|March 28, 2008 / New York TIMES
Before '73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
SANTIAGO, Chile — When military forces loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet
staged a coup here in September 1973, they made a surprising
discovery. Salvador Allende's Socialist government had quietly
embarked on a novel experiment to manage Chile's economy using a
clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines.
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
In developing Cybersyn, Mr. Beer changed the lives of the bright young
Chileans he worked with here. Some 35 years later, this little-known
feature of Mr. Allende's abortive Socialist transformation was
remembered in an exhibit in a museum beneath La Moneda, the
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
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
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.
Most of the Cybersyn team scrupulously avoided talking about politics,
and some even had far-right-wing views, said Isaquino Benadof, who led
the team of Chilean engineers designing the Cybersyn software.
One early challenge was how to build the communications network. Short
of money, the team found 500 unused telex machines in a warehouse of
the national telecommunications company.
Cybersyn's turning point came in October 1972, when a strike by
truckers and retailers nearly paralyzed the economy. The
interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a
potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize
alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.
The strike dragged on for nearly a month. While it weakened Mr.
Allende's Popular Unity party, the government survived, and Cybersyn
was praised for playing a major role. "From that point on the
communications center became part of whatever was happening," Mr.
"Chile run by computer," blared The British Observer on Jan. 7, 1973,
as word of the experiment began leaking out.
But as the country's political and security situation worsened, Mr.
Beer and his Chilean team realized that time was running out.
Mr. Allende remained committed to Cybersyn to the end. On Sept. 8,
1973, he gave orders to move the operations room to the presidential
palace. But three days later the military took over; Mr. Allende died
Military officials soon confronted Cybersyn's leaders, seeking to
understand their political motivations. Mr. Benadof said he was
interrogated at least three times. Mr. Espejo, after being questioned,
was warned to leave the country; two months after the coup he fled to
The military never could grasp Cybersyn, and finally dismantled the
operations room. Several other Cybersyn team members went into exile.
Mr. Flores, who was both economy and finance minister in the Allende
government, spent three years in military concentration camps. After
his release, he moved with his family to California to study at
Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, where
he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.
He later was one of the inventors of the Coordinator, a program that
tracked spoken commitments between workers within a company, one of
the first forays into "work flow" software. He became a millionaire
and returned to Chile, where today he is a senator representing the
Mr. Beer, who died in 2002, helped some team members secure college
teaching positions in England. That included Mr. Espejo, who dedicated
himself to advancing cybernetics.
"The Chilean project completely transformed Stafford's life, and he
obviously had a huge impact on all of us," Mr. Espejo said. "Clearly,
his work was not recognized during his lifetime. But what he has
written will remain for a long time."