Timothy M. Denton

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How not to network a nation

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There is an excerpt in First Monday from a book by Benjamin Peters called "How not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet".

"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."

Peters writes:

The central premise of this book holds that there was once something that we might think of as the Soviet Internet. Between the late 1950s and the late 1980s, a small group of leading Soviet scientists and administrators tried to develop a nationwide computer network that was designed for citizen communication and sweeping social benefits. This book is about their story. At the height of the cold war technology race, the Soviet Union was awash in intelligence about contemporary Western initiatives, including the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project at the U.S. Department of Defense. The Soviet state had all the necessary motives, mathematics, and means to develop nationwide computer networks for the benefit of its people and society. This book also ventures analysis on why, despite pioneering national network projects from the most promising of scientists and administrators, the Soviet state proved unable and unwilling to network its nation.

 

This much is clear: the Soviet Union never had the Internet as it is known today [6]. 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.

The article is worth the effort to read, though I am not sure I agree with his contention that the Soviet Union might have developed a form of Internet.  One level of explanation lies in the absence of autonomous private sector actors. When all of the economy is under the command of government departments, as was the case in the Soviet Union, there  is no private sector, no set of actors, however small, who could get money attracted to innovation. Thus, while the Internet was developed in the bosom of the US government, in cultural conditions the Soviet Union could not replicate, there was in addition a set of private actors to which the Internet could be handed off for further development and exploitation.

In addition, the United States benefits from a high degree of trust; full faith and credit is extended. People have internalized the idea of law and conformity to standards, even as they fight about them.  A zero-trust culture of the Soviet Union, coupled with the inability to cooperate as a consequence of the absence of social trust, meant that the Soviet Internet could never be born. In addition, government-led innovation is not assisted when the leading proponent of an Internet-idea can be put on trial when his proposals  were understood to be near-treasonous, as was the case of the first Soviet cyberneticist. There is no Soviet Vint Cerf, and I would argue that the reasons for this are culturally specific to why America works and why the Soviet Union did not.  The crucial difference lies in the high amount of trust in the United States and the non-existent levels of trust in the Soviet Union

The culture of trust is well discussed in Francis Fukuyama's book of the same name. I am led to conclude that the causes of the absence of a Soviet Internet lie deeper than a few empty seats at crucial meetings, and other mere contingencies.

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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  • Guest
    Benjamin Peters Saturday, 21 May 2016

    Thanks, Timothy! The author of the book here. I'm delighted to have stumbled upon your engagement with the excerpts from my book. As it happens, the full book takes up a number of the issues you raise here: funding sources, social trust and cultures of innovation, etc. I could not agree more that the Soviet Union was not about to build its own internet as we know it today, although I think you will enjoy, given your smart comments, this story about what they were trying to build on their own terms: all this is to say I appreciate your radar and do hope you and any interested followers will have a chance to engage the full argument (not just the prelude to it). Links to the book and other press can be found at my website link, or feel free to contact me at bj[insert my last name here]@gmail.com should I be able to be helpful. Ben Peters

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