The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. By Benjamin Peters. M.I.T. Press, 2016, 312 pages.
Reviewed by Loren Graham.
Benjamin Peters’ How Not to Network a Nation is a well-informed and significant analysis of an event in the history of information systems that is little known in the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union made an enormous effort to create an economy based upon a unified network of information systems. The dream was that what humans alone could not do – handle a complex economy from central offices in Moscow – a system of computers linked together and controlled centrally could do. Cybernetics would allow the Marxist dream of a planned economy to be realized after all. Cybernetics would rescue the Soviet Union, and, in the process, communism itself.
This effort failed. Peters wants to explain why. In his opinion, the reason for the dramatic failure was institutional barriers and resistance. He shows very clearly how “entrenched bureaucratic corruption and conflicts of interest” dashed the dreams of cyberneticists like Viktor Glushkov. He even goes so far as to say – comparing the Soviet effort to the American Arpanet – that “capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.” When Glushkov says that socialists behaved like capitalists, he seems to be saying that conflicts of interest are (or “should be”) uniquely capitalist, an observation that some people would dispute.
Peters has researched his topic thoroughly. Not only has he read the relevant sources, but he has also conducted interviews in Russia with people who still remember, and often participated in, the events he describes. As a result, he has written a valuable book that will undoubtedly stand for many years as the best work on this important but underappreciated effort.
Standing behind this impressive research, however, is a large unanswered question. Could it have been otherwise – could cybernetics have saved the Soviet dream? Peters seems to think that it could have. In fact, he considers the Soviet effort “a path not taken” as if this path was, in fact, realistic. I prefer an alternative answer to the question Peters so aptly poses, but we will never know who is correct, since we are now discussing a counterfactual situation. In my opinion, institutional rivalry in the Soviet Union was not an unfortunate barrier to communication systems that could have been eliminated, but an inherent feature of the system. In capitalist societies, people fight over money. In socialist ones, people fight over prestige and influence, often using institutions in that struggle. In both cases, barriers to rationality and, yes, justice, arise, although the barriers are somewhat different. The nature of those barriers in the Soviet Union was that a centralized system in which all institutions cheerfully cooperated was not possible. People are too ambitious not to compete with their neighbors, even if that competition is based only on prestige and influence, not wealth. The barriers in capitalist society, based on the struggle for money, are also grievous, but the record is that the capitalist economy can continue on the basis of competition without much institutional cooperation. Thus both types of society have their own defects, but the Soviet problem was a mortal threat to the whole system, while the capitalist defect merely is a disease that has so far been chronic, not fatal. Socialist societies need cooperation to a much greater degree than capitalist ones. The historical record is that capitalist economies stagger on, with their inherent inequality and injustice, while the most prominent socialist one expired because the barriers that arose were fatal to the system itself.
Loren Graham is Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at M.I.T., Cambridge, MA, and currently a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. His most recent book is Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia (2016). Email: LRG@MIT.EDU.