Stafford beer: a personal memoir

(Includes an interview with Brian Eno)

David first encountered Stafford Beer through

an interest in the musician Brian Eno. In the

1970s Eno frequently cited Beer’s ideas as an

important influence on how he created music

in the recording studio. Intrigued, David wrote

to Stafford and a lively correspondence developed;

they also became good friends for the last 20 years

of Stafford’s life. Many of Beer’s letters are

reproduced, revealing the great warmth of the man,

while Eno gives an account of his relationship

to both Beer and his work.

Paperback, 64 pp, illustrated. £8.99 (plus post)

‘This is a unique and fascinating insight’

Cybernetics Society



Stafford Beer was one of the foremost holistic thinkers of the last 50 years. He was a polymath, a visionary thinker and practitioner unconstrained by academic boundaries. His aesthetic interests also enriched and complemented his scientific

rigour. His pioneering work in cybernetics and

systems theory, from the 1960s and 1970s,

anticipated more recent developments, such as

chaos theory, fractals, catastrophe theory,

self-organization, autopoiesis, emergence and

critical mass.

This new anthology, edited by David Whittaker,

is the most comprehensive yet published of

Beer’s papers, reviews, talks, poetry and art. They

demonstrate the timeless relevance of his many

systemic insights into understanding the nature

of dynamic complexity in all manner of

organization, whether natural or man-made. The

book includes a detailed account of Beer’s

important work for President Allende in Chile,

as well as an unfinished autobiography. David also

provides a detailed chronology of Beer’s busy and

fascinating life, with many previously unpublished


In addition, Brian Eno has contributed a

perceptive foreword regarding Beer’s importance

for his music making.

Paperback, 384 pp, illustrated (inc. colour). £20 (plus post)

‘A most important collection of papers and unpublished writings of Beer ... required reading’ Cybernetics Society

‘This collection of writings offers readers an engaging and relatively easy introduction to the world of Stafford Beer’

Inside O.R.

‘An excellent introduction to the man & his work’

Cybernetics & Human Knowing

David visiting Stafford at

his remote cottage, Cwarel

Isaf, in the Welsh hills of

Ceridigion. They’ve just

returned from an excellent

liquid lunch in Lampeter

(November 1992).

‘Relation is the stuff of system’

In 2009 Brian Eno invited

David to his studio to talk

about Stafford Beer and

cybernetics, in front of the

BBC cameras, as part of an 

Arena documentary about

Eno’s life and work.

Another Green World was

broadcast on BBC 4 in

January 2010.



                          BRIAN ENO, STAFFORD BEER & the QUIET REVOLUTION.

It was from Swiss Cottage Library, in 1974, that the intellectually curious Joan Harvey borrowed a book called Brain of the Firm: the Managerial Cybernetics of Organization by Stafford Beer. This would prove to be particularly culturally propitious. She was so enamoured by the book that she lent it to her bright son-in-law who she knew would be equally fascinated. He was; his name was Brian Eno. This event was to spark a quiet but highly significant revolution over the following decades in popular music.

The book’s author, Stafford Beer, began his professional career around 1950 with United Steel (he had served in India towards the end of the war with the Ghurkas) and was the first person to apply the fledgling science of cybernetics to industry. He became an international consultant to governments and businesses. But it was in 1971 that he got the call that would change his whole life.

The recently elected socialist President Salvador Allende of Chile invited Beer to develop a cybernetic approach to the organization and regulation of the whole of that country’s economy at every level, from the industrial sectors through to the Cabinet and the President himself with a real-time computerised system using telex and microwave links arranged to decentralize authority. This was a visionary undertaking decades ahead of its time. The enterprise was labelled Project Cybersyn (a combination of ‘cybernetic synergy’)It so happened the manuscript of his forthcoming book Brain of the Firm became the ‘bible’ of this ambitious project. About two thirds of the process was in place, but not yet applied, when the bloody coup of September 11 1973 occurred.

The cynicism and disregard for democracy and humanity by which the rich world orchestrated this atrocity pitched Beer into a state of despair, resulting in the successful globe-trotting businessman renouncing material goods and adopting a lifestyle consistent with the national weal. He acquired a remote stone cottage in the Welsh hills of Ceredigion (near Lampeter) where, amongst other things, he made his own furniture, learned to spin wool, painted pictures, wrote poetry along with learned papers and books, and practised tantric yoga (the earlier years in India, including seeing Mahatma Ghandhi speak, remained an abiding influence).

Meanwhile back in London Brian Eno was getting to grips with Brain of the Firm. Eno had just left Roxy Music where his coloured sequins (and youthful ego) had clashed once too often with Bryan Ferry’s manicured persona. He was a natural born lateral thinker always alert to new concepts and how they might be incorporated into the creative process. He was primed to understand cybernetics from his art school years at Ipswich in the mid 1960s where he received original and stimulating tuition from Tom Phillips and Roy Ascott, the latter being well acquainted with cybernetic ideas.

‘Cybernetics’ comes from the Greek kybernetes meaning ‘steersman’ mutating into the later Latin gubernator meaning ‘governor’. In its most basic sense it refers to self-regulation, via feedback loops, in any system of interacting parts. Beer defined it as the science of effective organization of large complex systems, be they nervous systems, ecosystems, economic systems, societies, families or whatever. It is therefore interdisciplinary and holistic in nature.

In more recent years both chaos and complexity theory have become popular and they do have an affinity with cybernetics. However there is a significant difference in that cybernetics always includes the role of the observer in the system under observation. This relates to one of the most important notions in cybernetics, which is circular causality. In Brain of the Firm Beer uses neurophysiology, the human nervous system, as a model for understanding how any cohesive system is organized, structured and able to maintain a dynamic stability, adaptability and viability (this particular model had an immediate, comprehensible appeal to Allende who had trained as a doctor).

Eno was so thrilled by all of this that he immediately incorporated it into a series of lectures and wrote an article for Studio International ‘Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts’ which deals with a specific piece of music, The Great Learning by Cornelius Cardew. The article is an early attempt to understand how a simple set of instructions or constraints in the context of a live performance of a piece of music can lead to the emergence of complex novelty and variety. In this regard Eno quotes a sentence from Beer that was to become a guiding mantra in his work: ‘Instead of trying to specify it in full detail, you specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.’ In 1975 he sent the article to Beer and received an enthusiastic response which led to them meeting at Eno’s flat. Eno recalls a big hairy guy arriving laden down with sherry and cigars. Most of that initial conversation was dominated by recent events in Chile.

They quickly became friends and Beer perceived Eno as something of a protégé (he later commissioned him to write a chapter (an extension of the Studio piece) for a book called Challenge to Paradigm but the book never materialised). Eno also visited Beer at his Welsh hideaway; this could be described as a character building experience for him. The cottage was very much geared to Beer’s simple needs (sherry and cigars) and the famished musician soon discovered that food was not high on the agenda. What’s more, on this occasion Beer happened to be looking after two large Old English sheep dogs, the weather was typically wet and Eno has depicted how the dogs, resembling large mud paint brushes, gave him a good mauling on arrival. In turn Beer has described how they sat up throughout the night talking ideas and playing musical instruments—drums and flutes—brought back from Chile.

Much of the work that Eno did from this period was characterised by playful exploration using not only Beer’s ideas but also those of John Cage’s book Silence and Morse Peckham’s Man’s Rage for Chaos (the latter arguing that the biological function of art is to provide a safe milieu wherein to take risks). Furthermore, in alliance with the artist Peter Schmidt, he released the box of ‘oracle’ cards Oblique Strategies (Over 100 Worthwhile Dilemmas) consisting of maxims to be drawn upon, and faithfully adhered to, in order to undermine habits of working and blocks in creativity (for example ‘use an unacceptable colour’; ‘repetition is a form of change’; ‘do nothing for as long as possible’). Eno has always been an early riser and workaholic and during the next few decades he founded Obscure Records (affordable experimental recordings) and apart from his solo work, he was involved in a huge network of collaborations and productions which included Robert Fripp (also well versed in Beer’s work), David Bowie (who has listed Brain of the Firm as a desert island book), John Cale, Nico, Robert Wyatt, Devo, Talking Heads, David Byrne, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook, Russell Mills, Holger Czukay, Derek Jarman, Jah Wobble, Cluster, Gavin Bryars, Ultravox, Penguin Café Orchestra, Bill Laswell, James, Howie B, David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, Coldplay, Paul Simon and an ongoing long-term relationship with U2. He also developed audio-video installations which have been shown across the globe.

It was in 1975 that he released one of his finest albums of songs and short instrumentals Another Green World and it was here that some of the new working strategies came into play. An important part of Beer’s work was the rejection of the dominant notion of hierarchy as a way of locating people and activities in organizations. As an alternative he advocated the concept of recursion, where largely autonomous subsystems exist and interact nested within each other akin to a set of Russian dolls and authority and seniority is not necessarily invoked. This suited Eno as an egalitarian way of managing extremely diverse musicians, instruments and sounds. The recording studio has always been his preferred ‘instrument’ and Beer’s cybernetic ideas became essential conceptual tools for harnessing the potential of the bewildering array of technology available. Critics at the time were puzzled by the strange and exotic results, but to this day they sound fresh and somehow timeless. Bowie admits to being mystified in the studio watching Eno drawing cybernetic charts and equations in his notebooks, however the two albums they made together at this time in Berlin, Low and ‘Heroes’ are acknowledged to be among his best.

Systems music and Minimalism had been around since the sixties and exploited by Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young amongst others. A system was set in place and allowed to run, the results were recorded and left to stand, often typified by repetition, regardless of quality. Eno criticised this for lack of rigour and singled out some of Reich’s work from this era as being too diagrammatic, it seemed to say ‘Listen to my system’ rather than the music. He preferred to be selective about the initial ingredients (cookery could be a good metaphor here) and adjusted the results, applying some judgement and taste in the direction he wanted to go. One of the early Ambient albums Music for Airports is a good example of this. (Ambient Music was defined by Eno as music that was as ignorable as it was listenable; a music that engaged listeners on several levels, in contrast to one dimensional muzak.) Here Eno set a system of looping processes in motion, recorded the results and then selected sections of melodic shape that appealed to him and fed this back into the system, he carried on like this so the piece evolved recursively. These records immersed the listener within a cocoon of sonic space and gently dislocated intervals, painting an aural landscape where the distinction between foreground and background became blurred; On Land followed on in a similar hue. This was the first record where Eno acknowledged his search for a music that related to a sense of place; it was very different to what pop musicians were doing at the time and he endured a good deal of criticism. However, he has said that having Beer’s powerful body of work behind him provided the confidence for him to persevere. He has reread Brain of the Firm many times, along with Cage’s Silence, and the ideas have become built in to his modus operandi; he still believes Beer’s work to be relevant and under exploited. His more recent interests in self-generating systems and autocatalysis were all prefigured in Brain of the Firm. It’s impossible to quantify just how enormously influential Eno has been over the last three decades. Ambient Music itself has further developed in other hands: Aphex Twin, The Orb, Future Sound of London are just a few significant examples; Bill Laswell has made ‘ambient translations’ of the music of Miles Davis and Bob Marley; while Philip Glass has orchestrated some of the Ambient work Eno created with Bowie. Modestly acknowledging his synergistic role in society, Eno is convinced that if Beer hadn’t existed then the shape of popular culture would now be quite different. (I suspect that Beer himself, who I knew well, may have viewed this differently. I feel that deep down he saw Eno as a unique cybernetic accomplice who could have joined him in academia, thereby abandoning pop music, and who knows what they might have produced together? That said, there’s no doubt that Beer’s work would now be, sadly, even less well known if it wasn’t for Eno’s persistent hailing of him as a mentor.) 

As for Stafford Beer himself, in his robust stone cottage he quietly got on with writing an expanded edition of Brain of the Firm which included the events in Chile and a companion volume The Heart of Enterprise, all written long-hand with a vintage fountain pen and real ink; ironically he never had a computer in the cottage (and only latterly a telephone). It’s worth pointing out that Beer was one of the finest science writers of the last forty years. Despite the complex ideas he could, as he said of Einstein, be as lucid as the day. He soon re-emerged, armed with a post Chilean ethic, to offer his services and expertise to select governments and organizations, as well as being an inspiring teacher. This included trips back to Latin America to work in Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay and Colombia as well as Canada and Switzerland. He was a colourful man with a big appetite for life and people (he had eight children), charismatic, enigmatic even. But his generosity with quality time and knowledge was immense, especially for those who wished to make whole a world fragmented by the forces of reductionism. He died in August 2002.

He had written Brain of the Firm initially with management of business in mind, it had become a manual for a bold revolution in government, brutally terminated; in contrast it also spawned an almost imperceptible revolution not only in how music was made but also in how it was listened to. For the latter we must thank a discerning Mrs Harvey for that day she visited Swiss Cottage Library almost forty years ago.

© David Whittaker 2017 (Photos of Beer and Eno are contemporary - circa 1976. Beer photographer unknown; Eno photo © Ritva Saarikka.)

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Stonelight. Those interested in knowing more about Project Cybersyn will find many relevant papers by Beer in Think Before you Think.)