Friday, March 28, 2008

Seagulls and cyber-socialism

Via NYT, a bit of cultural archaeology on Chilean efforts during the Allende interregnum to use early 1970s mainframe technology to run a planned economy:

Before ’73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism

Published: March 28, 2008

The project, called Cybersyn, was the brainchild of A. Stafford Beer, a visionary Briton who employed his “cybernetic” concepts to help Mr. 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....

A Star Trek-like chair with controls in the armrests was a replica of those in a prototype operations room. Mr. 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 I.B.M. 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 Mr. Beer seeking his help in organizing Mr. Allende’s economy by applying cybernetic concepts. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Espejo said.

Alberto Fuguet needs to make this his next film project, mixing in strands of CQ and THX-1138.

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