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A self-organized system must be always alive and without finalizing, since conclusion is another name for death.

Quoted passages are taken from Eden Medina, “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile,” Journal of Latin American Studies 38 (2006): 571-606. For more on the Cybersyn history, see Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

Project Cybersyn was a Chilean attempt at real-time computer-controlled planned economy in the years 1970–1973 during the government of president Salvador Allende. It was essentially a network of telex machines that linked factories with a single computer centre in Santiago, which controlled them using principles of cybernetics. The principal architect of the system was British operations research scientist Stafford Beer.

In 1970 Fernando Flores was appointed Technical Director General of CORFO (Production Development Corporation of Chile), and was responsible for the management and coordination between nationalized companies and the State. He had known the theories and solutions proposed by Britain’s Stafford Beer since he was an engineering student, and subsequently in the course of his professional relationship with SIGMA, the Beer consultancy firm. He and Raúl Espejo, who also worked at CORFO, wrote to Stafford Beer inviting him to implement VSM (the Viable System Model) in Chile, which had been developed in Beer’s “THE BRAIN OF THE FIRM”. Beer accepted immediately, and the project entered its development stage in 1971.

Project Cybersyn was considered a ‘nervous system’ for the economy in which workers, community members and the government were to be connected together transmitting the resources they had on offer, their desires and needs via an interactive national communications network. It was necessary to manage the balance between autonomous work and hierarchical control. For example, when anomalies of production were detected, the system had to issue a warning to both the production and the government, which would allow time for an independent solution of the problem. The project was supposed to prevent cuts in production, which was one of the key tasks for the socialist government of Allende. Productivity had to grow due to optimization of available human resources and not lead to job cuts, which often happened during automation. In the new, socialist society of Chile, Cybersyn was to become the basis of the new management system.

Project Cybersyn eventually consisted of four sub-projects: Cybernet, Cyberstride, Checo and Opsroom:

Cybernet: This component “expanded the existing telex network to include every firm in the nationalized sector, thereby helping to create a national network of communication throughout Chile’s three-thousand-mile-long territory. Cybersyn team members occasionally used the promise of free telex installation to cajole factory managers into lending their support to the project. Stafford Beer’s early reports describe the system as a tool for real-time economic control, but in actuality each firm could only transmit data once per day.”

Cyberstride: This component “encompassed the suite of computer programs written to collect, process, and distribute data to and from each of the state enterprises. Members of the Cyberstride team created ‘quantitative flow charts of activities within each enterprise that would highlight all important activities’, including a parameter for “social unease”. The software used statistical methods to detect production trends based on historical data, theoretically allowing headquarters to prevent problems before they began. If a particular variable fell outside of the range specified by Cyberstride, the system emitted a warning. Only the interventor from the affected enterprise would receive the algedonic warning initially and would have the freedom, within a given time frame, to deal with the problem as he saw fit. However, if the enterprise failed to correct the irregularity within this timeframe, members of the Cyberstride team alerted the next level management.

CHECO: This stood for CHilean ECOnomy, a component of Cybersyn which “constituted an ambitious effort to model the Chilean economy and provide simulations of future economic behavior. Appropriately, it was sometimes referred to as ‘Futuro’. The simulator would serve as the “government’s experimental laboratory” – an instrumental equivalent to Allende’s frequent likening of Chile to a “social laboratory”. The simulation program used the DYNAMO compiler developed by MIT Professor Jay Forrester. The CHECO team initially used national statistics to test the accuracy of the simulation program. When these results failed, Beer and his fellow team members faulted the time differential in the generation of statistical inputs, an observation that re-emphasized the perceived necessity for real-time data.

Opsroom: The fourth component “created a new environment for decision making, one modeled after a British WWII war room. Gui Bonsiepe was the German designer, teacher and writer who led the design team for the Opsroom. It consisted of seven chairs arranged in an inward facing circle flanked by a series of projection screens, each displaying the data collected from the nationalized enterprises. In the Opsroom, all industries were homogenized by a uniform system of iconic representation, meant to facilitate the maximum extraction of information by an individual with a minimal amount of scientific training. Although the Opsroom never became operational, it quickly captured the imagination of all who viewed it, including members of the military, and became the symbolic heart of the project.

Although never completed, by the time of the coup, the advanced prototype of the system, which had been built in four months, involved a series of 500 telex machines distributed to firms connected to two government-operated mainframe computers and stretched the length of the narrow country and covered roughly between a quarter and half of the nationalized economy. Factory output, raw material shipments and transport, high levels of absenteeism and other core economic data pinged about the country and to the capital, Santiago – a daily exchange of information between workers and their government, easily beating the six months on average for economic data to be processed in this way in most advanced countries.

When the government faced a CIA-backed strike from conservative small businessmen and a boycott by private lorry companies in 1972, food and fuel supplies ran dangerously low. The government faced its gravest existential threat ahead of the coup. It was then that Cybersyn came into its own, when Allende's government realized that the experimental system could be used to circumvent the opposition’s efforts. The network allowed its operators to secure immediate information on where scarcities were at their most extreme and where drivers not participating in the boycott were located and to mobilize or redirect its own transport assets in order to keep goods moving and take the edge of the worst of the shortages. As a result, the truck-owners' boycott was defeated.

After that other September 11 almost forty years ago, when the bombs fell on La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende took his own life rather than surrender to Pinochet’s fascists, the fires that destroyed democracy in Chile also took the world's first non-Stalinist experiment in economy-wide planning with them, replaced by another economic experiment of an altogether opposite character: the monetarist structural adjustment of Milton Friedman, infamously replicated by Margaret Thatcher and her dozens of imitators

Cybersyn never really took off. Stafford had hoped to install “algedonic meters” or early warning public opinion meters in “a representative sample of Chilean homes that would allow Chilean citizens to transmit their pleasure or displeasure with televised political speeches to the government or television studio in real time.” Stafford dubbed this undertaking ‘The People’s Project’ and ‘Project Cyberfolk’ because he believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.

As Cybersyn expanded beyond the initial goals of economic regulation to political-structural transformation, Stafford grew concerned that Cybersyn could prove dangerous if the system wasn’t fully completed and only individual components of the project were adopted. He feared this could result in an old system of government with some new tools. For if the invention is dismantled, and the tools used are not the tools we made, they could become instruments of oppression. In fact, Stafford soon “received invitations from the repressive governments in Brazil and South Africa to build comparable systems.”

Back in Chile, the Cybernet component of Cybersyn “proved vital to the government during the opposition-led strike of October 1972 (Paro de Octubre).” The strike threatened the government’s survival so high-ranking government officials used Cybernet to monitor “the two thousand telexes sent per day that covered activities from the northern to the southern ends of the country.” In fact, “the rapid flow of messages over the telex lines enabled the government to react quickly to the strike activity.”

The project’s telex network was subsequently—albeit briefly—used for economic mapping:
The telex network permitted a new form of economic mapping that enabled the government to collapse the data sent from all over the country into a single report, written daily at headquarters, and hand delivered to the presidential palace. The detailed charts and graphs filling its pages provided the government with an overview of national production, transportation, and points of crisis in an easily understood format, using data generated several days earlier. The introduction of this form of reporting represented a considerable advance over the previous six-month lag required to collect statistics on the Chilean economy.

Ultimately, according to Stafford, Cybersyn did not succeed because it wasn’t accepted as a network of people as well as machines, a revolution in behavior as well as in instrumental capability. In 1973, Allende was overthrown by the military and the Cybersyn project all but vanished from Chilean memory.

Cybernetics is one of the most widely misunderstood concepts. Cybernetic systems have been used to model all kinds of phenomena, with varying degrees of success - factories, societies, machines, ecosystems, brains -- and many noted artists and musicians derived inspiration from this powerful conceptual toolkit. Cybernetics may be one of the most interdisciplinary frameworks ever devised; its theories link engineering, math, physics, biology, psychology, and an array of other fields, and ideas from cybernetics inevitably infiltrated the arts. The musician and producer Brian Eno, for example, was a big fan of connecting ideas from cybernetics to the studio environment, and to music composition, in his work in the 1970s.