Impotent futurism: the design of Allende's cyber-utopian boondoggle

Greg Borenstein sez, "This is a video version of a paper I delivered with Jem Axelrod at the 2009 PAMLA Conference about Project Cybersyn, an early 70s socialist pseudo-internet built by British cyberneticist Stafford Beer in Chile. The video explores how Beer's writing, infographics, and industrial design worked together to create a science fictional narrative of omniscience and ominpotence for Salvador Allende's socialist government."

Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science Fictions (Thanks, Greg!)


  1. I’m glad that the narrator doesn’t gloss over the horror of the supposedly favorable alternative to Allende’s elected governance.

  2. True omniscience and ominpotence in Chile required the distopian narrative of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

  3. The sneering tone of much of the video is unbecoming of a serious presentation. Although the type of socialism propounded by Allende and the Socialist Party of Chile is unfashionable in the twenty-first century; it nonetheless represented a clear advance on the rigid statism of Cuba and the Soviet Union, and there’s no doubt but that Allende’s government was genuinely trying to improve the condition of the population.

    Sure, modern information theory would indicate that this kind of central control of a diverse economy is impossible; however there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the notion of using real-time metrics and presentation of useful abstractions as an aid to political or economic planning, and I think that at worst, Beer’s design was simply far ahead of its time.

    1. The presentation isn’t sneering at the idea of central economic control; it’s sneering at the theatrical, pointless “control room”; the point is that none of the controls actually *do* anything than tell *humans* to change the slides.

  4. if only that ghastly coup d’état hadnt happened in 1973, chiles economy would surly be bigger than the rest of south americas economies combined.

    beers detractors who claim (without any evidence i might add) that he was nothing but a sociopath wasting other peoples money on his own childhood fantasies are just flat out wrong!

  5. @Hawkey: really? all was Ok on September 10th, 1973? Was Santiago de Chile like Paris? Please, [the citation is needed]. Utopians Unite!

  6. There’s a sci-fi book about this distopia, called Synco, written by Jorge Baradit.

    It’s a nice book, and sometimes a funny one, in case you are familiar with the chilean politic class.

  7. Love it. I interpret the critical approach as the kind of distance that comes from disciplined love. . . and appreciation of irony. I for one would take all of the mistakes of a million Warren McCullochs that encircle a critical truth about human activity, than all of the precise innovations of von Neumann that lead to. . . better missiles. While I’m all for free-market inspired innovations, a quick look at one own activities and those of close friends reveals that such a large percentage of our working days seems to be devoted to the worship of competition. Most of it doesn’t add up to anything, and is simply the equivalent of prayer.

  8. I agree with colmb. The attitude attached to this presentation would have a chilling or manipulating effect on honest discourse if one chose to use this in debate. It rings with embarassing manipulation of tone and language.

  9. This is a very interesting paper. I don’t agree with all of the tone of it, and hence think that some of the key conclusions are over-egged, but I’m so happy to find someone else (hell, _two_ other people) working on the history of control rooms that I’m willing to overlook quite a bit.
    Here are some of my reactions:
    First, if it neither looks nor quacks like a duck, perhaps it’s not a duck? Beer never claimed it was a control room, never designed it to be one, it was never used as one, and the control freaks who took over didn’t try to use it as one. Perhaps it just wasn’t any kind of ‘terrible weapon of control’, not even a failed one?
    Second, I agree with Beer. Although it was as a ‘centre of calculation’ to use Latour’s term, this was not a control room in the sense that I tend to use it: a place where reality is modelled and orders can be given. It was merely a place where reality was modelled: the order-giving (which is what the authors imply would happen, though they have no evidence) or the information-transferring (which is what Beer seems to have consistently advocated) happens elsewhere. As the authors point out, the room was ‘driven’, but it was not a driver.
    Third, given the technology of the time, it’s pretty amazing that they managed anything at all so quickly. I’ve been looking at the introduction of the UK’s police national computer and its associated network. This was real-time rather than batch-processed, and only contained five very large databases, but, despite the best efforts of several score programmers, it took ten years to define it, agree it, plan it, build it, and write the code. Snarking Cybersyn for moving slowly is a bit misplaced.
    Fourth, it might be worth more to think about the borrowings from UK practice. For starters, it’s the London Underground map is the relevant oe – not least because sans serif was the language of interwar modernity. But more important, look at the classic air defence paradigm, which is the way that control room practice was (I am almost but not completely sure) disseminated in the UK from 1917. ‘Operations Room’ is a WW2-era military term. The other essential function from WW2 air defence was the ‘filter room’, a place where multiple confusing inputs were processed and then fed through to the place where decisions were taken. The ‘variety attenuator’ appears to fulfil this function in Cybersyn.
    The broader point to make is that between about 1945 and about 1985, especially in the UK, there was an active generation of men and women who had seen a non-market command and control system of resource allocation work tolerably well, and also seen some highly centralised systems for information processing and order-giving work very well indeed. Of course they liked centralisation. Beer stood out because he saw its limits, thus always was keen on feedback and subsidiarity.
    My own take on the history of the control room can be heard here, where real soon now, Audacity willing, I’ll add a history of the Police National Computer.

    1. Excellent comments. Greg and I are grateful to everyone for their feedback.

      You [Chris Williams] are certainly right: the Beck map of the London Underground is clearly a major inspiration here (and for Vignelli); that design context is important as it connotes the style of modernity, which was so crucial to the entire Ops Room. (Your own work looks fascinating – thanks for the link.)

      It is interesting how cagy Beer was about the Ops Room’s actual function. Beer did not actually build omnipotence into it, as Greg and I argue; he constructed it around omniscience. In *Brain of the Firm*, he explicitly models the concept on the British War Room and you are exactly right about his larger cybernetic emphasis on filtering (“variety attenuation”) information. However, I would say with certainty that it was “sold” as a Control Room and taken to be one by most contemporary observers.

      How did Beer actually think of it, though? He was a brilliant thinker; he knew exactly what it was supposed to do. He presents it in his books very clearly as a System Four function, which is strictly analysis, not execution (decision making is System Five, hence the Chilean name for Cybersyn sounds to me like a bit of a pun: “Synco”).

      Yet, in the design documents, Beer does refer to it as a “decision room” on at least one occasion and the overall design certainly came across to all observers as a site of omnipotence. That impression did not serve the project, nor the government, very well in the end. Further, the fact that most of today’s nostalgia about the entire Cybersyn/Synco project revolve around that Ops Room is very understandable, I think, because it really does encapsulate some very powerful political theories and design concepts. As I have said, I don’t think those associations ultimately did it any good in its own context, regardless of how alluring they may be to us today.

      Of course, the Ops Room itself was not supposed to be that important at all; it was kind of a hobby of Beer’s, like the algedonic meters for the Cyberfolk concept, but he could see that it really sold the whole project. Unlike the Cyberfolk apparatus, this stage set of modernity really struck a chord. Yet, if he had resisted the temptation to build this localized site of *apparent* power, would everything have turned out happily? No, of course not. The pressure on the Allende administration was intense and unremitting. It is indeed truly amazing how much they managed to build in such a short time. But these Chilean and British designers were not superhuman. Despite what some nostalgists have assumed, the whole scheme was simply not complete at the time of the coup, so we’ll never really know how well it might have worked.

      We should, ultimately, keep our eyes on the big picture: democracy was thwarted in Chile for decades after the coup. Say what you will about Allende, but everyone should first acknowledge that he wasn’t the one who brought down the democratic tradition in his country (this is one reason the Soviets refused to send much material support to his government even during its heyday; they thought he was foolish for being so loyal to democracy and the rule of law. They felt he should have consolidated control over the institutions of power in the country – of course, in pragmatic terms they were exactly right). Still, the revelations about the Ops Room did the Allende government no good at a crucial moment and in this respect that showpiece must bear some small responsibility for the dark events that followed.

  10. Mentioned by John Brunner in his novel The Shockwave Rider:


    When the short-lived Allende government was elected to power in Chile and needed a means of balancing that unfortunate country’s precarious economy, Allende appealed to the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer.

    Who announced that as few as ten significant quantities, reported from a handful of key locations where adequate communications facilities existed, would enable the state of the economy to be reviewed and adjusted on a day-to-day basis.

    Judging by what happened subsequently, his claim infuriated nearly as many people as did the news that there are only four elements in the human genetic code.


  11. Well, I think that benevolent left-wing socialism leads to right wing fascism.

    If you have a highly centralized control over the entire economy, that is naturally going to be a very attractive target for any would be dictator, no matter how benevolent you believe the current leadership is.

    Normally, taking over an economy is extremely difficult without popular support – something that Pinochets of the world do not usually have. However, some popular socialist convinces the population to hand over all economic control to a tiny technocratic elite, and all the would-be fascist dictator has to do is take over the head of the government.

    Pinochet was the inevitable result of Allende. Allende built the command and control infrastructure that would eventually be used by Pinochet. Had Project Cybersyn been anything more than a propaganda showpiece, Pinochet would have probably re appropriated the technology for running a more effective and brutal police state. Thank goodness Project Cybersyn was a failure.

    Every true Socialist state throughout history has either:

    A) Resulted in takeover by a right wing fascist dictator (i.e. Pinochet in Chile)

    B) Resulted in a “Socialist” government nearly indistinguishable from a right-wing dictatorship. (i.e. Cuba, North Korea, USSR).

    (and no, Scandinavia “socialism” with its multinational corporations and free markets for most products is not truly “Socialist” – it is a free-market with a social democratic welfare state which is fundamentally different from true socialism, which is what I am talking about).

  12. Mentioned by John Brunner in his novel The Shockwave Rider:


    When the short-lived Allende government was elected to power in Chile and needed a means of balancing that unfortunate country’s precarious economy, Allende appealed to the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer.

    Who announced that as few as ten significant quantities, reported from a handful of key locations where adequate communications facilities existed, would enable the state of the economy to be reviewed and adjusted on a day-to-day basis.

    Judging by what happened subsequently, his claim infuriated nearly as many people as did the news that there are only four elements in the human genetic code.

  13. …check out fernando flores – who worked with beer decades ago – and recanted…he wrote ‘understaniding computers & cognition’ with terry winograd [a great book]…and fernando is now a ‘markets’-oriented guy…almost a ‘chicago boy’…compared to the beerian notions of technocratic elitism

  14. The CIA has never been proved to be directly involved in the Chilean coup, so it’s not accurate to say the officers involved were “backed by the CIA”.

  15. This paper is unintentionally hilarious; the author has no irony, and I do not mean he is square, I mean he has no grasp of larger issues.

    How can you make a 24 minute documentary on ’70s Chile and cybernetic economic controls and not mention how Pinochet later took Milton Friedman’s advice to relinquish those very controls? Or what that successful experiment suggests about social and political controls?

    How can you show the famous image from “Leviathan” and not mention how limitation of monarchial and state sovereignty made economic growth possible? (E.g., renunciation of the power to repudiate debt made loans, for war or investment, far safer and cheaper.)

    Why not show the parallels to how (very real) fears of a Stalinist-Marxist takeover (with its command and control economy, social life &c.) practically handed Germany over to the National Socialist, i.e., Nazi, party?

    In some ways, the author seems against command and control but at the same time he mocks people’s concerns. Sad.

  16. I severely doubt that anybody who has commented here has the slightest clue about Chile’s history. The authors make enough mistakes of fact to make me think that they also do not know Chile very well. The presentation is an exercise in interpretation, which some persons might find to be of some value – I do not, but my opinion – and most of the information is found elsewhere, notably here: and

    By the way, as to the above statement that “democracy was thwarted in Chile for decades after the coup” here are inconvenient facts: the golpe was in 1973 and the plebecite for the new constitution in 1980 (on 11/09, two thirds “si”), the plebecite for continued military rule in 1988 (“no” won 56%), and the civilian presidential elections in the next year, 1989 (Alwyn won 56% of vote and took office in 1990).

  17. Back on topic – Beer’s Cyberdiaper control room thingy is simply the “PotemkinNet” !!! LOL !!!

  18. As an aside, it’s disheartening to see the comments concerning socialism conflated with command economies.
    Socialism is multivariant and failure has not been an inevitability. More often than not social systems been steam-rollered by militant capitalism rather than internal shortcomings.

  19. Good article, Eden – thanks. Perhaps it’s because of the things that I’ve been reading recently, but one immediate point of comparison to Beer’s 5-level division which springs to mind is not an industrial process, but an army. In the operational arena, each level abstracts information to pass to the one above, and receives abstracted orders which are then compiled. If things go out of line, the hierarchy can skip levels to intervene in detail. There is often a similar process going on in the doctrinal arena – this was the special preserve of Operational Research in certain parts of the British armed forces in WW2. I keep on coming back to the BEF as the crucible of (British) modernity.

    One concept that I’m grappling with in the history of government information systems in the late 1960s is the ‘operational requirement’. This is a combination of wish-lists, the state of the art in technoogy, government capacity, and institutional agendas – among other things. It can only be formulated during a recursive process, and only stabilised artificially.

    Ideology has a clear influence on this process of formulating the operational requirement. To take one example: by 1966 the UK’s Home Office had concluded that a police computer needed to be centralised and national because any kind of networked system was technologically impractical. So that’s what they put into practice by 1975. Meanwhile, the German Federal Republic had just successfully installed a national computer system which was networked, with each Land controlling its own data and talking to the others…

  20. Only came across Project Cybersyn recently. That’s a big issue: the distinction between automation, leading to man as cyborg, and augmentation, ideally an ethically responsible way of finding symbiotic relationships between man and machine. The latter was the focus of Douglas Engelbart’s vision, when he first suggested in the 1960s that computers could be used to augment the human intellect, badly needed to solve humanity’s increasingly complex and urgent problems.

Comments are closed.