Why America Beat the Russians to Building the Internet
by Matt Novak  /  7/28/16

“From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, scientists in both the United States and the Soviet Union were working on computer networking in one form or another. Why did the US succeed where the Russians failed? That’s the subject of a new book titled How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet by Benjamin Peters. The ARPANET breathed its first baby breaths in 1969 when the first host-to-host connection was made from UCLA to Stanford on October 29th. From there, landmark achievements would be made with tremendous help from American military and university money, including the development of email (invented in the early 1970s) and the establishment of protocols that make the modern internet tick (like TCP/IP). I talked with Peters about his new book and asked about things like cybernetics, the fictional town that Soviet computer scientists imagined that they worked in, and why some Russian computer scientists adopted a jazz-playing robot as their mascot. The TLDR version of why the West beat the Russians when it came to building the internet? According to Peters, in the beginning the capitalists behaved like socialists, while the socialists behaved like capitalists.

Paleofuture: What is cybernetics and why does it matter when we study the history of the early internet?
Benjamin Peters: Cybernetics, in simple terms, is a postwar science for self-governing systems. And it matters because although nobody uses the term anymore, and it has basically been an institutional failure, it is also the intellectual milieu in which the 21st century information age has emerged. In other words, cybernetics has a way of talking about a consolidation of vocabulary, that even though that consolidation we don’t talk about anymore, the vocabulary is really relevant. So like self-governing systems—can you think about systems that find balance or are sustainable anywhere in the universe? Can you talk about biology, like a human body? Can you talk about an artificial system, like a complex set of circuits or computers? Can you think about human society? All of these things are different systems and cybernetics puts them all into the same conversation. And that’s pretty much how we still think about the information age today, more or less.

Western music forbidden, “Ruslan Bogoslowski changed the game when he encoded music onto exposed X-Rays from medical archives and hospital trash bins. Bogoslowski would eventually spend five years imprisoned in Siberia for this innovation. Covert salesmen would sell them on the street, as “bone music” hidden within their trench coats.”

P: So tell me about Cybertonia, what was it?
BP: So Cybertonia was a virtual country, as well as a sort of fantastical work club among leading Soviet scientists in the 1960s. They imagined during the day time that their work was serving the Soviet state and then after work they imagined a world outside of Moscow’s rule. Cybertonia issued its own constitution, its own currency, its own passports, its own wedding certificates, as well as newsletters and academic publications, all in a fantastical and kind of Merry Prankster-ish way of imagining their own political space or their own country outside the Soviet Union. Another way of saying that is that Cybertonia is sort of a countercultural moment in the Soviet 60s. It’s the connection between counterculture and cyberculture in the Soviet Union.

“The cover of the new book How Not to Network a Nation, and a portion of a fake passport for the fictional town of Cybertonia in Russia from 1965″

P: I saw images of a robot playing a saxophone in the book. Explain to us, why a robot playing a saxophone? Why was that their mascot in Cybertonia?
BP: These scientists appointed this saxophone-playing robot as not only their mascot, but as their supreme leader as an open gesture to the cold war cultural import that is American jazz. So this is sort of a playful subversive way of signaling that they weren’t entirely pleased with what the Soviet authorities were telling them to do. They wanted to appeal to a more fun-loving and free style of technical performance—something that not only jazz does but something that they do inside their math.

P: So why does the US version of the proto-internet prosper whereas the Soviet versions failed?
BP: Because capitalists first behaved like socialists while socialists first behaved like capitalists. In other words, the ARPANET took shape thanks to collaborative research environments and state funding while the Soviet networks at the same time fell apart due to unregulated competition and infighting among the relevant institutions. the soviet union had all of the technical brilliance, censorship cultures weren’t sufficient to keep their networks down, and even the hierarchical state wasn’t a problem. Their problem, something that I think we can recognize today, is sometimes we don’t get along. And this institutional infighting or unwillingness to transfer knowledge and power is what kept the Soviets from building their own information age—from networking their nation and building electronic Socialism.”

by Benjamin Peters

“To briefly outline the book, after examining the midcentury rise of cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems, and the emergence in the Soviet Union of economic cybernetics in particular, I complicate this uneasy reversal while chronicling the various Soviet attempts to build a “unified information network.” Drawing on previously unknown archival materials and dozens of interviews, the book focuses on the final, and most ambitious of these projects, the AllState Automated System of Management (OGAS), and its principal promoter, Viktor M. Glushkov.


How Not to Network a Nation 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 undid it. In conclusion, I consider the implications of the Soviet experience for today’s network world – in particular that, despite many dissimilarities, the Soviet case resembles the current network world in its uneasy, even uncanny, threats we face from the overreach of private institutional power. The book is, as the sociologist Todd Gitlin recently put it, a sociopolitical report as well as a delicious tale of Soviet efforts to manage a command economy left them without either command or an economy.

And yet, among a different set of experts (usually fewer and better informed), another opposing position emerged just as strongly: for this second group, the internet appears a natural extension of the socialist experiment consummated in the Russian revolution a century ago. Both the Internet and the Soviet command economy promise, in a phrase, the revolutionary realization of the means for production on a mass scale. In the fused rhetoric of networking collective consciousness and crowd-sourced collaboration, we see the unlikely alliance of Kevin Kelly’s hive mind, Eric Raymond’s bazaar, and Leon Trotsky’s collective farm: before there ever internet cooperatives, Soviet revolutionaries were promising that workers (think users) could meet the needs of the masses (think crowds) through collective modes of resource sharing (think peer-to-peer production). And so I wondered, How was I to make heads or tails of such conflicting stories?

The first Eureka moment came as I realized history can sober and ground our most fanciful technology talk. Here, for example, is such a historical fact: since the mid 1950s, Soviet military scientists did in fact build and use at least three functioning national computer networks. There were Soviet military networks. This simple fact suddenly reshaped the question: it is impossible to argue, as many technologists tend to do, that technological backwardness kept Soviet scientists from developing computer networks, when in fact they obviously had the technical know-how to do just exactly that. It was no longer why was there no Soviet networks at all, but rather, Why did military networks take shape, while other civilian networks did not?

Computer Centre No 1
Computer Centre No 1 (USSR Ministry of Defense) Command staff members in presidium of the centre meeting on the 1st of May 1959. Colonel A.I. Kitov is first row on the left.”

The second eureka moment came in the form of a surprising answer to that question: by my account, the first person to propose a civilian national computer network anywhere in the world was also, curiously, a Soviet military man by the name of Anatoly Kitov. In 1959, Kitov was a rising star among military researchers and also the first Soviet cyberneticist. In the Fall of 1959, Kitov, in his “Red Book letter,” sent the General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev a proposal that the existing military computer networks be fitted to allow economists and other civilians to use the network during the off hours when the military was not using the computer networks. This would be done to encourage economists and planners to efficiently manage the information flows in the nation’s command economy. As it happens, Kitov’s story is a tragic one: his well-intentioned letter to Nikita Khrushchev was intercepted by his supervisors, who were infuriated that he would dare suggest the military share resources with civilian affairs.

Anatoliy Kitov – the creator of the Computer Centre №1 ( 1954 ) – first computer centre in the USSR

He was dismissed from the army and spend the rest of his career working in medicine cyberneticist – an early pioneer in modern-day health information science. He also remained a key adviser in subsequent attempts to build a civilian economic network. With reflection, this discovery also reshaped the question: no longer could I be interested in why one network worked, while another did not, for I began to see cold war technology race biases in the question itself, not to mention heroic invention narratives and other concerns about who crossed the finish line first that still beset the history of technology. A closer read of this story, as well as the literature, revealed that information technology history is always a story of multiple independent simultaneous inventions and innovations. What is interesting is not whether Kitov or Licklider came up with the idea first, but rather why leading scientists situated in the top military basic research laboratories on both sides of the cold war felt compelled to invent the national computer network as the next generation of state and organizational power in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“They’d cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole.”

The third eureka moment came in recognizing that, despite two decades of set backs, the OGAS Project advanced by Viktor M. Glushkov, the leading cyberneticist of his generation as well as a deep thinker of decentralized power, were profoundly innovative on their own terms. Here too the conventional narratives for telling this story fell short – his network project to manage the command economy by decentralized computer network remains something without precedent. The OGAS, in Glushkov’s vision, was designed to be a decentralized network of remote-access computer processing stretching from a central processor in Moscow to hundreds of regional computer centers to as many as 20,000 local computer terminals throughout the country.

Moreover, so the innovations that came along with the OGAS Project can be seen as extraordinary and forward-looking apps: Glushkov’s promoters see in his team’s work the Soviet precursors to electronic banking, paypal, and bitcoin, cloud computing, natural language processing, and even an attempt at immortality through artificial intelligence. His detractors, curiously, agree with his promoters that “Glushkov was before his time,” although they accuse him of being ever out of touch with the realities of the day. As the common complaint goes, Soviet computing theorists could not help but see far past the chalkboards they were doing their programming on. In the book, I show how evidence disputes both positions and that the best way to understand the fate of Glushkov’s OGAS Project is not a focus on the individuals but on the institutions – the quicksand into which the history of networks is poured – that supported these projects.

The fourth eureka moment came in the identification and then deconstruction of dominant national metaphors for the network. In the Soviet Union, the state, it would seem, is that mind of the nation and the network its nervous system, while in America the nation is the distributed networked mind itself. The book traces the implications of these contrasting network metaphors for cold war political economics. Suffice it to say I think that both readings make a significant mistake: both take too seriously cybernetic analogies for modern network nations that privilege as supreme the image of the private mind. Both are mistaken yet dominant metaphors we inherent from the cybernetic – and in the end deeply human – hubris that it is the individual human mind that organizes the world.

The fifth eureka moment brings us to the case study in my talk: let me simply note that perhaps the leading scholarly history of Silicon Valley – a book called From Counterculture to Cyberculture – traces the history of the American computer through the flower power counterculture on the West Coast, and anchors that history in postwar cybernetics and culminates in techno-libertarianism. The case of Cybertonia in Kiev, while only a small snapshot, helps us think differently about counterculture. Indeed, one way of expanding the history of new media and computers is to recognize that countercultural tendencies are not sufficient to sustain or support creative and innovative technological labs, both of which can be found in the work and play of the team behind the OGAS Project.

“The building in Kyiv suburb of Feofania where Lebedevs laboratory was located and MESM computer was created.”

The curtains on my case study today part on the valley of Feofania in the southern outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine in a forest overrun by songbirds, rabbits, mushrooms, and berries in the summer, and hunted in the winter by rumors of wolves and Baba Yaga (the famous witch of eastern European folklore). In this heavily oaked enclosure we find the curiously natural cradle for the birth of the first stored-memory electronic computer in Europe, the MESM, or malaya electronicheskaya schetnaya machine, or the small electronic calculating machine. And by small, I mean the computer filled a two-story room.

Small Electronic Calculating Machine
(Russian: MESM)

The MESM was built in a two-story brick building that had no plumbing near the St. Panteleimon’s Cathedral, a high point of Russian revival ecclesiastical architecture since its construction in 1905. The building itself bears the scars of faith, madness, murder, and science: it was built initially as a dormitory for eastern Orthodox priests, and then looted during the 1917 Russian revolution and converted in a psychiatric hospital. In 1941, the Nazis slaughtered its patients and established it as a military hospital. In 1948, the now badly damaged building was transferred over to the hands of Sergei Lebedev, Glushkov’s predecessor. Lebedev’s charge was to build the newest icon of Soviet atheism – that triumph of human rationality and creativity, the automated computer. And six thousand vacuum tubes and two years of astonishing effort later, his team had done it: they turned on the calculating machine in 1950.

For years later, a culture of collaboration and autonomy away from the watchful eyes of Moscow permeated the OGAS team under Glushkov. Researchers who received nearby housing rarely accepted other positions (Glushkov, for example, is rumored to have turned down a million dollars to defect and work at IBM, never mind standing invitations to work in Moscow.)

Victor M.Glushkov meets scientists from USA

Informal play and merry making abounded during and after work: to the priests’ chagrin today, engineers under Lebedev and then Glushkov tested controlled mechanical explosions in the magisterial cathedral. Bus drivers were sent on wild goose chases through the forest, ping-pong balls ricocheted down the hallways on breaks, and volleyball and soccer matches broke on. This is hardly the portrait of staid heroes of the state that either the official Soviet histories present or that might be inferred by comparison with the countercultural histories in the west.

In the 1960s, the OGAS Project in Kiev imagined an afterhours work party that became no more than an after-hour work party and at once no less than an imagined country separate from the Soviet state. They christened it “Kibertonia” or Cybertonia, a sort of virtual country, or “fairytale land” on the New Year’s Eve Party of 1960. From there the joke snowballed into a community that offered scientific seminars, lectures, after-hour gatherings, community functions, auctions, artwork, ballads, press releases, news letters, a short film, fake passports, marriage certificates, its own currency, and even its own constitution. That constitution was authorized by “the Robot Council of Cybertonia” that warned jokingly that “anyone who disobeys the Robot will be stripped of their rights and cast out of the country for 24 seconds.” The mascot of the country was the jazz-playing Soviet robot, an open gesture to that American cultural export. Merry pranksters waxed on in official reports that compared the task of securing living quarters to hyperdimensional geometry as well as 1965 title “Executives Incognito: On Wanting to Remain Unknown, at least to the Authorities.”

“The black market was flooded with these cheap precursors to flexi discs, adorned with living and dead Soviet skulls, hipbones, femurs, guts. The dead sang along with the living.”

All of this took place incidentally several blocks away from the Institute of Physics, where the Strugatskii Brothers work, the time and ostensible setting of their wonderful sci-fi novel Monday Begins on Saturday. These network entrepreneurs and scientists – rather than serving Soviet state power – attempted to resist it with pranks, puns (there are many here), puzzling wit, and privileged intellectual classes. Much like countercultural communes behind Silicon Valley, the blurring of reality and virtuality, work and play, science and art was precisely the point of “Cybertonia.” Theirs was a Kyberia away from Siberia, an escape from the great error of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, if not the great terror of Stalin’s. Alas, Cybertonia never did grow to become, as the editors of its 1968 symposium had gleefully enthused, an “interplanetary congress.”

At some point between 1969 and 1970, as the Brezhnev doctrine forced the Warsaw Pact to invade Czechoslovakia, “the entire idea of Cybertonia,” one participant recalled, “was buried by the pressure of the Party and government.” In short, this hint of countercultural autonomy, revelry, and subtle protest all grew up in the very militarized knowledge institutions that served the regime these scientists resisted. It is not incidental that Glushkov titled his memoirs Despite the Authorities in 1982. Here is a peak into the alternate history of a different kind of countercultural new (socialist) left that too reproduced its own cultural, institutional, power, and gendered dynamics – and whose work – the OGAS Project, like that of ARPA military research and subsequent Silicon Valley business culture – too serves the very institutions of incorporated state power they sought to resist.

The Soviet state itself resisted the OGAS Project for reasons that may best be left for later eureka moments, but in a brief recap of the story left untold today, the OGAS Project ended up facing extraordinary, ad hoc, and unregulated resistance from at least five groups: (1) except for the Deputy Defense Minister Ustinov, the military wanted nothing to do with civilian affairs, especially the regulation of the command economy that fed its coffers; (2) the economic ministries (especially the Central Statistical Administration and the Ministry of Finance) wanted the OGAS Project under their control and fought one another to the point of mutiny to keep competing ministries from controlling it; (3) the bureaucrats administering the plan feared that the network would put them out of a job; (4) factory managers and factory workers fretted that the network would pull them out of the profitable gray or second economy; and (5) liberal economists were upset that the network would prevent the market reforms that eventually Gorbachev began to introduce. Instead of a national network, dozens and then hundreds of local computer centers were built in the late 1960s and 1970s, and never connected. Glushkov’s dream of networking Soviet socialism into a brighter communist future did not come to pass.

In the conclusion, I complicate my initial argument that the history of OGAS depends on a matter of socialists behaving like capitalists, and capitalists behaving like socialists, if for no other reason than that that language rehearses the cold war divide I seek to help deconstruct. Instead, borrowing from the language of Hannah Arendt, I argue that the fate of the OGAS history is but one example in a much larger story about the cold war serving as the staging ground for the consolidation of private power – or what Arendt calls the oikos – across modern states in the new age of high technology.

Each of the five groups I specify can trace their behavior back in some sense to the midcentury rise of the private power. A final work: the OGAS story is not only a tale that took place long ago and far away. It is an allegory of our own fate. The private forces that were hard at work in the OGAS story are also hard at work in the modern media environment. Privacy should perhaps not be understood as the right to control the disclosure of personal information or the right to be left alone; perhaps we should think of privacy as the institutionalization of private power to survey the public: the NSA, Google, and the Communist Party are all run by General Secretaries that record our behavior for the private institutional gain. Informal networks abound, for better and worse. We should not gaze at the OGAS Project from a comfortable distance but realize how close its story hits to home. A world of difference separates all allegories, but looking in the rearview mirror of history, the distance between networked private powers is often closer than it appears.”




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