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computers with ashtrays
vintage cybernetic fun
People who have been subscribed to this newsletter for a while might have noticed that I keep referring to a guy called Stafford Beer, and doing so in tone which suggests I think everyone knows who he was. He’s one of the main subjects of the forthcoming book about industrialised decision-making, but in the meantime you might find this article from the New Yorker and (even more so) this one from the Guardian interesting, on the subject of his most famous adventure in management consulting – the CYBERSYN project to reorganise the economy of Chile under Salvador Allende.
There’s a lot of contested history about CYBERSYN, but one thing everyone can agree on is that the control centre (“operations room”) is a design classic (albeit not an unproblematic one). Here it is:
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It’s more or less explicitly modelled on Star Trek, but you will notice that there are ashtrays in the arms of the chairs. It’s that kind of vision of the future – going through the writings of Stafford Beer you often come across hilariously dated bits, such as the extreme importance of sufficient supplies of cigars and whisky to facilitate communication.
The buttons in the arm of the chairs are also there for a hilariously dated reason – this was a control room for important officials, they couldn’t have keyboards because that would require secretaries to type on them, which would “insinuate a girl between themselves and the machinery”.
Also, there are no actual computers in this room. The whole CYBERSYN project only had a single IBM machine for most of its existence. The buttons are there to communicate with people behind the partition walls, who would place transparencies onto an overhead projector to be displayed on those screens.
At this point, readers may be forgiven for thinking that CYBERSYN was a bit of a sitcom, and it is indeed important, while writing about cybernetics, to pay due respect to the solid core of irredeemable eccentricity at the heart of the science. But there is quite a lot of method to it.
Beer actually talks quite a bit about those screens in his description of the operations room in “Brain of the Firm”, and defends them. He actually says that even if computers had been plentiful, he would still have used transparencies, possibly switching to machine-drawn ones rather than hand-drawn. The reason for this is that he thought the “flicker” of cathode ray tubes was distracting and made it difficult to think.
Which is the key point here; the operations room of CYBERSYN was built around the human decision-makers and that’s key to the whole system. It absolutely wasn’t meant to be a planned economy in the Soviet sense, and the computers they had were not running linear programming models to optimise production. The whole system was set up to use the technology for communication in the first place – the Allende model of the economy was meant to devolve all decisions to the lowest level possible, with each layer of planning and management mainly responsible for “managing by exception” and administering the bargaining process for distributing limited resources.
The computers and all the other infrastructure was meant to work as a “variety amplifier”, a term of art from management cybernetics which we’ve discussed a little here before. The idea is that by organising the information coming in from the nationalised industries, and carrying out simulations and scenarios, the CYBERSTRIDE network would allow the people in the operations room to, collectively or individually, hold a manageable representation of the whole system in their heads. Even the extremely silly “insinuate a girl” line had a purpose – Beer’s whole point was that access to the system needed to be immediate and hands-on, rather than interrupting the train of thought to formulate a verbal request.
There is, frankly, no defending a lot of this stuff. But the key point is that Beer and CYBERSYN took the problem of decision-making and information management seriously; “respect for the problem” is the first stage of management. They also allowed their information management needs and resources to shape their structure – Alfred Chandler, of course, argued that every organisation ends up doing this in the end, but they did it consciously. As a result, they managed to use quite limited resources extremely effectively. At about the same time, the majority of Western businesses were in the process of installing similar IBM machines, but just using them to automate the existing accounting systems and management reports. Beer later commented that this – and most corporate uses of information technology since the invention of the electronic computer – was like hiring Einstein, Mozart or Da Vinci, and then setting them to work memorising the phone book so that the executives could look up numbers more quickly.