Thirty years ago on September 11th there was an attack from the air on another building of symbolic importance. Then it was La Modena – the Presidential Palace in Santiago de Chile – and the planes were Chilean Air force jets. While the numbers killed in the Palace were relatively small, about 3000 disappeared in the events that followed and thousands more were imprisoned, tortured, forced into exile or lived in fear. This too was an assault on a country with a democratically elected government by people who believed they had God on their side.
There will be others better qualified than me who will no doubt be drawing parallels between the two September 11ths over the next few days. What I would like to draw attention to is another less remarked loss from the first – the destruction of a cybernetic system designed to run a national economy in real time.
I touched on this in a paper,“As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?” when I wrote:
“”… the only large scale attempt to apply cybernetic insights into running a national economy in real time, under the Allende government in Chile in the early seventies, was ruthlessly crushed as a side effect of the US-backed coup 1973. Destroying a democratically elected government, torturing, killing and disappearing thousands of people and installing a military dictatorship is the kind of crime that the forces of organised stupidity have committed for years, in both the East and the West. But destroying an experiment from which we could have learned much, whether it succeed or failed, without even realising they were doing so, is an almost unprecedented triumph of stupidity. I am using ‘stupidity’ here in a very precise, even technical way. In this definition it is the inability of the brain or any other part of nature to accept useful information, learn from it, and act intelligently on it.””
I was reminded of this by an article in the Guardian by Andy Becket, “Santiago Dreaming”, where he gives his account of Stafford Beer’s team’s work on setting up this system in Chile. One irony I hadn’t known was that on September 10th the team was measuring up a room in the Presidential Palace for an updated control centre. A further irony was that despite reports in some of the Western press, including the New Scientist, that Beer was establishing a totalitarian “Big Brother” system, when the Military that took over looked at it, “they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it.”
Now, while I have adopted many of Beer’s ideas and insights into my own thinking, I have some doubts about the viability and practicality of his total system. The Chilean experiment could have been an important test for his ideas and if he was right, we might have been able to manage our world more effectively. Equally, if he was wrong, we would know that we had to look elsewhere. In any case, the experiment was cut short and when and if another opportunity to find out whether it would work will arise is unclear.
Stafford Beer died last year, but before he died he gave an address at the University of Valladolid, “What is Cybernetics?” (PDF). Curiously, it gives this piece a kind of symmetry, because he gives a cybernetic interpretation of the events September 11th 2001 as well a wider discussion of his ideas and of his experience in Chile. In these days of over simple ideas and theories it is well worth a read.