- How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet by Benjamin Peters
In a thorough and witty fashion, Benjamin Peters’s book addresses a simple, yet profound question—why wasn’t there a Soviet internet, in the sense of an expansive but decentralized information network? The idea of the book began with a CIA report about the Soviets creating a unified information network. Although the Soviet Union did not pursue decentralized networks, it did hope to interweave information technologies into its socialist paradigm. As Peters argues, the reason the Soviets did not build their own internet was neither the incompatibility of their rigid state structure and command economy with flexible information networks, nor a lack of scientific insight or technological creativity. Rather, this story reveals the importance of hidden social networks and contingent institutional interests, which are explored by Peters through the epistemologically potent concept of heterarchy (expounded in 1945 by cybernetician Warren McCulloch), an organizational form characterized by “multiple competing regimes of evaluation” (p. 11).
In the cold war, cybernetics enjoyed a warm reception in many countries, and it often was invested with hopes for stabilizing and rationalizing governance. In the first chapter, Peters outlines an international history of cybernetics, describing the shape it took in England, France, Chile, Argentina, and the Soviet Union. In the USSR, cybernetics moved from exclusion to center stage through subtle discursive strategies employed by leading scientists, in order to refashion the discipline so that it fit into the dialectical materialist paradigm. Peters also outlines the system of the Soviet planned economy, pointing to various contemporary paths to reform, one of which envisioned cybernetic optimization initiatives as central. The goal of creating a national electronic system to improve economic control and planning was often discussed during the 1960s. Small projects were implemented, but large-scale national plans never came together due to tensions between civil and military specialists, and controversies between financial and planning authorities, as well as various accidents of history.
This book centers on the OGAS project (All-Nation Network of Automated Management Systems) led by V. Glushkov, that was to optimize the processing of information, thereby improving planning procedures in particular and bureaucratic governance in general. The project addressed political and social concerns, and it had to include information from details about workers’ activities and office space to information on sociopolitical and ideological processes for optimal management of society. The system was conceived of as an open, decentralized, worker-oriented network, where anyone having access could input information. The magnitude [End Page 300] and sociocultural concerns of the project reflected Glushkov’s daring technocratic imagination and utopian promise.
This bold vision of a socialist networked future was lost in endless reviews and failed attempts to coordinate between ministries. The Soviets could not network their nation “due to entrenched bureaucratic corruption and conflicts of interest at the heart of the system they sought to reform” (p. 193). Informal culture turned out to be crucial both for enhancement of creativity and relaxation (as may be seen in the creation of a fantasyland Cybertonia by the young employees of the institute in their after-work hours), and for the destiny of ambitious technological projects (that were affected by the disconnectedness between the formal plans and informal exchange and personal favors).
Peters’s work offers broader reflections on today’s information society. The book invites us to re-read the idea of information society as built around freedom, democracy, and commerce, which has been taken for granted. In this story, network technologies were created to be of service for the socialist society and command economy. Thus, they can be invested with distinctive social and cultural values. As Peters argues, “the first global civilian computer networks took shape thanks to capitalists behaving like socialists, not socialists behaving like capitalists” (p. 2).
This book is extremely relevant for the Russian historiographic landscape, where history of science and technology has been treated as history of successes, sometimes as breakthroughs that did not evolve or were...