An unprecedented triumph of stupidity?

Back in the mid Nineties I wrote a piece for Nick Routledge’s World3 called “As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?”. And, among a whole lot of other stuff, I wrote this:
“… 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.
The mystery of the comparative neglect of cybernetics is only one example of our failure to try out the ideas, concepts and hard won knowledge that have been developed over the past fifty years, preferring instead to cling on to the mishmash of survival techniques from the savannahs and the half remember ideas of long dead theorists that we confuse with practical commonsense. How often have you presented a new idea to a suit and met a blank quasi-religious face unthinkingly, but triumphantly, chanting the mantra ‘But where’s the bottom line?’ as if it really meant something?”

Stumbling around the web a few nights ago I found this piece, “Santiago dreaming”, by Andy Beckett, written about four years ago, that reconnected my rage. It also led me to this fascinating essay by Eden Medina, “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation : Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”. Beer, himself, has written extensively about the Chilean experiment, which clearly affected him deeply. As Andy Beckett reports Beer was in London at the time of the coup:
“The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and called in Espejo and others to explain it to them. But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it. Espejo fled. Some of his colleagues were not so lucky. Soon after the coup, Beer left West Byfleet, his wife, and most of his possessions to live in a cottage in Wales. “He had survivor guilt, unquestionably,” says Simon.” (Simon being Stafford Beer’s son)
But what makes Eden Medina’s essay so intriguing is that, while Beer inevitably discuss some of the tensions involved in realising the project, as a disinterested outsider, Eden Medina is able to explore the tensions and contradictions more fully and, as she explains in this, one of her concluding paragraphs, why this is a history still worth exploring:
“The history presented here demonstrates, moreover, the singular nature of Chile’s socialist experiment. Not only was this project unique in the manner in which it applied cybernetic science to economic regulation and state governance, but its emphasis on decentralised control also resulted in a technology that reflected the distinguishing features of the UP government. Although we may question the exact magnitude of the contribution made by this system in staving off Chile’s mounting political, social and economic upheavals, its history does offer a new perspective on the Chilean experience. In contrast to the chaotic images of shortages, strikes, and protests that have come to characterise the era, Cybersyn presents an alternative history. Here we see members of CORFO, INTEC, ECOM and their British interlocutors struggling to realise a different dream of socialist modernity, technological capability and regulated order. It would be a dream some Cybersyn team members continued to pursue up until the day the military imposed a very different form of order on the Chilean people and members of the project team fled CORFO headquarters with project documents tucked under their arms in order to preserve them for the future”
Postscript 1: After writing this piece I found this letter from Simon Beer that challenges a number of aspects of both Andy Becket’s and Eden Median’s account and includes this moving comment about his father:
“For Stafford it was no experiment, it was life itself. After his disappointment in Britain working with the Labour government of the 1960s, he was indeed frustrated with British politics. In Chile, Stafford was working with people who believed that what they were doing really would make a difference.
But despite everybody’s hard work and commitment, 9/11 (1973) saw a democratically elected government overthrown by American foreign policy. Stafford undoubtedly did suffer from survivor guilt. Had he not been back in England when Allende was killed, he would unquestionably have died in Chile, alongside the president he so believed in.”

Postscript 2: While trying to find out a bit more Simon Beer, I found this excellent site, CYBERSYN/cybernetic synergy, created by Catalina Ossa, multimedia artist, and Enrique Rivera, film maker and audiovisual artist. The site, which is a great resource, is part of a much larger project to reclaim CYBERSYN, which they outline here.

One thought on “An unprecedented triumph of stupidity?”

  1. word, you know about cybersyn. That was cool stuff. I blogged that a few months ago when it turned up surfing.
    CIA rather sinister huh.
    It’s pretty simple, actually. Marx was right that capitalism is not exactly… smart, or particularly flexible. Or even close to fair. Problem was the means of production having to be mass means of production in a huge expensive chunk. Big machines big companies. These days with a bit of reasonably priced CNC outsourcing you can get pretty much anything done from your desktop about as cheap as anybody else. No elitist access to means of production, or huge setup costs.
    That’s the difference between digital and traditional plate based mass produced print. It opens up all sorts of new opportunities for the efficient manufacture of just about everything, and you don’t have to commit 10,000 consumers to being spammed with your bogus stuff.
    That was the problem with cybersyn, it was information only networking. No robotics, so the factories were still traditinal industrial. A step in the right direction, but by no means the end product. The CIA and the ’70s oil boys won’t be stopping silicon. Not really, no.

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