Before '73 coup, Chile tried to find the right software for socialism

Cybersyn, a project that included a clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines, was in the early 1970s a part of an experiment to help manage Chile's economy.(From The New York Times)
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor
SANTIAGO, Chile--When military forces loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet staged a coup here in September 1973, they made a surprising discovery. Salvador Allende's Socialist government had quietly embarked on a novel experiment to manage Chile's economy using a clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines.

The project, called Cybersyn, was the brainchild of A. Stafford Beer, a visionary Briton who employed his "cybernetic" concepts to help Allende find an alternative to the planned economies of Cuba and the Soviet Union. After the coup it became the subject of intense military scrutiny.

In developing Cybersyn , Beer changed the lives of the bright young Chileans he worked with here. Some 35 years later, this little-known feature of Allende's abortive Socialist transformation was remembered in an exhibit in a museum beneath La Moneda, the presidential palace.

A Star Trek-like chair with controls in the armrests was a replica of those in a prototype operations room. Beer planned for the room to receive computer reports based on data flowing from telex machines connected to factories up and down this 2,700-mile-long country. Managers were to sit in seven of the contoured chairs and make critical decisions about the reports displayed on projection screens.

While the operations room never became fully operational, Cybersyn gained stature within the Allende government for helping to outmaneuver striking workers in October 1972. That helped planners realize--as the pioneers of the modern-day Internet did--that the communications network was more important than computing power, which Chile did not have much of, anyway. A single IBM 360/50 mainframe, which had less storage capacity than most flash drives today, processed the factories' data, with a Burroughs 3500 later filling in.

Cybersyn was born in July 1971 when Fernando Flores, then a 28-year-old government technocrat, sent a letter to Beer seeking his help in organizing Allende's economy by applying cybernetic concepts. Beer was excited by the prospect of being able to test his ideas.

He wanted to use the telex communications system--a network of teletypewriters--to gather data from factories on variables like daily output, energy use and labor "in real time," and then use a computer to filter out the important pieces of economic information the government needed to make decisions.

Beer set up teams of computer programmers in England and Chile, and began making regular trips to Santiago to direct the project. He was paid $500 a day while working in Chile, a sizable sum here at the time, said Raúl Espejo, who was Cybersyn's operations director.

The Englishman became a mentor to the Chilean team, many of them in their 20s. On one visit he tried to inspire them by sharing Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," the story of a seagull who follows his dream to master the art of flying against the wishes of the flock.

An imposing man with a long gray-flecked beard, Beer was a college dropout who challenged the young Chileans with tough questions. He shared his love for writing poetry and painting, and brought books and classical music from Europe. He smoked cigars and drank whiskey and wine constantly, "but was never losing his head," Espejo said.

Most of the Cybersyn team scrupulously avoided talking about politics, and some even had far-right-wing views, said Isaquino Benadof, who led the team of Chilean engineers designing the Cybersyn software.

One early challenge was how to build the communications network. Short of money, the team found 500 unused telex machines in a warehouse of the national telecommunications company.

Cybersyn's turning point came in October 1972, when a strike by truckers and retailers nearly paralyzed the economy. 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.

The strike ended within a week. While it weakened Allende's Popular Unity party, the government survived, and Cybersyn was praised for playing a major role. "From that point on the communications center became part of whatever was happening," Espejo said.

"Chile run by computer," blared The British Observer on Jan. 7, 1973, as word of the experiment began leaking out.

But as the country's political and security situation worsened, Beer and his Chilean team realized that time was running out.

Allende remained committed to Cybersyn to the end. On September 8, 1973, he gave orders to move the operations room to the presidential palace. But three days later the military took over; Allende died that afternoon.

Military officials soon confronted Cybersyn's leaders, seeking to understand their political motivations. Benadof said he was interrogated at least three times. Espejo, after being questioned, was warned to leave the country; two months after the coup he fled to England.

The military never could grasp Cybersyn, and finally dismantled the operations room. Several other Cybersyn team members went into exile. Flores, who was both economy and finance minister in the Allende government, spent three years in military concentration camps. After his release, he moved with his family to California to study at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.

He later was one of the inventors of the Coordinator, a program that tracked spoken commitments between workers within a company, one of the first forays into "work flow" software. He became a millionaire and returned to Chile, where today he is a senator representing the Tarapaca Region.

Beer, who died in 2002, helped some team members secure college teaching positions in England. That included Espejo, who dedicated himself to advancing cybernetics.

"The Chilean project completely transformed Stafford's life, and he obviously had a huge impact on all of us," Espejo said. "Clearly, his work was not recognized during his lifetime. But what he has written will remain for a long time."

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