Peters B.

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Peters B. The University of Tulsa USA

                        THE SOVIET INTERNET: BEYOND THE BOOK

     My research focuses on very basic questions: how and why do information technologies take shape differently in different contexts? In particular, how do new information technologies — such as networks — take root differently across regimes of space, time, and power? 116 How Not to Network a Nation sharpens that basic question quite a bit. It tells, for the first time in any language, the book-length story of how, despite thirty years of effort, Soviet attempts to build a national computer network were undone by what appears at first glance as socialists behaving like capitalists. In particular, between 1959 and 1989, Soviet scientists and officials made numerous attempts to network their nation— to construct a nationwide computer network. None of these attempts succeeded, and the enterprise had been abandoned by the time the Soviet Union dissolved. Meanwhile, ARPANET, the America precursor to the Internet, went online in 1969. Why—we may then be tempted to ask—did the Soviet network, with genius scientists and patriotic incentives, fall apart while the American network took global root? In the book, I reverse the usual cold war dualities and argue that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state funding and collaborative research environments and the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and others. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists. To briefly outline the book, after examining the midcentury rise of cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems, and the emergence in the Soviet Union of economic cybernetics in particular, I complicate this uneasy reversal while chronicling the various Soviet attempts to build a ―unified information network.‖ Drawing on previously unknown archival materials and dozens of interviews, the book focuses on the final, and most ambitious of these projects, the All-State Automated System of Management (OGAS), and its principal promoter, Viktor M. Glushkov. How Not to Network a Nation describes the rise and fall of OGAS—its theoretical and practical reach, its vision of a national economy managed by network, the bureaucratic obstacles it encountered, and the institutional stalemate that undid it. In conclusion, I consider the implications of the Soviet experience for today‘s network world—in particular that, despite many dissimilarities, the Soviet case resembles the current network world in its uneasy, even uncanny, threats we face from the overreach of private institutional power. The book is, as the sociologist Todd Gitlin recently put it, a sociopolitical report as well as a delicious tale of Soviet efforts to manage a command economy left them without either command or an economy. The first Eureka moment came as I realized history can sober and ground our most fanciful technology talk. Here, for example, is such a historical fact: since the mid 1950s, Soviet military scientists did in fact build and use at least three functioning national computer networks. There were Soviet military networks. This simple fact suddenly reshaped the question: it is impossible to argue, as many technologists tend to do, that technological backwardness kept Soviet scientists from developing computer networks, when in fact they obviously had the technical know-how to do just exactly that. It was no longer why was there no Soviet networks at all, but rather, Why did military networks take shape, while other civilian networks did not? The second eureka moment came in the form of a surprising answer to that question: by my account, the first person to propose a civilian national computer network anywhere in the world was also, curiously, a Soviet military man by the name of Anatoly Kitov. In 1959, Kitov was a rising star among military researchers and also the first Soviet cyberneticist. In the Fall of 1959, Kitov, in his ―Red Book letter,‖ sent the General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev a proposal that the existing military computer networks be fitted to allow economists and other civilians to use the network during the off hours when the military was not using the computer networks. This would be done to encourage economists and planners to efficiently manage the information flows in the nation‘s command economy. As 117 it happens, Kitov‘s story is a tragic one: his well-intentioned letter to Nikita Khrushchev was intercepted by his supervisors, who were infuriated that he would dare suggest the military share resources with civilian affairs. He was dismissed from the army and spend the rest of his career working in medicine cyberneticist—an early pioneer in modern-day health information science. He also remained a key adviser in subsequent attempts to build a civilian economic network. With reflection, this discovery also reshaped the question: no longer could I be interested in why one network worked, while another did not, for I began to see cold war technology race biases in the question itself, not to mention heroic invention narratives and other concerns about who crossed the finish line first that still beset the history of technology. A closer read of this story, as well as the literature, revealed that information technology history is always a story of multiple independent simultaneous inventions and innovations. What is interesting is not whether Kitov or Licklider came up with the idea first, but rather why leading scientists situated in the top military basic research laboratories on both sides of the cold war felt compelled to invent the national computer network as the next generation of state and organizational power in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The third eureka moment came in recognizing that, despite two decades of set backs, the OGAS Project advanced by Viktor M. Glushkov, the leading cyberneticist of his generation as well as a deep thinker of decentralized power, were profoundly innovative on their own terms. Here too the conventional narratives for telling this story fell short—his network project to manage the command economy by decentralized computer network remains something without precedent. The OGAS, in Glushkov‘s vision, was designed to be a decentralized network of remote-access computer processing stretching from a central processor in Moscow to hundreds of regional computer centers to as many as 20,000 local computer terminals throughout the country. Moreover, so the innovations that came along with the OGAS Project can be seen as extraordinary and forward-looking apps: As the book details, Glushkov‘s promoters see in his team‘s work the Soviet precursors to electronic banking, paypal, and bitcoin, cloud computing, natural language processing, and even an attempt at immortality through artificial intelligence. His detractors, curiously, agree with his promoters that ―Glushkov was before his time,‖ although they accuse him of being ever out of touch with the realities of the day. As the common complaint goes, Soviet computing theorists could not help but see far past the chalkboards they were doing their programming on. In the book, I show how evidence disputes both positions and that the best way to understand the fate of Glushkov‘s OGAS Project is not a focus on the individuals but on the institutions—the quicksand into which the history of networks is poured—that supported these projects. The fourth eureka moment came in the identification and then deconstruction of dominant national metaphors for the network. In the Soviet Union, the state, it would seem, is that mind of the nation and the network its nervous system, while in America the nation is the distributed networked mind itself. The book traces the implications of these contrasting network metaphors for cold war political economics. Suffice it to say I think that both readings make a significant mistake: both take too seriously cybernetic analogies for modern network nations that privilege as supreme the image of the private mind. Both are mistaken yet dominant metaphors we inherent from the cybernetic—and in the end deeply human—hubris that it is the individual human mind that organizes the world. The fifth eureka moment brings us to the case study in my talk: let me simply note that perhaps the leading scholarly history of Silicon Valley—a book called From Counterculture 118 to Cyberculture—traces the history of the American computer through the flower power counterculture on the West Coast, and anchors that history in postwar cybernetics and culminates in techno-libertarianism. The case of Cybertonia in Kiev, while only a small snapshot, helps us think differently about counterculture. Indeed, one way of expanding the history of new media and computers is to recognize that countercultural tendencies are not sufficient to sustain or support creative and innovative technological labs, both of which can be found in the work and play of the team behind the OGAS Project. A final work: the OGAS story is not only a tale that took place long ago and far away. It is an allegory of our own fate. The private forces that were hard at work in the OGAS story are also hard at work in the modern media environment. Privacy should perhaps not be understood as the right to control the disclosure of personal information or the right to be left alone; perhaps we should think of privacy as the institutionalization of private power to survey the public: the NSA, Google, and the Communist Party are all run by General Secretaries that record our behavior for the private institutional gain. Informal networks abound, for better and worse. We should not gaze at the OGAS Project from a comfortable distance but realize how close its story hits to home. A world of difference separates all allegories, but looking in the rearview mirror of history, the distance between networked private powers is often closer than it appears. П