Stafford Beer the Hippy?

The Santiago Boys

Audio documentary (9 hours!) about Stafford Beer’s “Cybersyn” project in Allende’s Chile by Evgeny Morozov(*1) – “new” undated. (Hat tip to Ben Taylor on Mastodon / Twitter / LinkedIn – and was reviewed last week 22 July 2023 by John Bartlett in the Grauniad.)

Amidst all the left-right international and corporate power politics (Nixon, Kissinger, CIA and ITT vs Allende, Castro et al) and idealised socialist dreams – Utopia, literally – actually plenty of real world lessons about Cybernetics as Systems Thinking. That and a well documented history of Beer himself with recordings of him and many interviewees. “Went out a Management Consultant, came back a Hippy.” – Maturana.  Thoroughly referenced, (including modern practitioners like Mike Jackson).

Cybernetics is NEVER about the technology. Technology as something owned, physically implemented in licensed hardware and/or software can become a tool of power and dependency. Yes, there is a lot about access to information, using technology to gather more – knowledge is power (Bacon) etc – but again it’s the info not the “tech”, and who has access(*2)? Very disappointing “scientific management” (Taylorism, resource-time-and-motion) aspect to the Cybersyn project – you can only manage what you know in data, etc. Early days I guess of this being something computing technology (ie Telex!) can do. But a distraction. I have similar early “tech” (Telex and Athenaeum! – ticker tape “at the club”) experiences.

Cybernetics is always about the thinking and the decision-making. Really originally (literally) about Governance – how we make (good) collective decisions. Democracy / Bureaucracy / Technocracy / Benevolent-Dictatorship -> Democracy with (or without?) some form of Elitism.

I came to the conclusion more than a decade ago the problem (of how we humans best “manage” our interests in the world) is solved by “proper” democracy and that proper democracy does require some form of “elite” – [Already mentioned here in hindsight in 2008 (*3)] – technocrats in a technical knowledge / expertise NOT technology sense. Balance of populism – popular votes on all decisions – vs delegated / hierarchical power and control. Either extreme is tyrannical. But how? It’s about the ecosystem, the thought-and-value-system, for decision- making and enactment. The technocracy (as thoughtocracy?) is about managing that NOT making / managing / controlling the decisions and actions themselves – that’s for those with their “skin in the game”. Civil service as not merely the bureaucratic executors, but also the guardians / curators of the (evolving) ecosystem – this is an area where “citizens assemblies” idea also fits well?

Hence the abstraction of Systems Thinking distinct from Project / Policy Management and Execution, and an Ecosystem that manages that distancing.



(*1) No secret that Morozov’s own agenda is, like that of the Grauniad, – “a very promising avenue for reinventing what socialism of the 21st century should be”. Not surprisingly, Russian friends with real experience of soviet communism don’t rate Morozov – nor Bogdanov – but as a documentary we can draw our own conclusions from the facts. Aside – Morozov’s project he calls “post-Utopia”, Paul Mason (Bogdanov scholar) calls his “post-Capitalism”. I say a pox on all Bayesian priors – Post-Post-Modernism for me 🙂

(*2) Clearly significant in 21st C that we have so much more “democratised” consumer information technology. Creates the illusion of more / better democracy, but of course it’s all still owned and funded with interests and power-structures. And even without dubious motives the channels become dominated by mediocre content – the medium is the message. Actually exacerbates the problem of tyrannical extremes – more activism at both ends – faster, more ubiquitous, more complete polarisation of interests. The need for the abstraction / separation of thinking and doing remains, and is indeed more urgent as it becomes ever more obscured by the “traffic” in would-be transparent information-overload.

(*3) Given our 2023 Systems context, ironic (in the Alanis Morissette sense) that 2008 reference was to a piece by Dave Snowden of Cynefin. Small world of consilience?



Three-week hiatus here since I last posted on Psybertron. Been focussed – apart from housekeeping – on a Research Proposal on that Ecosystem idea, supported by modern neuro-science and neuro-philosophy on how we humans really do make decisions as agents in the complex real world.

Which also means I’ve missed quite a few other interesting inputs. Hat tip to reader AJ Owens on Consciousness & Semantics, Pts 1 & 2, at “Staggering Implications”.

Bit more housekeeping to clear the decks …


Post Notes:

Note to self – The rubber hits the road in nail clusters (miguelitos) sabotage, whilst the Santiago Boys deal in cybernetic concepts. Distance between thinking and doing again.

Also – Some interaction with this post, in the comments below as noted by Ben Taylor, but also on Twitter and Mastodon. Probably really need to create another summary page for all things Cybernetic and Systems Thinking. The reply to Finn below was itself a from-memory-summary of my previous recaps, with links to three previous recaps. Just capturing  a couple of additional contributions here.

One, I can be a bit dismissive of certain specific thinkers and their branding of their own ideas and methodologies – “nothing new under the sun” – and everybody’s interpretation of everybody else is “for a reason” – so I’m always looking for conceptual essences at the “right level of abstraction”. Gregory Bateson I’ve “discarded” before on this basis, but did include him in one of the summary lists below – Cybernetics #1, #2, #3, the most recent summary before this one.

Two, as I already alluded and Ben made more explicit on Mastodon, it’s moot anyway how much (say) Cybersyn as executed represented what Beer’s ideas had originally intended, not to mention the politics  – there are nevertheless always lessons to be learned from experience of both – the thinking and the projects.

And Three, one respondent on Mastodon – “Kihbernetics” – appears to have his own branded version of what I’m simply calling Cybernetics#3 – Feedback + Agent Feed-Forward + Agent Memory – but he also summarises his main sources:

#Kihbernetics is the study of #Complex #Dynamical #Systems with #Memory very different from all other #SystemsThinking approaches. Kihbernetic theory and principles are derived from these three sources:

[1] #CE_Shannon‘s theory of #Information and his description of a #Transducer,

[2] #WR_Ashby‘s #Cybernetics and his concept of #Transformation, and

[3]  #HR_Maturana‘s theory of #Autopoiesis and the resulting #Constructivism

We use our Kihbernetic worldview to help people navigate their #organization through times of #change. An organization is defined* as:

“An integrated composite of people, products, and processes that provide a capability to satisfy a stated need or objective.”

*MIL_STD_499B definition of the word “system”

#People are always at the forefront of our thinking (the #who and #why are we doing this for and/or with?). Our efforts will continue with the discovery of all the functions or #processes in your organization (#how and #when something happens or has to happen?), and finally, we get to the #products and/or services that you put on the market and the tools that you use or may need to buy or develop in order to fully integrate your system (the #what and #where things have to happen?).

Our goal is always to make the people of your organization self-reliant to the point that they shouldn’t need our help with the further maintenance of a continuous change management process.

In any case, we’ve got your back while you do the heavy lifting of establishing a better future for your organization!”

Why “Kihbernetics” I’ve no idea, nor why that narrow MIL-Std definition for a system, and obviously in the business of branding his own consulting business – but those three source summaries – Shannon, Ashby & Maturana – look useful. People front and centre, obviously.

[Trust is essential, no solution without it – “leave us to do your heavy lifting” (ie don’t trust “them” trust me, essentially) – is placing the expert-technocrat in the elite governance position (this never goes away as I said). And it’s not about transparency, beyond basic access needs & controls. Transparency is the opposite of trust. Effectively – I don’t trust you so keep your hands and your information where I can see them.]


Post Notes:

Essay on ITT – the bad guys – by the Morozov – the series creator – in Le Monde Diplomatique August 2023.


7 thoughts on “Stafford Beer the Hippy?”

  1. Hi Ian, great post. What are some of the best books for getting into the field of cybernetics? I’ve read a fair amount on ‘systems theory’. Just interested in looking at cybernetics more specifically.

  2. Hi Finn, thanks for the comment. Not sure I’m the best person for that recommendation, since I kind of evolved into it by word association, and these days I prefer the term “Systems Thinking”.

    The first thing I read that really registered with me that Cybernetics was about humanity rather than science and computer automation was Dupuy’s “Mechanisation of the Mind” which itself came out of the same 1946 “Macy Conference” that had been dominated by Wiener who wrote his “Cybernetics” afterwards followed soon by Bertalanffy’s “General Systems Theory”.

    From there I took Cybernetics / Systems Sciences & Theories as kind of synonymous conceptually, and a given as far as my own topic of interest. I researched backwards as to where the thinking had come from – the disasters of two world wars – “World in Crisis” – and “scientific modernism” before that, particularly statistical thermodynamics (hence information and computing). I didn’t worry much about different systems theories and methodologies that had been coined by many practitioners since the 50’s. Beer is one, but Pask, Ross-Ashby and more. (Interestingly there were a few thinkers that got there earlier and independent of Wiener, like Bogdanov. The Mike Jackson reference above notes the parallels between Beer and Bogdanov without any sign either knew anything about the other.)

    (These days, I’d recommend Anatoly Levenchuk’s “Systems Thinking Handbook”)
    However, Wiener’s “Cybernetics” is the source of the specific idea and a pretty good read too.

    I’ve done a few “recaps” on the topic
    The latter contains my brief review of Wiener and links to further references.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out.

    I thought of your interest in cybernetics the other day while reading James Bridle’s Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (2022). In the Introduction, he essentially re-defines “ecology” as a sort of systems thinking, though not in so many words:

    “Ecology is the study of these interrelationships, these unbreakable cords which tie everything to everything else. Crucially, those relationships extend to things as well as beings: ecology is just as interested in how the availability of nesting materials affects bird populations, or how urban planning shapes the spread of diseases, as it is in how honeybees pollinate marigolds and cleaner wrasses delouse surgeonfish. . . Much of this book will be concerned with this particular ecological thought: that what matters resides in relationships rather than things—between us, rather than within us.” (pp 12-13)

  4. Makes sense. In fact “ecosystem” has become the fashionable buzzword in systems thinking generally, almost regretting choosing it as my focus. It will be important to get a grip on what we (I) mean as opposed to all things to all men 🙂

    Seeing the world as “interrelationships” primarily, before things is the essence of systems thinking – a “system” being anything considered in terms of its relations with other things.

    Thanks for the reference.

  5. Hello,
    Stafford Beer was a good friend of mine. I edited the largest anthology of his writings available which is packed with ideas on cybernetics & systems thinking, as well as his poetry, painting & biography. It’s called ‘Think Before you Think: Social Complexity & Knowledge of Knowing’. The foreword is by the musician Brian Eno. It’s available direct from Wavestone Press in Oxfordshire.
    David Whittaker

  6. Hi David, thanks for interacting.
    Yes, I do know who you are from my researches, through Metaphorum I think? And I love the title “Think Before You Think:” – precisely fits my “distancing” agenda between the different kinds of thinking needed. Eno crops up in a number of places in my areas of interest too.

    I’ll add your anthology to my “Library of Unread Books” for now – need to progress the writing projects I’m currently buried under 🙂

  7. Thanks for your very generous response Ian! I look forward to looking at the authors/books suggested.

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