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The Great Accelerator

On September 26, 2014, a blog post on a Ukrainian news website claimed to report on an overheard phone conversation between someone fleeing the war-torn region of Donbas and a friend who had stayed behind in the occupied city of Donetsk. They were discussing the ongoing battle for the airport then being fought between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed forces. According to the blog post, a person from Donetsk claimed that the Ukrainian combatants fighting for the airport were referred to by their adversaries simply as “cyborgs.” This was, allegedly, due to their “inhuman” ability to survive in the airport debris under constant shelling, and fight back despite a lack of ammunition and resources.

The blog post went viral, and very quickly the word “cyborg” became a widespread designation for every Ukrainian soldier who fought in the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and other officials contributed to the establishment of this new myth by using the term without quotation marks in their official addresses, as if insisting on its nonmetaphorical status. The battle for Donetsk airport went on for 242 days, and its “cyborg” mythology helped boost the morale of Ukrainian troops and media audiences alike. As the conditions for the besieged fighters at the ruined airport grew more harsh and intolerable, their newly acquired status as “cyborgs” became helpful—despite the fact that their extremely poor-quality, scarce ammunition was a far cry from the cyborg-related technological imagery disseminated in mass culture.

Let us rewind thirty years to the early 1980s, when the coal-mining area of Donbas was still part of Soviet Ukraine. The region was an experimental site for the attempt to create a pioneering cybernetic system that would automatically manage the economy and the infrastructure of the Soviet state. This experiment was called ASU-DO, or “Automated System of Control of the Donetsk Region.” It relied on a local computing center to run a three-tiered hierarchy of command: at the regional level, the city level, and the district level. It oversaw functions as diverse as steel production and trolleybus traffic in Donetsk, in addition to financial accounting and information analysis on “labor quality.” The Donetsk system was a pilot project for the Soviet Union’s statewide computer-based information management system, designed by the computer engineer Viktor Glushkov, the founder and director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev.

Viktor Glushkov’s cybernetic system is now sometimes referred to as “the Soviet internet.” For some (in the post-USSR) it is a source of nostalgic historical revisionism in the age of “Cold War 2.0”; for others (in the “post-West”), it is a geeky artifact from an alternative history in which the twenty-first century was not always doomed to resemble a dire cyberpunk novel. The problem with Glushkov’s “internet” is obvious: it didn’t exist. Moreover, it’s not even clear if its alleged prototype—the Donetsk cybernetic system—was ever more real than the cyborgs of Donetsk airport. In fact, the only known description of this system comes from an obscure 1980s documentary film about Viktor Glushkov, unearthed in a film archive in Kiev. For sure, Soviet documentaries are not known for being the most reliable historical sources. Still, bearing in mind that those films were sometimes meant to construct reality rather than represent it, it’s worth taking a critical look at the knowledge they might provide about the global significance that Glushkov’s projects continue to have in our so-called post-truth era.

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