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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The messy world we find ourselves living, 8 Mar 2012
This review is from: Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile (Hardcover)
The topic of this book is the interplay between technological and political ideology. The particular case study is Project Cybersyn during the years of the Marxist experiment in Chile, ending with the assassination of President Allende on September 11th (YES, September 11th!!), 1973. Project Cybersyn was the name given to the attempt to more formally structure aspects of the Chilean economy in line with the Viable System Model of Stafford Beer.

I find the book to be of particular value because Eden is talking from the sidelines, both in terms of the politics and the technology. Because of this, her account is without the sometimes absurd and hysterical tone of much writing on such matters. Instead, she captures and conveys the sheer exhilaration, confusion, hopes and despair which accompany such events. This mood of chaotic ups and downs is generally absent from 'more sober' historical accounts which (as Foucault cautioned us) tend to unfold the narrative of the historian's 'present' rather than uncover the way of actual happenings in their intrinisic messiness!

As Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and others have noted, our social and political world is perhaps best described as intrinsically messy. The 'best laid plans of mice and men' retain their integrity and original elegance only in the world of ideas. As we attempt to embody such ideas and models in actual practice, strange things are wont to happen (both to the `real world' itself; and to the integrity of the models we use. This book is a wonderful account of such messiness in its happening.

There are several potential audiences for the book:

1. Perhaps, the historian.
2. Definitely the political historian of Latin America (and Chile).
3. People interested in Stafford Beer.
4. People interested in management cybernetics (in particular, the Viable System Model).
5. All those interested in the practical application of intellectual models to the 'real world'.

The book fails to focus on any single one of these audiences, but this is perhaps its strength in appealing to a more general readership and instigating further research in a variety of areas. Medina makes one WANT TO KNOW MORE - whether about the cybernetics ideas, the historical background to Allende's presidency, or the paranoia of the West (primarily in the case USA) regarding communism and all matters perceived as 'soviet'.

In addition, the author captures the anomalies in the character of the key protagonist, Stafford Beer. We catch sight of glimpses and flashes of the man, behind a 'smokescreen' of fat cigars and whisky, as we almost inadvertently accompany him on a strange personal journey. From a rather complacent, smug, arrogant and rather impersonal and indifferent `suit' at home in London's stockbroker belt; Medina traces Beer as he stumbles, and perhaps begins to question his lifestyle, direction and as he finds himself an unwitting pawn in the game of international politics and manipulation - the world that is NOT a pampered existence in the stockbroker belt, but a flesh and blood world in which people live and die and bleed.

Those of us who knew him in later years know what a profound effect this all had on the man, and this Book is particularly informative here.

As for the practice........ the application.....the experiment.............Well, the jury remains out. In other words, it is very difficult - even reading between the lines - to make a guess as to which aspects of the cybernetic modelling were actually tested, and which showed signs of validation and which didn't.

The project (both Cybernsyn and the Chilean experiment with Marxist democracy - we should remember that this was the ONLY Marxist government that achieved office through democratic vote), was doomed from the start because of the perception of US and UK (and France) that success for such a government would hasten the 'domino effect' and the imperial claims of USSR. From the very first election won by Allende, it is clear that US (and others) would do everything in its power to destabilize matters and install a puppet dictatorship as had been done in most other Latin American nations of the time. This `squeeze' indeed presented the opportunity offered Beer, as desperate times require desperate remedies, and Chile very quickly found itself in desperate times. There are interesting indications that aspects of the model did have an impact and, for instance, did allow the government to survive two massively disruptive national strikes backed by `the West'. But the overall momentum was towards chaos, disruption and revolution to replace Allende with a military junta.

The one weakness of the book arises on the subject of the entailed cybernetic ideas. I don't feel it is overly harsh to state that Medina is no cybernetic expert (indeed, hence the strength of the book, as I mention above), and she does not quite manage to clearly explain what VSM sets out to achieve in terms of metrices and new structural forms in the political and economic space. On the other hand, had this been her focus it would have been a different (and perhaps a lesser) book.

Her primary focus is not, after all cybernetics (or a critique thereof), but the uneasy fit of political and technological ideologies. And this she conveys superbly. Surely, a good, down-to-earth read and much food for thought!
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