Thursday, February 13, 2014

Systemic thinking in Chile - Historical Cybernetic DSS

Systemic thinking has had sprouts of initiatives throughout the globe for many years and many are not as well known as they should, especially if these happen in countries outside USA or Europe. Last month the MIT Press published the paperback version of a book by Eden Medina, (an MIT Alum) recounting the particular story of the Cybersyn Project in Chile, or the attempt to construct a governmental Distributed Decision Support System (DSS) in the 1970's, developed during Allende's short-lived government and long before the massification of the Internet. This original project was led by a young Fernando Flores under the direct influence of the cybernetics intellectual guru Stafford Beer, and based on the Cybernetic discipline as proposed by MIT's Norbert Wiener.

As I am from Chile, and find myself currently pursuing a MSc. degree at MIT (or SM degree as it is denominated here), it was a very suitable place to come across this story!

Medina's book is based on her 2005 PhD Thesis for the History and Social Study of Science and Technology at MIT  and includes interviews with the main actors in this peculiar story, including interviews in 2001 with the now late Stafford Beer.

The book is an entertaining account of the events that led to the formation of a team that was to develop a cybernetic control system for Chile in the early 1970's, and the vicissitudes this project had to experience until its final cancellation on the day of Pinochet's military coup.

It is particularly interesting to read about the changes experienced by the protagonists throughout the process. In the case of Stafford Beer and in the words of Humberto Maturana, "he arrived to Chile a business-man, and he left a hippie". After the project had its abrupt end, Beer gave his life a considerable change,  abandoning his lifestyle in London to settle in a remote area of Wales in a cabin that even lacked running water, and as a result of his realization of the socially-imposed pressures for unnecessary material possessions.

On the other hand, Fernando Flores changed from the young 27-year-old Chilean minister who having heard of Beer's ideas, contacted him to set up a cybernetics system of government monitoring in Chile. He later went on to study at Stanford and UC-Berkeley and admittedly "noticed the restrictions of cybernetics" within communities undergoing drastic societal changes. He eventually returned to Chile a multimillionaire leading a lukewarm political career.

Cybersyn was an ambitious project that marked a milestone in the history of systemic interventions at a governmental level, and the teachings this experience left behind I consider are still ill-understood. The story is either quickly discarded as the ravings of madmen such as Beer or Flores, or this cybernetic approach, given the political circumstances in which is was carried out, is described as a soviet-style centralized control system.

Still others regard this experience as visionary and far ahead of its time. The book describes the way the project team arranged an intricate system of Telex Machines connecting several specialized command centers in the regions with a centralized command center in Santiago, generating an almost online availability of data to make decisions, system which was very useful during the October Strike.

Other countries followed Chile's lead, including Mexico in 1982 and Uruguay in 1985 (Project Urucib, derived from Uruguay-Cibernetica), but a lack of a decided project leadership such as the one provided by Fernando Flores, did not allow these paradigm-shifting projects to be implemented to the same extent as Cybersyn had been in Chile.

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