Louis and Paul, please

Paul Cockshott wpc at clyder.gn.apc.org
Sun Sep 3 15:50:58 MDT 1995


One of the most interesting experiments with
computerised planning and control of the economy was
undertaken in Chile during the government of Allende
in the years 1972 to 1973. The system was designed by
Stafford Beer and is described in his book 'The Brain of
the Firm'.  Its objective was to provide real time
decentralised control of the economy.
With the conventional statistical methods
available to Western governments economic statistics
are often many months out of date by the time they
arrive on the desks  of decision makers. In consequence,
decisions are made to try and resolve a crisis some
months after the crisis actually occurred. Since the
policy instruments available to the government are also
slow acting,  decisions may be taken whose effects are
the opposite of what was expected.  After the stock
market crash of 1987, the British government feared a
recession and in 1988 introduced tax cuts.  By the time
these came into effect demand was already accelerating
anyway,  so by 1989 the result was accelerating
inflation.  Lags in the availability of data meant that
completely inappropriate action was taken.
Such perverse effects, in which feedback
induces worse oscillations in the system, can be avoided
if controllers are provided with up to date information
and have the means to take immediate appropriate
action. In Chile a computer network was established to
do this in only 4 months. The task was accomplished
with the computer technology of the early '70s and the
very limited telecoms capacity of a poor country like
Chile. A combination of microwave an telex links
joined all the key industrial centers to computers in the
capital. Within these limits it was possible to provide
the government with economic information that was no
more than a day old. More modern equipment could do
better.
Information was presented in iconic form. Large
screens in an OPSROOM displayed annotated flow
graphs of the interactions between subsections of the
economy. The graphics displays avoided using figures.
The magnitudes of the flows between different sectors
were indicated by the widths of the lines flowing
between them. Industries and sectors were shown as
blocks with bar graphs inside them telling what
proportion of the industry's capability was being used.
The room provided seating for 7 people; this being the
largest number who can effectively participate in a
discussion. Large buttons on the arms swiveling  seats
could be used to control the displays, and highlight
different features.
The notion of the Opsroom was taken from
wartime experience in air defence. As in war, real time
information was displayed for immediate decisions.
Decisions could be tested using computer simulations
which showed what the effects would be if a given
course of action were taken. In the event it was used
like a wartime headquarters  in the struggle to break the
anti-government boycotts imposed by private lorry
companies. The computer network enabled the
government to mobilise all its available transport
resources to keep goods flowing.
It was intended that an Opsroom would be
provided in each industry and below that in each plant.
Sophisticated statistical programs analyzed the data
flowing up from lower levels of the system to search for
any significant changes. Human decision makers were
insulated from information overload and just presented
with significant data on which decisions were needed.
The Opsroom for a plant would be provided with
warnings as soon as anything unusual occurred. If the
computers detected a crisis, they alerted the opsroom
and started a clock running. If, within a certain time
period, the Opsroom had not responded effectively, the
next higher Opsroom in the tree was alerted. This
would give each unit the freedom to act locally within
its competence without endangering the viability of the
social organism. It was envisaged that the opsroom at
factory level would be run by local workers
committees. The democratic presumption was that
modern visual and computing aids would allow people
to manage their factories without sophisticated training.
With the bloody coup by the fascist Friedmanite
dictatorship all this was swept away.  The Opsroom
perished with Allende and democracy in the burnt out
ruins of the presidential palace. Chile rejoined the 'free
world'.


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