domenica 1 maggio 2016

Benjamin Peters: How Not to Network a Nation The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet @ MIT Press, April 2016

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 fell apart. Meanwhile, ARPANET, the American precursor to the Internet, went online in 1969. Why did the Soviet network, with top-level scientists and patriotic incentives, fail while the American network succeeded? In How Not to Network a Nation, Benjamin Peters reverses the usual cold war dualities and argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies 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.

After examining the midcentury rise of cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems, and the emergence in the Soviet Union of economic cybernetics, Peters complicates this uneasy role reversal while chronicling the various Soviet attempts to build a “unified information network.” Drawing on previously unknown archival and historical materials, he 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. Peters 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 killed it. Finally, he considers the implications of the Soviet experience for today’s networked world.

The seeds of this book were first planted as I stood on the left bank of the Volga River in Balakovo, Russia, one evening in the spring of 2001. Balakovo, where I was living for several months doing volunteer service, was a pleasant city of roughly 200,000 people who were struggling through the economic depression that was sweeping Russia’s rust belt. As I reflected on my picturesque surroundings — green trees, rolling hills, and the setting sun’s reflections on the river — I sensed that something was out of place. The peculiar features that were visible on the horizon, backlit by the sunset, belonged to the Saratov hydroelectric dam, one of the world’s hundred largest dams by output and stretching over 1,200 meters in length to form the enormous Saratov reservoir. The city of Balakovo also is home to a thermal heat power plant and a nuclear power plant with four working nuclear reactors (the construction of two other nuclear plants was suspended in 1992). If local rumors were to be believed, Balakovo once boasted secret Soviet military factories, one of which produced a material for the cosmonautic industries that was so tough that napalm balled up and rolled off it. This peculiar pairing of natural scenery and outsized industrial infrastructure struck me on the riverbank that evening. What force of imagination and statecraft, I puzzled, could have decided to graft such hulking industry onto such a remote city — and why would it do so? Thus began my interest in the outsized infrastructural imagination of Soviet planners.
Six years later, in 2007, those seeds sprouted into the question driving this book. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I wanted to learn more about the international sources of the information age, a topic that first crystallized for me in Fred Turner’s graduate seminar on “Computers, Information Ideology and American Culture since World War II” at Stanford University in 2005. If, to gloss Whitehead, all philosophy begins as a series of footnotes to Plato, then this book began with an obscure footnote in Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman’s popular biography of Norbert Wiener. As I was rereading the book’s references one evening in 2007, I stumbled on a passing reference to a declassified, Freedom of Information Act–recovered 1962 Central Intelligence Agency report about a new Soviet initiative to develop a native “unified information network.” [1]
That footnote triggered a question that was so tenacious that I had to write this book to shake it: why were there no Soviet developments comparable to the ARPANET in the 1960s? It made sense that, at the height of the cold war technology race, Soviet cyberneticists would try to build a “unified information network” — and yet I knew nothing about their efforts or outcomes. I was hooked. What had happened? Why was there no Soviet Internet?
Over the next eight years, the question drew me to archives and interviews in Moscow and Kiev. After spending a year exhausting the available leads, literature, and FOIA requests available from New York, I traveled to begin archival work in Moscow, although initially this proved a dead end. Marshall McLuhan once quipped that the first thing a visitor needs to know about Russia is that there are no phonebooks [2]. His point is that a foreigner in Russia needs to have contacts already in place. (Or as the Finns say: in Finland, everything works and nothing can be arranged. In Russia, nothing works but everything can be arranged.) And so, with all the tools but none of the social network, I found myself shuffling through dusty documents that were lit by a single flickering light bulb in Moscow archives. Then in 2008, good fortune smiled when, while chasing down references to Nikolai Fedorenko and Viktor Glushkov in Moscow, I began a correspondence with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Slava Gerovitch, who emailed me from Cambridge a draft of his article “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network” that became the basis for this book [3]. Gerovitch also put me in touch with key contacts in Kiev, and my rapidly expanding social network led to dozens of interviews and contacts, out-of-the-way archives (including stacks of papers in the closet of an abandoned office), and unprecedented access to historical materials over years of research and writing. On the surface, this book is about why certain computer networks did not work in the Soviet Union, but the story turns on the basic fact that social networks in the region have long operated according to their own rhythms and reasons.
Writing this book has proven to be a valuable learning process. When I set out in 2007 to study early Soviet networks, I had a vague sense that the resulting scholarly work would intersect media and communication studies, the history of science and technology, and social thought that informed information policy discussions, but I did not anticipate the work in institutional and historical economics, the sociology of economics, and organizational theory that the story required. Least of all did I imagine that this story would throw me headlong into a study of Soviet bureaucracies. It is my hope that this work will lighten some of that burden for the patient reader. In the end, this book should be understood primarily as an interdisciplinary work of synthesis driven by a fascination with the relationship between communication technology and people. I have tried to write for the media and technology scholar as well as the general-interest reader, although the book draws on history, area studies, and social commentary to inform the emergent subfield of network studies in information policy as well. Like all these fields, its primary orientation is not to a single discipline but to the scholarly enterprise of making strange modern network culture, a technique that the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky first popularized as ostranenie, or “defamiliarization.” [4] It seeks to offer what historian Peter Brown calls “salutary vertigo” or a disorientation that clarifies the foreignness of a modern networked culture that was once thought familiar [5]. To do so, this work seeks to separate readers from hidden assumptions about modern networks and the social, technological, political, and economic conditions that organize and are subsequently organized by it. For me, this book began as an essay on the forgotten origins of computer networks in the Soviet Union and ended up being about much more, including a cautionary tale in the annals of technological innovation and a critical reflection on the assumptions steeping the current network world.

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