Author Benjamin Peters has just released a book about the "uneasy" history of the Soviet internet, published by MIT Press. Apparently, the internet in the USSR developed with fits and starts due to various competing private interests, which is distinct from that of American's ARPANET, which was state-funded. "The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists," writes Peters. Read the intro to "How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of Soviet Internet" in partial below, or the full intro via _First Monday_ here.
This much is clear: the Soviet Union never had the Internet as it is known today. Rather, in the early 1960s, Soviet cyberneticists designed the most prominent of the network projects examined here — the All-State Automated System (OGAS) — with the mission of saving the entire command economy by a computer network. Their elaborate technocratic ambition was to network, store, transmit, optimize, and manage the information flows that constituted the command economy, under the guidance of the Politburo and in collaboration with everyday enterprise workers, managers, and planners nationwide.
The historic failure of that network was neither natural nor inevitable. Its story is one of the lifework and struggles of often genius cybernetic scientists and administrators and the institutional settings that were tasked with this enormous project. The question deserves a sympathetic and rigorous examination of the Soviet side of the story. Why did Soviet networks like the OGAS not take root? What obstacles did network entrepreneurs face? Given unprecedented Soviet investments and successes in mathematics, science, and some technology (such as nuclear power and rocketry), why did the Soviet Union not successfully develop computer networks that were capable of benefiting a range of civilian, economic, political, social, and other human wants and needs? How might we begin to rethink our current network world in light of the Soviet experience?
I propose that the primary reason that the Soviets struggled to network their nation rests on the institutional conditions supporting the scientific knowledge base and the command economy. Those conditions, once examined, challenge conventional assumptions about the institutions that build open, flat, and collaborative networks and thereby help recolor the cold war origins of the information society. It is a mistake, as the standard interpretation among technologists and some scholars have it, to project cold war biases onto this history. Our networked present is the result of neither free-market triumphs nor socialist state failures.
That said, let us begin with a slight twist on the conventional cold war showdown: the central proposition that this book develops and then complicates is that although the American ARPANET initially took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments, the comparable Soviet network projects stumbled due to widespread unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and other key actors. The first global civilian computer networks developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.
*Image of Soviet computer via Omahug.com