support of the management of a highly turbulent political process. I was its operational director and therefore had a privileged participation in its unfolding.
Cybersyn, the brainchild of Stafford Beer, was conceived and developed at the same time of publishing Brain of the Firm, the first of his trilogy about the Viable System Model (VSM). He had been pondering about this model for some years and Chile offered the opportunity to use it.
Eden’s historic account is well researched and balanced. As a participant, this account resonates fairly well with my memories. Indeed I disagree here and there with particular recollections and in occasions, as I illustrate below, I would have put the emphasis differently, but overall I feel comfortable with her account even if sometimes it is not favourable to individuals or the project as a whole. Yes, I would have emphasised differently the roles of the Operations Research and Design teams in the project. I would have liked to read more about the huge contribution of the Operations Research group at the State Technology Institute. This team was responsible for modelling some of the technological processes of the public and nationalised enterprises and for designing performance indices to support managers. On the other hand I felt that the role of the team that designed the Operations Room (also operating from the same Institute) appeared over emphasised. No doubt that this latter team made a most powerful contribution to the project, but its overall scale was smaller than that suggested by the book.
Cyberstride, the idea of managing in real time the economy, was the driving force of Cybersyn and in my view it was Stafford’s most powerful vision at a time when global and local management were dominated by historic reporting operating with huge time lags. His concern was reducing the complexity natural to the industrial activities of the country to meaningful levels for effective managerial action, respecting the autonomy of the people, enterprises and overall industrial economy. He referred to this concern as variety engineering. In this engineering he saw computers as nodes in action networks rather than as number crunching machines. At a time when computers were used to routinize operational activities, Beer saw the role of computers in society and the economy as machines to give information to the people for them to act and control their destinies.
Eden rightly gives to Beer’s Viable System Model an important role in the project; however she makes apparent that “Beer was more interested in studying how systems behaved in the real world than in creating exact representations of how they function.”… “Beer’s emphasis on action over mathematical precision set him apart from many of his peers in the academic operations research community who, Beer believed, privileged mathematical abstraction over problem solving”
Stafford arrived to Chile with the manuscript of the book “Brain of the Firm”, which instantly captured the imagination of all of us and also of people further afield. Eden clearly states that from a historic perspective her explanation of the VSM had to be rooted in that book and not in its further developments after Cybersyn and she offers a good introduction to the model. Perhaps what this introduction does not make apparent is that Stafford had not spent much time in methodological considerations for its application and that in fact an important contribution of the local team was unravelling its use. However, the VSM was not used to model the Chilean economy but as a reference for engineering its variety. It gave us a heuristic for designing indices of performance at a number of structural levels, which were hypothesized as recursion levels of the industrial economy in line with the insights of the VSM.
Eden gives compelling evidence about the unavoidable interdependence of technology and politics. Cybersyn, as a technological device, could not free itself from the on-going politics of the day. Its relevance to politics is clearly instantiated by the increasing influence of Fernando Flores - the political leader of Cybersyn- on President Allende’s decisions. At the same time her account of the project itself makes apparent the limited relevance of Cybersyn in the Chilean economic scene. This was the case in spite of Beer’s efforts to catch up with the political chaos. She illustrates this conflict between politics and technology with reference to the publicity received by the project at the time and the project’s schizophrenia. Stafford’ main public speech about Cybersyn at the time was the Richard Goodman Lecture in the UK and she states with reference to this lecture that “By emphasizing technology instead of Cybersyn’s relationship to the social and economic goals of Allende’s nationalization program, Beer failed to definitively separate himself from the technocrats he criticized.”
This book offers a wonderful story about unlikely events that happened 40 years ago that are still relevant today. Personally, with the benefit of hindsight, I could make many criticisms to the work of those difficult but adrenaline-charged days, but in a book with a historic emphasis it would be unfair to criticise Cybersyn with the eyes of the 21st Century and certainly Eden Medina does not do that as she offers a balanced a well contextualised account of Cybersyn.

Raul Espejo


Anonymous said...

Dear Pr. Espejo,
Reading your writtings you turned me back to 1983 - 1984 to the classrooms of Aston's Management Center, attending you as student of the MSc Course in Operations Research and Systems Analysis. I always remember your passion you were trying to pass to us regarding the Chile Project and Cybernetics in general and I admired you for this. Reading this text I see that my teacher remains as I remember him, straight and clrar.I am very huppy that you are well and I wish you all the best.
Thank you for this way of thinking and approaching cases and situations in the real world that you offered to me.

John (Ioannis) Apostolopoulos
MSc in Operational Research & Systems Analysis
Aston University Grad.1984
Athens Greece

Thelma said...