The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – and How the World Lost Its Mind by Dan Davies - review by Frances Cairncross

Frances Cairncross

Time to Pull the Plug?

The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – and How the World Lost Its Mind

By

Profile 304pp £22
 

If you have never come across the name Stafford Beer (I hadn’t), you should probably not be reading this book. Behind his enormous beard and impressive moustache, Beer was a consultant who developed what the author calls the science of management cybernetics and whose consultancy customers included the government of Salvador Allende, president of Chile before Pinochet’s coup. 

Beer was a well-regarded management guru in the 1960s, one of the country’s leading experts on the application of computers in industry. He appears in various chapters of this somewhat disjointed book. His influence and fame dwindled in his later years but, at his peak, he developed ideas on management systems. One of the key characteristics of such systems is that, although they may be made up of individuals, they do not necessarily deliver what any one of those individuals expects or wants. 

‘We can all think of cases where organisations systematically deliver outcomes that are wildly at odds with their stated objectives,’ says Dan Davies. The imperfections of systems and the difficulty of creating accountability are among this book’s main topics. Davies gives a gruesome example of the problem. A cargo

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