Stafford Beer’s Designing Freedom offers a provocative and wayward introduction to cybernetic (systems) thinking.
In some respects the book looks quite dated. Contemporary readers may wonder why Beer makes such a fuzz of computers, still a relatively rare phenomenon in 1974 but more than ubiquitous in our world today. Also the author’s rather hectoring, messianic tone doesn’t fit the superficially genteel mood of our times. However, the book is still highly topical for readers today as it introduces a number of valuable ideas that help to shed light on our contemporary predicament.
Let’s just start with the title. What if we were able to design a government (or any organized collectivity for that matter, even if it has a commercial purpose) as a (notional) ‘liberty machine’. It would only fulfill its purpose within the constraint that it would contribute to individual liberty of the citizens, employees or members who are part of it. It’s a tantalizing idea the potential of which is far from exhausted. In fact, many successful and pioneering organizations are rediscovering the laws of self-organization again today.
For Beer the clue for designing this ‘liberty machine’ lies in the insights offered by cybernetics, ‘the science of effective organization’. And the core concept here is ‘variety’, depending on the context roughly equivalent to the notions of ‘complexity’ or ‘ability to absorb complexity’. Organizations must survive in a dynamic environment. They need an appropriate information metabolism to do so, capturing signals and filtering them in such a way that they are able maintain a balance between the complexity of their operational environment and their proper sense-making powers (a requirement usually known as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety). There are basically two approaches to do so: shield ourselves from environmental complexity or increase our regulatory power to handle variety. Beer’s critique is that in our society we have gravitated towards a default strategy of variety reduction, and individual liberties and freedom of choice have been curtailed as a result. The alternative approach — amplifying the variety of the regulatory part of the system — is not even a matter of public debate as it would require us to rethink our managerial and policy making apparatus from the ground up. That idea is at the core of this short book.
And this is where computers come in: they are a potential lever for variety amplification but, as a rule, used in a way that is exactly opposite to what cybernetics would suggest us to do. Beer once ran a IT-supported variety management experiment at national scale in Chile under the tutelage of President Allende. We can trivialize what Beer wanted to do in Chile, but in fact his vision is turned into reality today vastly more effectively by the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook with the aid of AI. And we seem pretty powerless to do something about it (in fact, at this very moment in time I’m using an Amazon-owned platform for an exchange of ideas, feeding an ever more accurate ‘model of the public’ in private hands.) Beer knew that this risk existed:
“There is an evident risk in installing a model of the public in the computer, since the return loop might be misused by a despotic government or an unscrupulous management. In considering this however we need to bear in mind the cybernetic fact that no regulator can actually work unless it contains a model of whatever is to be regulated. Much of our institutional failure is due to the inadequacy of the contained models. It is perhaps more alarming that private concerns are able to build systems of this type, without anyone’s even knowing about their existence, than that democratically elected governments should build them in open view and with legal safeguards.”
On the governance of the Chilean systems, Beer recounts as follows:
“In the few months that remained to us, we were teaching the workers, for whom this offering of science to the people was created, how to use the most advanced tools yet designed for national economic management. They could sit with their ministers in the economic operations room in Santiago, watching the animated screens, and discussing the alerted signals provided daily by that clever computer program. They had buttons in the arms of their chairs, so that they could command the appearance on other screens of supporting data- to the capacity of 1.200 different colour presentations, focused on sixteen back-projectors. They could also control preliminary experiments in simulation, on a huge animated model of the dynamic system. These people, arm in arm with their science, were intended to become the decision machine for the economy.”
Three things strike us here: the use of sophisticated dynamic models to anticipate future developments, the reliance on discursive processes to make sense of this information and to decide on what actions to take, and, last but not least, the governance and ownership of this system by citizens, not technocrats. Much could be said for and against this approach but there is no doubt that it is worth thinking through as a potentially enticing alternative to the current, ineffective, wasteful and opaque way of running our common affairs.
Beer elaborates his critique of the alienating and inequitable way of using technology in the fourth lecture included in the book (‘Science in the service of man’). Here he arrives at a point that is a motto theme in much of the cybernetic tradition: our brain is a finite instrument and the complexity of the world is such that we cannot understand it all, ever. Given that biophysical constraint we have to practice variety attenuation. There is no other way. But Beer thinks that we, citizens, should be in charge of where that attenuation happens. It should be a matter of democratic consultation and local decision, not an unarticulated, fuzzy consensus position, perpetuated by our education and media systems, that plays into the hands of crafty operators and careerists.
In the final lecture Beer urges his audience to become an active force in the transition to smarter and more just societal institutions:
“We have robbed society of regulatory variety by our passivity. The occasional democratic exercise of a vote is not a big enough variety amplifier."
What is needed is a willingness to set up experimental institutions, deliberately antithetic to the existing ones and supported by the science of effective organizing.
Beer’s way of presenting his ideas is probably somewhat outmoded, but that shouldn’t detract from their value. In my opinion, Designing Freedom gives us plenty of important ideas to mull over, and it does so in the space of barely a hundred pages. I also believe that today there is significant potential to turn Beer’s ideas in to reality (although, admittedly, the countervailing forces have increased in scope and weight too). In addition to its activist message the book offers a good introduction to a number of basic cybernetic concepts. However, it does not address other key parts of Beer’s legacy: his Viable Systems Model and his theory of Syntegration, which have been discussed elsewhere.