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Five Minutes with Benjamin Peters

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet recounts the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to construct its own Internet during the Cold War. Benjamin Peters discusses his book and considers the implications of the Soviet experience for today’s networked world. 

What was the OGAS project? What role did it play in the development of computer networks?

The OGAS project was the most ambitious attempt to network the Soviet Union—to construct a national computer network. Viktor M. Glushkov, whose New York Times obituary dubbed him the “king of Soviet cybernetics,” considered the OGAS his lifework between his appointment as director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev in 1962 and his death of an apparent brain hemorrhage in 1982. “OGAS” is short for the obshchee-gosudarstvennaya avtomatizirovannaya system—or the all-state automated system, which itself was a shortening of its full train-length name: the All-State Automated System for the Gathering and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning, and Governance of the National Economy, USSR. This heroic or gargantuan project, in Glushkov’s 1962 proposal, sought to build incrementally on preexisting and new telephony networks until it would go fully online 30 years later, offering up in the process a real-time decentralized hierarchical computer network for managing all the information flows in the command economy. He envisioned it reaching from one central computer center in Moscow, to several hundred regional computer centers in prominent cities, and then to as many as 20,000 local computing centers in factories and enterprises stretching over all of Soviet Eurasia. Its higher purpose was to realize “electronic socialism” technocratically, guiding the socialist experiment another step toward communism itself. However, the project encountered significant obstacles on the path to its realization in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, the OGAS project had splintered into a patchwork of unconnected and non-interoperable local factory control systems spread throughout the country.

My book describes the rise and fall of the OGAS project and analyzes what sped its undoing. I should note that many English-language readers may be tempted to wager explanations of their own before they read the book, such as technological backwardness, censorship cultures, and hierarchical command economies. While there is surely a grain of truth in each of these three, none tells the full story.

You argue that “the capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists” in cold war science. What do you mean by this?

I mean that the usual cold war frame for the global history of networks—for example that the Internet is a consequence of commercial innovation while, say, the French Minitel floundered due to state bloat—is often backwards. In fact, as I argue, the first global computer networks took shape in the US thanks to collaborative scientists and state funding, while contemporary attempts in the Soviet Union fell apart due to unregulated competition among bureaucrats, institutions, and other agents: namely, the ARPANET found its initial footing among cooperative capitalists with state funding, while the OGAS project broke against conflicts of self-interest among competing socialists without the same.  

Of course historians of economics and science now accept this core argument as commonplace: even at the height of ideological showdown between American capitalist free markets and Soviet socialist social justice, cold war science was—much as big science is today—powered by mixed economies and cooperative interagency arrangements. Early network infrastructure enjoyed both state funding and commercialization in the US: public-private partnerships and their kin should be the normal protagonists in the development of networks, but too rarely are.

The conclusion deconstructs this uneasy reversal of socialists and capitalists, since, in the end, the binary between socialists and capitalists relies on the very cold war liberal economic opposition between private markets and public states that my book seeks to critique. Instead, the conclusion makes a ninety-degree pivot by analyzing the ways that states and corporations have used computer networks to consolidate extraordinary swaths of private organizational power to date. To sharpen the critique of network power, perhaps we should think less about the opposition between private markets and public states, and more about the ways that increasingly large network organizations have mobilized computer networks to make themselves privy to our lives. The NSA, Google, and the other big data brokers today are not the heirs to post-cold war US technological triumph so much as they are heirs to a much longer modern history in which general secretariats seek to privatize public life for their own interests. That exploitation of networks lives on in the big data brokers at the helm of the information age today.

What were the impacts of OGAS’s failure on the Soviet republics that you researched? What is the status of Russia’s current Internet regulation and usage?

In short, none and it’s complicated. Strictly speaking, there is no evidence that its failure had any observable impact; counterfactually speculating, however, it would of course be very tempting to postulate that, had history been different and had the OGAS project somehow succeeded in reforming the command economy, the Soviet Union would likely not have collapsed due to internal economic distress when it did. Like all counterfactuals, this is unwarranted speculation—the stuff historians abhor but many readers may understandably want to indulge.

Instead let us consider the current state of the Internet in Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and in fact among very isolated computer users throughout the 1980s), the global Internet has slowly penetrated the Russian Federation and other former Soviet territories—and today Internet penetration in Russia hovers roughly at about 70%. The key dynamic to understanding Russian and Soviet information culture, the book suggests, is not formal regulations but informal practices—and indeed the development of the Internet in post-Soviet Russia is a case in point: only recently has the Russian state begun to formally regulate or censor the internet. For decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the book adds—many decades before that—the corrupt forces steering the state have shaped and silenced public network power via informal pressures and surveillance. The collapse of the Soviet Union does not mark the “end of history” nor even the next chapter in it: in terms of how the state informally brokers information networks to its own ends, we can read one unbroken chapter linking Soviet and Russian internet histories.

How has the failure the OGAS project affected the development and success of America’s ARPANET? 

To my best knowledge, not at all. There is evidence that intelligence specialists in the west were concerned about the potential economic benefits of such a Soviet “unified information net.” There were also rumored attempts to lure Glushkov and others to defect to the west with well-paying positions. But no available evidence suggests that these particular Soviet efforts actually influenced the ARPANET or its subsequent network history. If there was any arrow of influence (and that is a significant if) between the OGAS and the ARPANET, it ran in the opposite direction: the Politburo decided to review the OGAS project in the fall of 1970 in part in order to find a response to the ARPANET, which had gone online one year earlier, and in part to reform its stumbling economy. Even then, the big picture here is a familiar case in the history of science and technology: “multiples,” or similar innovation projects often take shape simultaneously and independently. The ARPANET and the OGAS projects are not merely contemporaries between 1959 and 1990 so much as they appear curiously independent of one another.  

What lessons can be taken from the Soviet experience of technological innovation for our current networked world?

Scholars interested in understanding the Internet are a bit like fish in water: it is a challenge to view our networked world outside of our positions in it. It is even harder still to imagine a radically different networked world. Or as Michael Gordin noted in his recent review in Nature, Internet scholars face a classic small N problem in science: it would seem we have an N of one when it comes to making sense of the Internet. The Soviet story, however, helps mitigate that problem by adding to a growing literature in comparative network studies, such as Eden Medina’s rigorous and elegant history of another socialist national network project in Chile, that seeks to glimpse beyond own blinders, to experience what Peter Brown calls the “salutary vertigo” of observing something (national computer networks) at a distance once thought to be familiar, and thus to broaden the world of possibilities informing information policy and debate.  

Bruno Latour once quipped that “technology is society made durable.” So too does the reverse follow: in light of the Soviet story, we can see that society is technology made temporary. In other words, the values that we design, embed, and ascribe to technology—that, for example, digital tools are some democratic because they can enable participatory, deliberative, and representative action—are just as temporary as the societies that uphold those values. The Soviet network values of cybernetic control, decentralized hierarchies, and socialism likely sound foreign to readers today, but they appeared just as natural and obvious to Soviet network entrepreneurs as, say, an open-source start-up of alpha geeks might appear to angel investors in Silicon Valley today. It is worth remembering that our values are not givens: dictators and cyber security specialist have employed computer networks for less than liberating or democratic uses for generations. Our social values someday too will pass and the world of computer networks will (continue to) morph as a result. Whether or not we recognize those possibilities after the future has thrust itself upon us or whether we choose to learn what we can now from the past is up to us, and I suspect that many already recognize, as this book does, that our most treasured values about computer networks tell us more about the stories we tell about ourselves than about our networks. The Soviet case discussed here thus seeks to offer a potentially mind-expanding counter-narrative to contemporary network echo chambers.

That said, even though social values behind the Soviet network projects in this book are revealingly different from our own, there is also a larger and more pressing common variable. In fact, the very forces that shipwrecked the OGAS project and other Soviet networks are still hard at work today. Powerful organizational forces have been mobilizing computer networks for private gain at the cost of public political life—and they will continue to do so until there is the social will to demand a change. Our modern network lot may be even closer to the Soviet’s fate than it appears in the side view mirror of history.

Lastly, this story seeks to help normalize technological “failure” and redirects our attention away from innovative technology as an agent of change and toward sustained technology as a consequence of well-managed institutions and interpersonal networks: indeed, imaginative foresight, peerless tech wizardry, and political acumen are not enough to change the world. That is one of several signal lessons discussed in this cautionary tale for the Internet-enabled present.


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