On systems, and what they do

From my admittedly comfortable perch here in Helsinki – a nearly-city of lakes, parks and server-sporting trams, where the cradle-to-grave social infrastructure shapes daily choices every bit as much as the network of bike/walk paths – it can too often seem as if the large-scale ideological battles over how to best organize a society have been fought and won.

None of which is to say that Finland is some end-of-history Paradise, by any stretch of the imagination, or that revenge effects – notably an outsize public drunkenness problem, and the human and structural attrition it gives rise to – aren’t significant factors in everyday life here. But it would be simply unheard of for a Finnish politician, of any ideological stripe whatever, to seriously argue that the social support system is anything but a strong net good and should be disassembled. Of course there are differences between parties – sincere, profound and not infrequently pungent ones – as to how to approach collective problems, but the central questions have been asked and answered.

So from here, it would be easy to dismiss the “debate” on public healthcare unfolding in the United States right now as comedy in the worst possible taste: the bad-faith flailing of an essentially unserious society, the civilizational equivalent of a Pauly Shore movie.

What serious polity – let alone would-be contender in the cutthroat global market American policy has been so strongly dedicated to the creation of over the last sixty years – would want to deny its citizens and native industries every possible advantage? What kind of patriot could possibly rest content with the notion that the poorest national of, say, Trinidad and Tobago has better healthcare options than most Americans?

No. It’s inconceivable. Unless you’re the type that gets your primary kicks from laughing at retarded children, it’s the kind of thing you turn your back on and walk away from.

But I just can’t do that. My heart is still and always back home in the States, and that’s why what’s going on there right now is causing me so much grief. I literally can’t spend three minutes on The New York Times without having to shut the tab in frustration and (more to the point) rage of a particularly corrosive kind.

If for no other reason than my own ongoing stability, then, it’s probably worth trying to figure out just what’s causing this rather pointless and self-indulgent reaction. Bear with me, won’t you? I promise you this will go somewhere productive.

contexts, problems

When I unpack the current situation, it quickly becomes obvious to me which of its elements are most responsible for my agita.

There’s the heartbreaking, if by-now familiar, What’s the Matter with Kansas? spectacle of working people enlisted to act passionately and fervently against what is clearly in their own interest. (Witness the anti-reform protestor reduced to soliciting donations from supporters to cover his medical expenses…because he’d recently been laid off and had no healthcare insurance.)

There’s the nasty neo-’90s frisson I get when I consider the precise composition of the cohort that’s been so effectively mobilized to shut down the Town Halls and other public discussion fora: the black-helicopters-and-gold-fringe crowd, the same folks that gave us Tim McVeigh, the Murrah Federal Building and 168 dead.

There’s what history tells us about what happens when elements one and two above are brought together in the service of an idea. See, capital always finds its own uses for the street; some of those uses are arguably harmless, while others look a whole lot like Ernst Röhm.

And beyond that, there’s my sense of despair at the impotence with which the American body politic (and especially the “progressive” sector thereof, right up to and including President Obama) reacts to outside context problems or – might as well call ’em what they are – exploits.

Consider “death panels.” This is clearly Big Lie territory, and of course the filthy little truth of the Big Lie is that it works and works consistently. But just what work does it do in the present context?

In trying to answer this question, it’s worth bearing this in mind: it’s not that the opponents of national health are playing the same game by a different set of rules. They’re playing a different game entirely. That is, a plurality of the folks who oppose some kind of public-sector involvement in health insurance almost certainly are not interested in helping to articulate a best-fit, balanced solution that would be minimally acceptable to everyone. Their all-but-stated aim is to deny, attrit, isolate, suppress and, ultimately, shatter their opponents.

The collectivites arrayed against the “Obamacare” bogeyman construct the body politic as a zero- or even a negative-sum game. They’ve identified a loophole, a vulnerability in the operating system of American democracy for which as yet there’s no patch. And because their victory conditions don’t require the affirmative production of a workable solution, the challenge before them is much (infinitely!) easier: all they have to do is drive a wedge through that vulnerability and they’ve won. The foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives that will result are collateral damage, an acceptable side effect. And the damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.

Now, to tell the truth, I’m not all that surprised that there are people who would rather tear their country apart than articulate an honest ideological opposition and advance meaningful alternatives to the policies they dislike. But it’s not simply cynicism that teaches me this. It’s history.

If nothing else, I know the story of Project Cybersyn.

Por la razón…o la fuerza?

I can barely imagine what the world and its possibilities looked like from the vantage point of Santiago, Chile, in mid-1971. But part of what I can guess easily enough is that the Socialist president Salvador Allende, elected the previous year, was feeling the heat.

Under severe economic and political pressure – some but by no means all of which was orchestrated by the United States, and a certain proportion of which had no other cause than his own actions in office – Allende probably felt he had little to lose by plunging his administration, and by extension his nation, into the unknown.

And leap into the unknown he certainly did. Facing a restive domestic constituency, seeing lines of foreign credit dry up one by one, Allende invited the renowned British cyberneticist and management consultant Stafford Beer to Chile to advise his administration on how best to restructure the economy. The result was something called Cybersyn, which as far as I’m concerned to this day remains the all-time high-water mark of the idea that data should drive policy.

Cybersyn had its genesis in the Allende team’s desire to modernize (and, it must be said, significantly nationalize) Chile’s import-substitution economy, while avoiding the inherent weaknesses of a Soviet-style centrally planned system, with its inefficient allocation of resources, suppression of local initiative and disregard of local intelligence. If a unique vía chilena al socialismo were to be forged, it would have little enough to do with the top-down, command-and-control models found throught the Eastern Bloc – and much more to do with the inputs, flows, gates and outputs of Beer’s whole-systems analyses.

Taking advantage of the happenstance discovery of some 500 teletype units purchased and immediately mothballed by the previous administration, Cybersyn collected near-real-time production, supply, demand and utilization statistics from factories up and down Chile’s 4,300-kilometer length. These reports were fed, on a daily basis, to a rather unbelievably stylish operations center in Santiago, where they were subjected to analysis by the project’s single (!) computer. Finally, recommendations for next actions were apparently hand-carried to the adjacent presidential palace.

What does this all have to do with the present day, the Obama administration, and the crisis in American healthcare?

The problems with Cybersyn were clearly legion, and weren’t and aren’t simply glitches of implementation, as some of Beer’s latter-day apologists insist. And of course I’m just as suspicious of ostensibly “rational,” data-driven decision making as anyone. (If nothing else, I came of age intellectually during the first full flowering of postmodernism in the American academy. Skepticism regarding any positivist claim to perfect knowledge forms a big part of my default settings.)

But there is, in Cybersyn, an inherent, wonky confidence in the power of accurate situational information to guide good decision-making. The retro-cybernetic flavor that garners so much of the initial interest is merely piquant; the core proposition is essentially that underlying deliberative democracy and similar contemporary notions: If only we could present [The P/p]eople with the right information, surely – surely – they’d come to the correct conclusion. It’s the kind of thing that brings Al Gore to mind – or, dare I say it, the Barack Obama of the 2004-8 period.

And lest we forget, the Cybersyn experiment was ended not by some demonstration of the bankruptcy of the ideas on which it was founded, nor by some notional inability to put it into practice, nor by the emergence of a better, more accurate, or more equitable solution. It ended with the rest of the Allende administration, amid the ashes and blood of a US-backed right-wing putsch.

Is it fair to draw even the sketchiest of parallels between this and what we face now? Does it even make any sense? I don’t know. What I do know is that history suggests that one is not well advised to bring a spreadsheet to a gun fight.

But that is an ugly, ugly square to land on, and it really does mean the end of everything I personally hold dear. (So long trams and sidewalk cafés, so long bike paths.) So where can we go from here that might offer a little more hope?

Let’s leave it at this: If you want to believe that humanity has a future, of course we have to work for better collective decision-making systems. I’m excited by the work that’s being done around deliberative democracy, complex dataset visualization, and design both strategic and tactical that’s intended to strengthen systems of collective response, to make them wiser and more supple.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who geek out over such things also have to remember that the pushers of the “death panel” shibboleth, like all those who came before them and all who will follow in their footsteps, are playing a different game. And feeling the imminent threat to their bottom line, they’re playing for keeps. If we want to regain control of the national discourse – if we feel and believe in the bottom of our souls that every American deserves to live free from the fear that an unexpected injury or illness will bankrupt them as well as damage their health, just like citizens of every other developed nation on the planet – we can’t simply huff indignantly. The “At long last, sir, have you left no sense of decency?” card worked once, but it was played in a different context, in a different century, in what might as well have been a different world.

Stafford Beer famously said that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” I’d like to believe that the purpose of the American system is what we’re taught it is: to safeguard each citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that is not nearly what the system is doing right now, and apparently it’s up to us to fix it.

If you’re hungry for more about Cybersyn, see Kazys Varnelis’s take here, which was the first place I heard tell of it. There’s a wonderfully detailed write-up here; the latter includes a link (PDF) to Eden Medina‘s authoritative dissertation on the topic.

24 responses to “On systems, and what they do”

  1. Steve Lawson says :

    Brilliant, persuasive writing, Adam. I’m baffled by the debate (how can health care for all not be a good thing? how can people with no insurance or a $5000-a-year deductible still talk as though this is some kind of Stalinist plot???), and am constantly looking for intelligent voices from inside the US, as those on the right will generally discount my voice as that of a commie-loving Brit who delights in the harbouring of terrorists in our scary health system.

    Ex-pats appear to be in the best position to both understand the nuance of the thinking within the US, and speak eloquently of the situation in the rest of the world (!)

    So, thanks.

  2. Timo says :

    Cybersyn: wow. What an extreme and potent precedent.

  3. Scott Smith says :

    Adam, you think it looks bad from the outside, it’s a thousand times worse from the inside. As a once and possibly future expat, my family and I had the opportunity to see it from both sides, and the opportunity to pay less for NHS in the UK and receive better care than I have in the US, where I’d pay more as a percentage of total income (just because it’s a private payment doesn’t mean it doesn’t “tax” my income). Rather than enslaving me, I found, on the whole, state supported health care and education did fine by us—not world class, glass and steel, brought to me by ADM/Raytheon/Citibank, but sufficient and generally appropriate. We returned, however, to crumbling health and education services, the former failing under its own greedy and incredibly inefficient weight, the latter gutted by “starve the beast” ideologues.

    So, here we are, 2010 almost, and we are in a nearly-failed state. I’m lucky enough professionally to be an economic migrant (in theory), but for the millions who can’t wriggle their way to the better system, and who have, as you say, been duped into being the turkeys who vote for Thanksgiving, it’s a terrible sight.

    The worst part is, this isn’t really about health care, or out-of-control government growth (where were the protesters over the last eight years when the deficit ballooned, civil rights disappeared and enormous new entitlements and bureaucracies were set in motion?). It’s about losing control of the hearts and minds of the middle class, fear of rational arguments and ultimately, fear of the “other”. What no one seems to understand is that missing the boat on constructive reform now means facing a whole new world of hurt later—one of massive systemic collapse.

    As your example pointed out, not everyone is on board with systems thinking. It’s complex, requires thought and attention span, and can itself veer a little too much toward the wonky. As a systems person by nature and profession, I’d like to think a rational, analytical broad/long view is what will help us avoid the aforementioned scenario of systemic collapse. In the middle ground, smart thinking about the role of technology, and the creation of jobs driven by the technological innovation need, would be just the ticket. Maybe our discussions of all of the fantastic innovations we spend our lives trying to push need to be a little sharper and more pragmatic—we need to get better at making the case. We need to do more about helping these great tools and frameworks be applied. Otherwise, we may find ourselves with a different application of augmented reality, making an economy appear where there really isn’t one anymore.

  4. Steve Brant says :

    Hi Adam,

    I’m just seeing your blog for the first time today. Thank you for bringing the story of Stafford Beer’ work in Chile to my attention. As a NYC-based advocate of the Systems Thinking-based problem solving methodologies of W. Edwards Deming and Russell L. Ackoff (and deep studies of Buckminster Fulleer’s world view under my belt as well), I know how much better things could be if the American people were made aware that the option of using a rational, systems-based approach to get us out of this mess is available.

    The best opportunity I have found for publicizing / championing this option is that wing of the Corporate Social Responsibility movement that is “continuous, organization learning” (rather than “standards and punishment”) based. This wing has its home in The UN Global Compact, which – because it is founded on the principles of diplomacy rather than war – looked to the world of organizational learning and improvement to construct a Performance Improvement Model codified in the book “Raising the Bar” (published by Greenleaf Publishing in the UK) “Raising the Bar” credits the work of W. Edwards Deming – as well as the USA’s Baldrige National Quality Program and the European Foundation for Quality Management – for much of the foundational thinking underlying its design. The book’s lead author is Claude Fussler, of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

    Where I am going with all this is that there is – in The UN Global Compact and those other entities that support an aspirational and hope-based improvement philosophy (rather than a fear-based one, which frequently results in no real change at all) – the core of what could be a global community large and smart enough to get not just the USA but the whole world out of this mess.

    If you and your network is not already engaged in some way with the Corporate Social Responsibility movement (specifically the UN Global Compact), I urge you to become involved… and I would be happy to offer advice on how to do so.

    The sickness in America’s political system which you so brilliantly describe cannot (in my humble opinion) by taken down in a classic “gunfight at high noon” fashion. The opposite side has, almost literally, all the guns. And – as you also point out – bringing a spreadsheet to a gun fight won’t work either.

    We need to do something other that continue to participate in this war (a war consisting of many gunfights we continue to lose).

    We need to learn from those business people in the world of management who – like Beer, Deming, and Ackoff – know that systems can be transformed by outside knowledge… by alternatives that don’t come from the existing “red waters” of blood-filled competition. A “Blue Ocean Strategy” (taken from the global best selling strategy book of the same name by Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim) is what’s needed.

    I don’t claim that the coalition needed to make this happen is in place right now, but I believe that such a coalition is possible. And I’m having preliminary talks with my CSR friends about this opportunity. Things may have to get even worse than they are for these people to act as boldly as the times require, but I am hopeful that they will act before it’s too late… before the last gunfight takes place and those who resist the change that would bring America – and then the world as a whole – to a healthier place have won.

    Edited to clean up some links. – AG

  5. Steve Witham says :

    Beer’s system has a hierarchical structure that can be seen at here, for instance.

    In a cybernetic, or feedback system, goals are set in the higher levels and enforced by taking input from below, comparing to the target from above, and sending a difference signal downward to correct any deviation. Beer’s VSM is no less top-down than the systems it was meant to model.

    In the end I’m not sure what the historical lesson is.

    But I think the fallacy of applying cybernetics to politics isn’t just that it’s a top-down idea. Beer’s system would supposedly collect and distill “the right information” to the President, who would be the top-level Decider. But what if the same information could be presented to the people? Couldn’t they then make the right decision?

    The fallacy is in thinking that there is a true, comprehensible summary to be uncovered in the data of the reality of a whole country, a story that, say, the President of Brazil, or a consensus of the American people, could make decisions about in enough detail to implement. That information, that story, that impartial crux, just doesn’t exist.

    It is democracy’s saving grace that it can’t arrive at and implement its epiphanies with CyberSyn efficiency. Democracy allows resistance.

  6. AG says :

    The fallacy is in thinking that there is a true, comprehensible summary to be uncovered in the data of the reality of a whole country.

    Unquestionably – as noted. Beyond that, I’d generally want to endorse the sense of your comment.

    But I have to admit that your last sentence strikes an off note in context. Just what is it that you think needs to be resisted here?

  7. Austin Govella says :

    “The collectivites arrayed against the ‘Obamacare’ bogeyman construct the body politic as a zero- or even a negative-sum game…. And because their victory conditions don’t require the affirmative production of a workable solution, the challenge before them is much (infinitely!) easier: all they have to do is drive a wedge through that vulnerability and they’ve won. The foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives that will result are collateral damage, an acceptable side effect. And the damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.”

    Sounds like “Islamic extremists” to me… is this a comfortable definition of terrorism in general?

  8. Curmudgeon says :

    If the purpose of a system is what it does, then the purpose of the United States is most definitely not to safeguard each citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    What the United States does without is transfer public wealth into the hands of well-connected insiders. America talks the talk about individual life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but kind of policies that regularly survive the political process are the kind of policies that enrich the wealthy at the expense of the public good. This pattern holds firm in every area of policy from tax cuts slanted to benefit the ultra wealthy, military contracting (Haliburton, Bechtel, Boeing), energy policy (Enron), perpetual copyright extensions, bank bailouts (Goldman Sachs) and health care (Medicare Part D and individual mandates). Policies that benefit the general good are the exception rather than the rule and show every sign of being something from history rather than the present.

    The process that is America is not broken. It is doing exactly what the real stakeholders want it to do. The fact that the process leaves behind billions of foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives across the entire planet is an utterly irrelevant speedbump on the various stakeholders’ respective roads to their next hundred million dollar bonus. The process is one of organized rent seeking.

    Health care reform is failing not merely because proponents have been outmaneuvered by reactionary bigots but rather because there is no rent to be had by improving access to health care and therefore no significant stakeholder is pushing the process to direct public wealth into private pockets.

  9. AG says :

    Well, yes. But I don’t think it’s quite as conscious and self-aware as all that – at least, I’d imagine that for most people, acting in such an effectively sociopathic mode requires that they mystify and shroud their motives in so many layers of bad faith that they genuinely do believe they’re advancing the right and good.

    It strikes me that a corollary of Beer’s principle is that it’s not necessary for an actual organized and self-conscious conspiracy to exist if the effects produced by a given network of actors are indistinguishable from those such a conspiracy would have brought into being. This has always been my reaction to Chomskyian “institutional analysis,” and I think it probably still holds.

  10. AG says :

    I don’t think so, Austin. Historically, at least some groups we’d (contemporaneously or latterly) label “terrorists” have precisely been “playing the same game with a different set of rules.” Without wanting to endorse their means, in other words, it’s clear that they have relatively conventional, political goals (i.e. national sovereignty, secession, statehood, independence.

    But there are some who only wish to use the sideshow of politics as a convenient distraction while they line their own pockets; see “Curmudgeon”‘s comment below. And then there are the nihilists – and not the hi-larious, cut-off-your-johnson ones, either. I guess it’s these latter groups I was trying to describe in that particular paragraph.

  11. Mentifex says :

    Adam, it is a total fluke that you and I (“netkook” Mentifex) met in Seattle in ca. 1996. Meanwhile you have gone up in the world, and I have gone down into the dungeons of gloabl artificial intelligence. Problem: My AI work is being commented on in the Finnish language at http://lojban-ajattelua.blogspot.com/2009/08/pantatty-sanoja.html and I have no idea what they are saying in their Finno-Ugric language. If you can read it, then for you it is a kind of progress-report on Mentifex AI. -Arthur

  12. James Borda says :

    Are you aware of the work of John Robb? He argues that modern terrorists (he calls them “Global Guerrillas”) are not driven by conventional political goals. They do not wish to take control of a state structure, they instead wish to challenge the fundamental validity of those structures by demonstrating that they cannot reliably deliver basic services to their citizens. Hence the focus on systems disruptions which hurt the general populace. As the resulting “hollow states” continue to struggle, citizens naturally switch their primary loyalties to non-state (tribal or sectarian) groups.

    “…damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.” This (and the whole quote cited by Austin) perfectly encapsulates the methods and motivations of global guerrillas as Robb defines them. It rather chills me to think that the opponents of health care reform are (unwittingly) playing from the same playbook.

  13. anon says :

    Late to your party but this is an interesting read to be sure.

    It’s also, to be blunt, a mite inchoate, but I think I understand the general thrust and the connection here:

    – point the first: you see the major global challenges of the future as all sharing the core difficulty of making good decisisions over massive, massively complicated data inputs

    – point the second: you see a huge resistance to radical shifts in decision making strategies — experiments like cybersyn more forgotten than studied — and this constrained set of attempted approaches means the frontiers of good decision-making aren’t likely to be well-explored

    – point the third: you see the health care reform debate not so much in concrete terms as a debate about healthcare but as a particularly poignant example of a defect in the american system of “decisionmaking”; it’s really a (negative) verdict on the functioning of the american political system (at least insofar as regular citizens are concerned)

    I pretty much share you assessment here.

    I think the historical verdict will be that “democracy” per se isn’t that helpful of a notion, and in the modern era has become fetishized to the point of uselessness.

    The most salvageable notion from “democracy” is the notion (i) that a government is legitimate only insofar as its activities actually promote the general welfare, with perhaps the higher-order consideration (ii) “and when its actions fail to promote the general welfare there’s a plausible mechanism for correcting its behavior”.

    This notion always implicitly present when people criticize bad governments: if the criticized government is ostensibly a democracy then it’s pointed out that eg the voting is broken — thereby eliminating the second property — or that the input isn’t adequate to ensure the first property; if it’s not a democracy they point out that it fails both points.

    The monarchs of old failed this test: they usually used their position to advance their private interests at the expense of the general welfare, and they seldom offered plausible means for their subjects to get that behavior changed.

    The USA of today fails this test also, I think, compared to eg Finland and other EU nations: even if you don’t believe that the USA’s actions are directly harmful to its citizenry’s general welfare you can still point out that on areas of obvious public interest — healthcare, infrastructure, safety nets, etc. — the USA is so far behind the rest of its cohort as to be dangerously incompetent. The USA also, of course, has no plausible means for the populace to get this behavior changed.

    If the level at which you look at things is high-level — “democracy” versus “democracy” — then this verdict becomes hard to make in a way that’s unambiguous and convincing across ideological divides.

    I think the right level to make this comparison really start *sticking* is to, somehow, bring in systems-thinking and cybernetic concepts into the public discourse. This rarely works directly — you can’t just tell someone to start using these terms — but instead you need to get the interlocking-and-coherent worldview thing going and build up enough momentum and use of it that the worldview becomes a self-sustaining system in and of itself (in the way that eg libertarianism and anti-terror-ism are self-sustaining rhetorical idea complexes).

    Once that happens — if only, right? — of a sudden your discourse can begin talking about meaningful differences.

    Instead of: USA is a democracy and Finland is a democracy and Finland gets better outcomes by choosing different policies (a proven failure of an argument).

    You get instead:

    – the feedback mechanism by which the public’s preferences shape policy in the USA looks like this (rube goldberg-esque) diagram. Doesn’t look very sane now, and the story you have to tell to explain why it works isn’t very convincing if divested of its rhetorical glories.

    – the feedback mechanism by which the public’s preferences shape policy in Finland looks like this. Some flaws and corner cases but it’s more straightforward and the story you tell to explain why it works is plenty more convincing.

    Especially for a cybernetics-inspired person treating the two systems the same is pretty silly, I mean:

    – regularly scheduled elections versus callable elections

    – “most votes wins” versus proportional representation

    …alone make them different systems despite the common label “democracy”.

    If I had any bright ideas on making systems thinking part of normal discourse I’d be out there doing it; as-is I’m not very optimistic.

  14. Molly says :


    Just discovered this post and you via Alex Steffen at Worldchanging. Thank you for offering me a new way to look at my county’s political situation. Lately every news article I read leaves me with this awful cocktail of nausea, rage, and disbelief. Your analysis has helped me get a handle and engage.

    I agree we don’t want to bring our own gun to this gunfight. The results would be ugly. If we don’t want a shootout but we can’t talk to these people, then what? We don’t have time to teach all of America mental Aikido for propaganda self defense-maybe political pepper spray?

  15. AG says :

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and found it useful, Molly.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any particularly bright ideas as to how we might go about fixing things…but I can tell you that anything that works to improve public literacy in complex decision spaces helps.

    Beyond this, I’m seriously contemplating a run for public office my ownself at some point, if just to be able to use the campaign as a platform to raise these (and related) issues.

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