Good ideas that didn't pan out, part 2: Project Cybersyn


The second of a five-part series on worthy innovations from the past looks at an idea ahead of its time: Chile's attempt to run the economy by computer

18th September 2014
By Stian Westlake

Every so often you happen across an old project or scheme that had some success but then later disappeared. A few such ideas might still even have something helpful to offer us now.

Part 2: Project Cybersyn

Around the time the first email was sent, not long after ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, was first connected, a group of high-minded computer scientists in Chile tried to run their country’s economy by computer.

In 1971, the Chilean government of Salvador Allende signed a contract with Stafford Beer, a British cybernetics expert, to design a new system for running the country's newly nationalised industries.

Using telex machines ordered by the previous government, they began to monitor production in factories across the country, and send the data back to a central control room.

The idea of planning an economy by computer, especially the kind of computers available in the early 70s, may seem hubristic today. But Beer and his colleagues were quite sensible in what they thought they could achieve. The point of Beer’s cybernetics research was not to centralise managerial power, but to delegate it as much as possible to factories and managers. (This stands in contrast to some of the futile experiments with computers in economic planning carried out in Soviet Russia in the 60s and 70s, and described movingly in Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty.)

Cybersyn achieved some early successes – notably helping to keep the Chilean economy going during a hauliers’ strike in 1972. It was stopped in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet deposed Allende. But the idea of using computers to make the economy work better seems remarkably modern.

More in this series

Part 1: a new economy in the Tyrol

Part 3: the Peckham Experiment

Part 4: Sword into ploughshares at Lucas

Part 5: the Chicago Plan


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