Stafford Beer: Fanfare for Effective Freedom, Cybernetic Praxis in Government

Stafford Beer: Fanfare for Effective Freedom, Cybernetic Praxis in Government

The Third Richard Goodman Memorial Lecture,

Delivered at Brighton Polytechnic,
Moulsecoomb, Brighton,
On Wednesday 14th February 1973

Society can no more afford the alienation of the people from the processes of government than it can afford their alienation from science.

"This is the first memorial lecture I have given for a man I knew personally - a man whom I also loved. He was a tenacious cybernetician, the pioneer of that work here in Brighton, but one whose name at least was known throughout the cybernetic world. More than this and more importantly than this, he had a dedication to humanity. It may not be well known, but I knew, that he was as interested in the cybernetics of society as he was in the more recondite mathematics of the science. And I also know very well that he would have been captivated by the unfinished story I am telling here formally for the first time. If I could have had his advice while the project was unfolding, it might have been a better story.

But I still hope that it is worthy of his memory. In November 1970 Dr Salvador Allende became President of the Republic of Chile. In November 1971 after some letters had passed, a meeting held in London, and some homework done. I arrived in Santiago. There I first met the prepared group of a dozen men who formed the nucleus of a team which is now much larger, and with whom I am still working-for I have been commuting the 8000 miles between London and Santiago ever since. The charge was daunting indeed: how should cybernetics be used in the exercise of national Government?  You will note that the question whether cybernetics had any relevance to the problems of society and of government had already been answered affirmatively.

All of this is easily recognised especially in cybernetic terms as a grossly unstable situation.

We have moved an epoch in which the misuse of science has created a society that is already close to technocracy. The very language - the dehumanised jargon-in which powerful talk about the wars they wage, or powerful companies talk about the people they frankly makes me vomit...


I am a scientist, but to be a technocrat would put me out of business as a man. Yet I was eighteen nonths ago, intent on creating a scientific way of governing. And here today, proud of the tools we have made. Why? Because I believe that cybernetics can do the job better than bureaucracy - and more humanely too.


What is cybernetics that a government should not understand it? It is, as Wiener (1) originally called it twenty-five years ago “the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine”. He was pointing in that second phrase to laws of complex systems that are invariant to transformations of their fabric. It does not matter whether the system be realised in the flesh or in the metal.


Let me briefly explain. Homeostasis is the tendency of a complex system to run towards an equilibrial state. This happens because the many parts of' the complex system absorb each other's capacity to disrupt the whole. Now the ultimately stable state to which a viable system may run (that state where its entropy is unity) is finally rigid - and we call that death. If the system is to remain viable, if it is not to die, then we need the extra concept of an equilibrium that is not fixed, but on the move. What causes the incipiently stable point to move is the total system’s response to environmental change and this kind of adjustment we call adaptation. The third notion that we need to understand homeostasis is the idea of a physiological limit. It is necessary for a viable system to keep moving its stable point but it cannot afford to move it so far or so fast that the system itself is blown apart. It must keep its degree nd its rate of change within a tolerance fixed by its own physiology. Revolutions, violent or not, do blow societies apart - because they deliberately take the inherited system outside its physiological limits. Then the system has to be redefined, and the new definition must again adhere to the cybernetic criteria of viability. Then it is useless for whoever has lost his privileges to complain about his bad luck so long as he uses a language appropriate to the system that has been replaced. He must talk the new language or get out.


My belief is that government planning should be based on this same idea. If we make a dynamic model of the economy, concentrating our power of resolution on the areas in which our decisions appear most unsure or most frightening, then we shall learn how the system operates. The first task is to identify the crucial parameters, which (because complex systems are richly interactive and internally reverberating) are not always the parameters assumed to be critical. It is quite characteristic of cybernetic studies to obtain results that are counter-intuitive. Therein lies their value. The next task is to discover how these parameters may best be manipulated which (because political dealing is a complicated business too) may be in roundabout ways rather than by direct intervention.

Then it is useless for whoever has lost his privileges to complain about his bad luck so long as he uses a language appropriate to the system that has been replaced. He must talk the new language or get out."


First Objection: The boss will be overwhelmed with data. Answer: Not so. This is what happens now, as any manager who has had a foot-high file of computer read-out slapped in front of him can attest. The idea is to create a capability in the computer to recognise what is important, and to present only that very little information - as you shall see.

Sixth Objection: A real-time system with on-line inputs? It is Big Brother; it is 1984 already. Answer: Stop panicking and work out the notion of autonomy. I have still more so say about this later. All technology can be, and usually is, abused. When people turn their backs on the problem, crying touch-me-not, the abuse is the worse.


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