The Tragedy of Stafford Beer

by Kevin Munger on September 26, 2023


During the pandemic, I was seduced by a charming British management consultant. A debonair James Bond-type who went from driving a Rolls Royce around his countryside estate to orchestrating the Chilean economic experiment under Allende to teaching Brian Eno about the principles of complex systems in a stone cottage in Wales. Stafford Beer lived a remarkable life,

What the abandonment of the pinnacle of capitalist achievement for the most realistic effort to build cybernetic socialism does to a mfer.

The recent 50th anniversary of the 1973 Coup in Chile has sparked a resurgence of interest in Beer, who is most famous for running Project Cybersyn and thus reforming Chile’s economy under Allende. There has been growing interest in cybernetic socialism over the past decade, starting with Eden Medina’s history Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Evgeny Morozov’s article on Cybersyn in the New Yorker, and a chapter on the enterprise in Leigh Phillips’ and Michal Rozworski’s book The People’s Republic of Walmart. Theory streetwear brand Boot Boyz Biz even put out a Cybersyn throw rug.

Just this month, Morozov released an extensive and entertaining retrospective of the entire period in the form of a nine-episode podcast. Although I enjoyed the whole thing, I found the narrative account of Beer’s response to the coup and the general distrust of Allende in the UK most illuminating.

Like many of the postwar behavioral scientists, World War II was a major shock to Beer’s understanding of the tradeoffs between efficiency and command, the last society-wide example of alternative models of organization before the establishment of the American-led capitalism that has dominated during all of our lifetimes. The capacity of this style of systems analysis to enhance organizational capacity might well extend beyond the military sphere.

After the war, Beer became one of the leading practitioners of operations research (something you can specialize in business school today) and worked to optimize the operations of factories and larger corporate organizations. He saw huge success working with United Steel in the 1950s before leaving to found a consulting company—amusingly—called SIGMA.

Much of his management research published in the 1960s and 1970s, including his monumental The Brain of the Firm, has been influential in the theory of management. In Morozov’s telling, Beer’s decision to take time away from this successful career is puzzling; the Stafford Beer of The Santiago Boys is motivated to come to Chile by a combination of professional curiosity at being given the reins of an entire country to test out his theories and some vague lefty sympathies developed as a result of his time stationed in the British Raj. This is narratively convenient, but my read of Beer’s project is significantly more radical—and the result all the more tragic.

Although I’ve been a fan for a few years now, I only just got around to Beer’s 1975 book Platform for Change. This is one of the strangest and most gut-wrenching books I’ve ever encountered.

As someone who reads and writes for a living, in the hope that these actions will change the world for the better, I occasionally experience an odd emotion when I read something that’s decades old that condenses some thought I’ve been grasping towards. Part of this emotion is simple scientific envy, that someone beat me to it; part of it is pride, of wanting to share the idea with my peers and enjoy some reflection of its glory. Beneath these feelings, though, is despair – despair that someone else, someone more famous and smarter and older than me already wrote this idea down and yet it didn’t matter.

Stafford Beer’s writing, career trajectory and just overall weltanschauung had this effect on me. The man:

  • Was born into aristocratic British society and thus had establishment connections and legitimacy.
  • Correctly diagnosed a variety of fundamental incompatibilities between our inherited institutions, the contemporary scale of our societies and rapid change in communication technology.
  • Developed an impressive reputation, giving over 500 invited lectures and frequent media appearances, as well as a flourishing and remunerative career as a business consultant.
  • Cashed out this reputation and connections in a series of increasingly transgressive attacks on what he saw as a complacent and unscientific establishment. (His inaugural address, upon being elected president of the Operational Research Society, is particularly spicy.)
  • Actually had the chance to implement his radical ideas at the level of a medium-sized country, and demonstrate at least preliminary evidence for their effectiveness.

The vibe of the back flap of Platform for Change:

I am fed up with hiding myself, an actual human being, behind the conventional anonymity of scholarly authorship

Platform for Change is the culmination of Beer’s project, a manifesto over which he insisted on having total creative control. It’s a testament to both the spirit of the 1970s and the popularity of his previous books that he managed to get a 500-page tome published, let alone one with four different colored pages.

The gold pages, like these, are written in the metalanguage. This is necessary because of the technical inability of our existing concepts, language and medium of communication to make the critique that he needs to make, to propose the solutions that actually address the problem.

I recognize this impulse in myself and in my generation of online-first intellectual activists. Once you start thinking hard and pushing up against the limits of the tools you have been given to think with, it becomes clear that you need to fashion some new tools. This, of course, is a blog about meta-science, where I have frequently argued that the media technologies of linear natural language text and in-line citation are incompatible with a subject as fast-moving as social media.

Beer correctly argues that the format which serves novels (which unfold in temporal sequence) is incompatible with explanations that involve dynamic feedback. He knows that writing a weird book with lots of baroque systems diagrams and color-coded pages will alienate a huge portion of his audience, but he does it anyway, because he thinks it’s necessary to make the point he wants to make. It’s an incredibly long and detailed book, and technically impossible to summarize with normal language, but I found it extremely impressive and compelling.

And yet he failed. Platform for Change was a commercial disaster (obviously), and his serious scholarly output fell off sharply. He was only in his late 40s, potentially at the peak of his career; he could easily have coasted into a career as either a senior management consultant making millions or a contrarian public intellectual.

But the experience seemed to break him; the willfulness that had been necessary to go against the grain won out against the negative feedback he was getting from his increasingly outré efforts. Morozov captures the bathos of Beer’s stubborn insistence on living in that stone cabin in Wales, without running water or a telephone, cut off from the world.

There is a deep, cybernetic irony in this story. Beer’s entire approach to “viable systems” is that they need to adapt to shocks without becoming in some way denatured. A common problem is overcorrection: consider the way that the US responded to 9/11, the permanent expansion of the security state.

Beer’s problem seems to have been the opposite: undercorrection. Once he had settled on the belief system articulated in Platform for Change, there was no shaking it—his refusal to compromise led him down the path from mainstream management consultant to renegade intellectual activist, all the way down to lonely poet-mystic drinking himself to death in the Welsh countryside.

I’ve written about Beer’s concrete proposals for cybernetic government before, and I expand on them below. But the main point of this post is to reflect on the intersection between meta-scientific reform, the history of thought and the sociology of intellectual work inside and outside the academy. Beer’s experience is extremely relevant for anyone trying to change the relationship between academia, science, technology and society, as a guide to both understand the past and orient oneself for the future.

It happens that the Center for Information Technology and Policy, where I’m visiting at Princeton this year, shares a building with the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE). I was excited to learn this – a chance to walk downstairs and talk to someone about Operations Research, this strange postwar discipline which seems to have absorbed the cybernetic impulse that had flourished across the social sciences and hidden it away in business schools?

But one of the grad students told me that actually the name is somewhat anachronistic—no one really does Operations Research anymore, it’s all just financial engineering aka math and stats. Indeed, it looks as though 1970, the year Stafford Beer was elected president of the Operational Research Society in the UK, was the peak of the intellectual movement.

Cybernetics, at least, is making a bit a comeback.

Can you recognize an Angel?

Designing Freedom, Beer’s 1974 book, is far more accessible than Platform for Change, and indeed should be required reading for students of economics, political science and the history of science. The book outlines the way that we can (and must) use new information technology to design freedom. Beer conceives of a networked economy and cultural sphere that enhances human capacities without warping human desires.

Beer thus follows the humanist tradition established by Norbert Wiener, the grandfather of cybernetics. Weiner immediately understood the implications of his development; in Cybernetics, he describes his attempts to explain what was coming to the heads of the country’s largest labor unions. They didn’t understand or attempt to use cybernetic principles to enhance the effectiveness of their organizations.

Weiner’s second book is called The Human Use of Human Beings, an even broader attempt at outlining a society built on cybernetic principles: the most effective society, he argued, would be able to make full use of each human’s capacities rather than forcing the overwhelming majority of humans to contribute only tightly controlled and alienated labor.

Designing Freedom continues along these lines, a crucial intervention in the tired 20th century debate between government control and “liberty.” Beer talks about a Liberty Machine that is used to create liberty. That is, we should understand that our society is “not an entity characterized by more or less constraint, but a dynamic viable system that has liberty as its output.”

This fatalism is understandable. Capitalism and technology have produced a globe with eight billion humans and no way to slow down. It can feel like there is zero margin for experimentation, that any move away from the present course could spell disaster.

If we want to both radically restructure society and avoid billions of deaths, we have to center concerns about scale. The definition of “Big Data” is often given as “more data than you can fit in your machine’s active memory,” but Beer has another threshold in mind, one not ameliorated by Moore’s Law: the human brain.

“Recognize ecological systems” and “Undertake world government” strike me as more immediately relevant, but Beer’s transcendent weirdness peeks through with the phrase “recognize an angel.” Threading the humanist needle requires recognizing that our capacities as humans are indeed unique among beings and yet woefully inadequate for the tasks we ask of individual humans.

But the individual human brain remains a crucial bottleneck for the flow of information. Given certain biological constraints, it is impossible to centralize all of society’s necessary information storage and processing within the brain of a single individual. This problem can be addressed by groups and technology, but this is usually done in wasteful or destructive fashion.

Strict bureaucratic control can enhance the scale at which organizations can act—at the cost of the speed of the reaction or the scope of the action space. Complete decentralization limits the capacity of the organization to pursue strategic objectives, generally collapsing into autarky and self-interest. Designing freedom, in Beer’s view, means designing institutions that allow humans to use their full capacities as humans to regulate society, collectively and at scale.

There is a branch of the anti-tech left that rejects this conception of control-as-regulation, in the naive view that these forces can be contained. (Indeed, both Wiener and Beer were criticized along these lines by the still-Sovietpilled left during their lifetimes.) This view descends from the ironic tendency of some anti-Anglo-imperialists to view the United States government as the only agent of consequence, with a cabal of capitalists directing its violent energies. Morozov’s podcast falls into this trap; while the significant efforts by the CIA he describes did in fact happen, the first episode whips back and forth between the leftist revolutionaries “realizing” that the CIA would “never” allow Allende to win election fairly to Allende winning election fairly.

Beer correctly diagnoses this impulse, one that I detest. It is moral narcissism for intellectuals to exhaust their human capital endowments debating about how they can minimize their own sins while the forces of technocapital grow stronger by the day. Beer’s now-quaint description of the threats we face illustrate just how badly we have been losing over the past fifty years—the “Electric Mafia” he fears is easily recognizable in the control technologies of algorithmic feeds and product recommendations

“What is to be done with cybernetics, the science of effective organization? Should we all stand by complaining, and wait for someone malevolent to take it over and enslave us? An electronic mafia lurks around that corner.”

“We allow publishers to file away electronically masses of information about ourselves—who we are, what are our interests—and to tie that in with mail order schemes, credit systems, and advertising campaigns that line us all up like a row of ducks to be picked off in the interests of conspicuous consumption.”

In the absence of an intentional, humanity-enhancing system of electronic communication technology, powerful entities both governmental and corporate will use those technologies to erode our humanity and thus deprive us of liberty without ever resorting to the “man with a gun” who is the primary avatar of unfreedom among people who fear centralized state power.

This is the same kind of insight that I described as “the cybernetic event horizon” in Flusser’s work, and in the same spirit that Deleuze discusses “control” and Foucault “governmentality” (though Beer and Flusser both got there before these canonized wordcels).

Today, it is clear that fears of an “electric mafia” were if anything understated. Effects which are commonly attributed solely to the internet and social media have in fact been developing for decades. But modern communication technology obviously accelerates the trend.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wake up one day and decide to cause teenage girls to have panic attacks about not getting enough Likes on their Instagram posts; he and the other electric dons designed and piloted these systems whose output was human anxiety rather than human freedom.



Beer’s vision for how communication technology could be used to enhance human freedom doesn’t look all that different from how we interact with computers and smart devices today. The design of the user interface, replete with armchair and cigar, is perhaps a bit whimsical compared our usual set-up, but the ability to look up information, do a deeper dive on news items, play music and play long-distance chess are all things we can do today.

The one exception is the ease with which this setup integrates information into the user’s tax file. One of Beer’s crucial insights is that increasing the total number of channels of communication only tends to produce confusion and give private actors more leverage. Personal income taxes are an old form of communication between citizens and the state, and they are today such a source of annoyance because they haven’t been overhauled to fit within the rest of the societal apparatus for collecting and transmitting information. Concerns about privacy are misplaced; at present, the only entities who are cross-walking all of the information about individual people are corporate data brokers and the big companies that pay them; doing all of the relevant data collection and synthesis up front would both empower government action and undercut the corporations’ advantage.

But the bigger difference between Beer’s dream and the status quo is the phrase “AND DON’T TELL ANYONE ELSE UNLESS I SAY SO.” This isn’t specifically a privacy concern; he’s also opposing the collection of anonymized aggregate data. The crucial mechanism, what would allow the creation of tools which empower humans to act without warping our desires and indeed our natures, is to cut this channel of feedback from the individual back into the apparatus.

My normative commitment is to human freedom, human agency. The more of ourselves exist in the apparatus, the more agency we offload to it. The radical rejection of technology is simply not an option on a planet of 8 billion. Individual efforts to avoid using modern communication technology are quixotic and ultimately self-destructive, as Stafford Beer’s descent into pastoral mysticism illustrates. The best path I see requires something like his approach to effective communication and governance, to think of engineering a society which produces human freedom while ensuring homeostatic stability.



John Q 09.27.23 at 12:04 am

I encountered Operations Research mainly through queueing theory and it always struck me as a grab-bag of useful techniques rather than an intellectual discipline. Wikipedia seems to agree “In the 1950s, the term Operations Research was used to describe heterogeneous mathematical methods such as game theory, dynamic programming, linear programming, warehousing, spare parts theory, queue theory, simulation and production control, which were used primarily in civilian industry. ”

I’ve always seen Geography in much the same light (lots of things relevant to people and place, but no intellectual core), and it appears that it has suffered much the same fate, despite having been around much longer than OR


Doug K 09.27.23 at 3:53 am

thank you, I knew the name but not the history. Astonishing prescience that he had. The second picture looks like Marx gone to seed.. presumably in a pub somewhere in Wales, there seems to be a dragon in the background.

After it became clear that pure mathematics was too much for me, I did a second degree in computer science with a minor in operations research. It seemed a good idea at the time, both the degree and OR, couldn’t wait to get out and make the world work better. Well so much for that. In my fifth decade of work, lonely poet-mystic over-imbibing in the Welsh countryside is an attractive proposition..


Mark 09.27.23 at 4:26 am

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner comes to mind here as a backdrop for understanding early 1970s considerations of a data society and information technology.

Also interesting to think about how AI split off from cybernetics (often framed as an analog vs digital split, or in the context of a personality clash between McCarthy/Minsky and Wiener). One of the things lost in this breakaway of AI was that deeper knowledge of political economy and the humanist intellectual tradition.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 09.27.23 at 7:28 am

“Actually had the chance to implement his radical ideas at the level of a medium-sized country, and demonstrate at least preliminary evidence for their effectiveness.”

Fascinating. Of course, the system was only active for a limited time, so I wonder what it’s main achievement was?

“According to Gustavo Silva, then the executive secretary of energy in CORFO, the system’s telex machines helped organize the transport of resources into the city with only about 200 trucks driven by strike-breakers, lessening the potential damage caused by the 40,000 striking truck drivers.”



Matt Y. 09.27.23 at 9:51 am

I share the OP’s fascination with complex/dynamic systems modeling and engineering and its pioneers like Beer. As a graduate student in public policy I was able to take an operations research (OR) class, but it was not run out of our business school. Rather, it was a policy school faculty member who was the director of a large counter-terrorism research center. Though I definitely remember the linear algebra-based queuing theory problem sets using commercial (e.g., supermarket checkout lines) rather than military vignettes.

But over the years as a professional academic, I have continued to find active and ongoing research that would be traditionally considered OR taking place as part of DARPA-funded grant projects or in security-oriented research centers. And some of these are ‘compartmentalized’ projects. For example, a frequent collaborator of mine in a computer science department has been PI on multiple DARPA-funded projects using graph theory to mine digital data (including, among other sources, social media) to accurately identify the boundary space of systems of human agents (in the grant’s specific case, terrorists). Separate DARPA grant lines had other researchers working on ways to then modify the boundaries of such systems. Etc.

In other words, while I think John @1 may be mostly correct about a lack of a theoretical ‘core’ to OR (though if there is one I would say it is likely complexity and systems theories), it is in fact still very much an active line of research. It appears, though, that much if not most of that research remains tightly coupled (and thus almost certainly classified) to the militaries that begat it.


Matt 09.27.23 at 12:30 pm

John Q said: I encountered Operations Research mainly through queueing theory and it always struck me as a grab-bag of useful techniques rather than an intellectual discipline.

This seems plausible to me, maybe especially as it’s approached in business schools. The former Operations Research department at Wharton changed it’s name a few years ago to “Operations, Information Management & Decision Processes”, which is perhaps more explicit about this. My impression from when I taught there (in a different department) was that it was a good place to learn a bunch of skills that were useful if, say, you wanted to work in logistics for a big company, or help figure out how to run a busy port or an airport, or do other things like that, but that there wasn’t any sort of deep core that tied the various tools and techniques together. For those purposes that didn’t seem like a problem, but if it’s marketed at “one weird trick” (I’m not saying Beer would say that) it probably is a problem.


Peter Dorman 09.27.23 at 6:21 pm

There’s a lot I could say about Beer, who has influenced me a lot, but who I also have a lot of problems with. The one thing I’ll get off my chest right now is that Cybersyn wasn’t close even to Beer’s viable systems model. In particular, System II (horizontal communication between basic units) was missing entirely, if I’m not mistaken. This meant that the apparatus was engaged in scooping up detailed information from the operations (factories etc.) and sending it to the center, with a reverse flow back. It looks a lot like souped up central planning to me! Of course, Beer never got to complete it, and maybe it would have taken a different form ultimately. As far as I know, there was no published plan for these missing parts.

An important question is the extent to which Cybersyn responded to the challenge laid out by the Austrians in the socialist calculation debate. Or more relevantly, could some extension and updating of Cybersyn respond to that challenge today? I think not, but I’d love to get into an honest discussion about it.


Ray V 09.28.23 at 2:16 am

There’s a lot to digest here. I will have to read this over time, and some of the things it refers to–which should be fun, so thanks.

I have been so fascinated by this one tangentially related thing that one of your comments raised about the internet since I started using in the late 90s, which is that it seems to have a culture and a hive of subcultures that coalesces for a few years, then it disappears. Or more-it is wrecked. Point is it’s not stable. It’s making people, socializing them (often driving them bananas but this is a kind of socialization. You can do this to people with social tools.)

The way the teen girls are harmed by instagram is perhaps an inadvertent side effect to the emotional reach and content of online human feedback but there’s also an intense panic for many powerful people about the fact the kids aren’t being made to be the way these people would like. Republicans for example want to disrupt what the internet is doing–e.g., causing some students to explore and become friendly to social equality in a manner that threatens certain ideologies and sources of authority –so they are putting Praeger U videos in front of them in school as a counter to imitate and replace what is happening to them elsewhere..

Maybe the desperation will end there but it’s unnerving to think about the consciousness shaping qualities of social media and what a really nefarious person might do with the tools they can now craft. If people are socialized by social feedback it’s now so easy to produce social feedback that rewards and shapes thinking to make the youth even less free.

I want the governance you describe but it is harder to get such agreements going now.


oldster 09.28.23 at 4:00 pm

Beer wrote some interesting stuff, and then later he went off the deep end and became a crank.
Is there any reason to think that his later crankish fate sheds any light on the interesting stuff he wrote before? I can’t see any.
John Nash wrote some interesting stuff about mathematics, and then later went off the deep end and became a crank. His later fate tells us nothing of any interest about his earlier mathematical work. It simply reflects the sad fact that the brain is a material organ which relies on various chemical balances in order to function well, and sometimes the chemicals get out of balance. Sometimes this happens in smart people and sometimes it happens in dumb people. But it would be a mistake to look at the phantom of Fine Hall and say, “this just shows what working on Riemannian geometry does to a person.”
So, Beer later descended into schizophrenia or some other organic condition. Why think that his story shows us
“What the abandonment of the pinnacle of capitalist achievement for the most realistic effort to build cybernetic socialism does to a mfer,”
rather than simply, what schizophrenia and chemical imbalance does to someone?


KT2 09.28.23 at 10:57 pm

The Tragedy continues…
Oldster you throw out “… Beer later descended into schizophrenia or some other organic condition.”

Schizophrenia? Bit of a sledge.

Schizophrenia would render anyone incapable of producing Beer’s output.
“The deficits in cognition are seen to drive the negative psychosocial outcome in schizophrenia, and are claimed to equate to a possible reduction in IQ from the norm of 100 to 70–85.[59][60] … “Schizophrenia is a mental disorder[14] characterized by continuous or relapsing episodes of psychosis.[5] Major symptoms include hallucinations (typically hearing voices), delusions, and disorganized thinking.[7] ” Wikipedia

Whittaker has an episode – a breakdiwn. A nautucal mile or three from schizophrenia.

“On being a friend of Stafford Beer, the kind of books he liked, and the poetry he wrote. ”


Janus Daniels 09.29.23 at 2:14 pm

For Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson upthread, “… strike actions against the Allende government was funded by the United States as part of an economic warfare. The elected Allende government survived in part due to the Cybersyn system. Eventually the Allende government was brought down by a CIA-supported coup d’état…”


Dan Davies 09.29.23 at 3:08 pm

My god, synchronicity! (Hi everyone, remember me? I used to live here? Nope. Eheu fugaces).

I’m literally just about to send manuscript corrections on a book about Beer that I’ve been working on for the last four years – what a wonderful surprise to see him written up in such detail.

Peter Dornan is dead right about CYBERSYN btw.


Tim Wilkinson 09.29.23 at 4:07 pm

Do economics and history (just for two examples) have an ‘intellectual core’ in a way that operations research doesn’t, then? It seems to me they are in the same position as in that they are organised around a messy real-world subject matter, rather than a field of ‘pure’ research like maths, or a methodologically homogeneous approach to fundamental aspects of reality, like the natural sciences.

So far as either of these is taken to be defined by a canonical methodology (say, respectively: mathematical calculations of idealised equilibria; and the acceptance of all and only official documents) then so much the worse for them, surely.

I would suggest that the reason operations research was not able to settle into a narrowly dogmatic ‘intellectual core’ was that its predictions (or prescriptions) were actually subject to fairly rigorous – and crucially, consequential – testing.

Economists (the big name ones, anyway) are notoriously immune from adverse consequences when their predictions (so far as they can be pinned down) repeatedly fail; historians’ ‘post-dictions’ are not clearly testable; the only evidence taken (by the opinion-certifying classes) to be capable of contradicting a historian’s claims are the opinions of other historians.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 09.30.23 at 2:45 am

“… strike actions against the Allende government was funded by the United States as part of an economic warfare. The elected Allende government survived in part due to the Cybersyn system. ”
Fair enough. What was their policy on strikes not funded by the United States? Would they have used the system to organise strikebreakers for those, too?


Michael Glassman 09.30.23 at 6:12 pm

Read with some interest. I have always been fascinated by what happened to Beer in Chile and the possibilities he created and then were taken away. I am no expert on cybernetics, but I think that while Wiener came up with the original idea (it always straddled views of reality as Wiener did consecutive post docs with Bertrand Russell and John Dewey) I am surprised that is little mention in this piece, or in the Morozov article about the Macy conferences where the idea of cybernetics was developed (shouldn’t be attributed to a single person). It is important to recognize the split that occurred between straight cybernetics and what later came to be known as second order cybernetics or the cybernetics of cybernetics that Mead, Bateson, von Foester and Lewin (before he died) were arguing for as a model, which was much less interested in command and more attuned to continuous adaptation based on continuous information feedback loops – captured later I think by Pask and his Conversation theory, which I still struggle to understand. I believe that Beer identified with this group. If so Beer was never interested in building a command center for socialism as described, but was more concerned with turning management into a continuous conversation, both ends human and both ends machine. He did not really have the technology to do this. I think it was more that it wasn’t invented yet than that the great US cut Chile off (although the US still has a lot to answer for with what happened). I see Beer as trying to turn management into a conversation, using connected Telex machines, where the central room could attempt to formulate a societal version of Bateson’s MIND. Maybe I am wrong, but there is I think a bigger story here that we keep missing.


Peter Dorman 10.01.23 at 5:02 am

I agree (of course) that Beer saw himself as using some of the frontier IT methods of his time in the service of creating a freer, more responsive managerial order. At an abstract level, cybernetics appears to offer this, since it describes control systems that adapt to, by incorporating, continuous feedback mechanisms. That works when the ultimate objectives of the project, like shooting down a fighter plane in the WWII origin story, are unambiguous. The further you get from such a context, the dicier the cybernetic framing becomes. What constituted the objective function for Cybersyn? (And who got to decide?)

FWIW, I’m writing a book that will have a chapter on worker participation in management, where Beer gets a lot of discussion — but critically. I think he clarified some of the problems that need to be overcome, but there was also a large gap between what he promised in his utopian mode and what his methods would foster.

Interesting that Wiener studied with Dewey! I never knew this. But I can see the connection.


Peter T 10.02.23 at 7:42 am

re Tim Wilkinson – history does not have a core, it has an aim: to understand, as nearly as possible, the way things were – what happened and why (which means understanding the perspectives of those involved). Not just official documents, but pretty much any relevant document, together with any surviving expression of material life (architecture, archaeology, costume, language …). One never gets all the way there, of course, but each year we get a little closer as we include more people and their perspectives, and more information.


hix 10.02.23 at 11:29 pm

Schizophrenia outcomes vary. Usually the relatively good outcomes hide, since the diagnosis is so stigmatized, and the rather bad ones often got very little self awareness about how bad it is in their case (not just talking about acute episodes), distorting the picture.

An acquaintance had his first episode while still in high school. He did a psychology degree afterwards and started a maths focused Ph.D. thesis. That did not work out thanks to another episode. He can still work a qualified full time job. The diagnosis is not quite independent of being good at maths, either. Read: It quite literarily happens more often to maths smart people. So yes, maybe schizophrenia, but that does not exclude that his work did it to him to some extent and neither does it categorically exclude doing good work after the illness already set in.

Don’t get me wrong, i know more people with schizophrenia whose degrees proof they must have been rather good abstract thinkers some time in the past but now got problems say making a correct move in a chess game. Still other outcomes exist and those are in the worst possible spot regarding for example labour market discrimination.


Tim Wilkinson 10.04.23 at 1:12 am

Peter T – yes agreed that’s probably roughly what history should be like. My point was that this version – aim, no core, open-ended technique – puts it in the same boat as cybernetics, as depicted by JQ’s #1 (which I forgot to reference).

The opposed conception of ‘history’ as an elite exchange of belles lettres (no inherent aim, core methodology, rigid technique) was certainly prevalent at least in the not-so-distant past – and sustained by the lack of any significant danger of falsification.

Likewise economics, to be done well, needs clearer purpose, less dogma and a more catholic approach – at which point it too is in that same boat. Perhaps if economics were widely approached in this way, cybernetics might be a subfield of it (or vice versa, or both subfields of a broader science).


Zamfir 10.05.23 at 10:09 am

@ Tim, in practice “operations research” is not defined by a large aim, at least not an aim with the 50s and 60s ambition of people like Beer or RAND. They presented it as a scientific, mathematical approach to management, to understaning and improving organizations . And for a while, it had the attention of CEOs , generals, presidents.

The thing called operations research today is not nothing like that. For example, look at the contents of the textbook below- it’s mostly about techniques to optimize scheduling problems, with JQ’s grab-bag in the last chapters. This is useful stuff , but it’s far removed from the original dreams.

The weird thing is that a shadow of the larger aim is still hanging around the academic field. In the name itself, in the attachment to business schools, in promises for generic usefulness like “optimal decision making” instead of “better software for crane movements”. And branching out into finance, which seems closer to the hearts and minds of modern managers than logistics.

It’s a contrast with cybernetics. There the limited-aim version got rebranded to “control theory” in electrical engineering departments, while the grander management version disappeared.


engels 10.06.23 at 7:13 pm

Evgeny Morosov’s podcast on cybersyn is very good (imo).


Ray Davis 10.09.23 at 9:05 pm

Dan Davies is writing a book about Stafford Beer! (In case anyone missed that.)


Alex Tolley 10.10.23 at 5:07 pm

Stafford Beer was a guest lecturer at the Manchester Business School, England, when I attended back in the early 1980s. One talk was about the system for Allende.

I do have his book, “The Heart of Enterprise”, but it is not as easy read, with the “at the bar” conversions being rather elliptical.


Vanilla Beer 10.11.23 at 9:33 am

…difficult to know where to start commenting on this lot. Most obviously, a correction is due on the remark that Stafford was a ‘lonely poet-mystic drinking himself to death in the Welsh countryside’.
Lonely? Not a chance!! Poor chap was desperate for some peace and quiet and rarely got it. Dreamt of being lonely.
Poet-mystic? Poet/painter/yogi/philosopher. And the rest.
Drinking himself to death? He drank white wine and water, to handle his diabetes. He checked his bloods every morning (the pinprick test of the epoch) and adjusted accordingly. He actually died of Oesteo Otitis, which had been complicated by the diabetes.
Welsh countryside? He died in Toronto, where he spent half his time with Dr Allenna Leonard, the love-of-his-life whom he met in 1981.

He had to make a living. (Evgeny Morozovs characterisation of Stafford as an ‘aristocrat’ is probably due to the fact that Morozov is from Belarus and has a small grasp of the english caste system ) Stafford had young children and responsibilities so continued to work as a consultant and professor/ lecturer and to write books.

In Beyond Dispute (1994) you can read the method known as the Syntegration Process, which Stafford invented in order that the right questions may be asked – of the Viable System Model, for example.

Some comments on the comments now;
Mark: Brummer mentions Stafford in Shockwave Rider –
Peter Dorman: The paper Cybernetic Notes on the Effective Organisation of the State with particular reference to Industrial Control, written by Stafford in Santiago in November 1971 explains the use of system 11 in the VSM. Available in the SB Collection, John Moores University – or published recently by Antler Boy (Benjamin Taylor) in his excellent Systems Community of Inquiry group.
Oldster; Crank? Schizophrenic??? Read his work!! Even after his stroke he continued to write using dragon software. It took him a morning to write a page so his output was curtailed, but it never stopped.
Dan Davies: Good to hear you are doing a Stafford book. Guessing that means you’ve been in the SB archives. Please check the preliminary papers from Santiago there, ref my comment to Peter Dorman above.
Micheal Glassman: Spot on !!!!
hix: Stafford never ever displayed any of the symptoms of schizophrenia. Not never.
Engels: Morosovs podcast doesn’t mention any of Staffords work – his take on Cybercyn is astonishingly trivial and often inaccurate.
Running out of space here – ditto energy. As Staffords daughter, may I suggest that you take an overview of his extraordinary life before judging him a tragedy :)

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