InterNyet - how the Soviet Union invented the Internet and why it did not work
On the morning of October 1, 1970, a computer scientist Viktor Glushkov entered the Kremlin to meet with the Politburo. He was a wary man with piercing eyes in black glasses, with a type of mind that, solving one problem, could find in parallel a method for solving all similar problems. At that moment, the Soviet Union had a serious problem. A year earlier, the United States launched ARPANET, the first distributed packet-switched computer network that will eventually generate the Internet, as we know it today. The distributed network was originally designed to get ahead of the USSR, allowing computers of US scientists and government leaders to exchange information even in the event of a nuclear attack. It was the highest point of the technological race, and the Soviets had to respond with something.
Glushkov's idea was to start the era of electronic socialism. He called his incredibly ambitious project “National Automated System”. Glushkov sought to streamline and technologically modernize the entire planned economy. This system will continue to make economic decisions based on Gosplan, not based on market prices, but faster, thanks to computer modeling and forecasting equilibrium - before it arises. Glushkov wanted to achieve smarter and faster decision making, even pondered about electronic currency. All he needed was a Politburo wallet.
But when Glushkov entered the cave room that morning, he noticed two empty chairs at a long table - his two strongest ally went missing. Despite this, he sat at the table of ambitious ministers with steel eyes, many of whom also needed funding and support from the Politburo.
In the period from 1959 to 1989, leading Soviet scientists and statesmen repeatedly tried to create a national computer network with prosocial goals. With deep and not yet healed wounds of the Second World War, the Soviet Union continued to deploy large-scale modernization projects that in a couple of generations turned the scattered tsarist nation of illiterate peasants into a global nuclear power.
After Khrushchev condemned the personality cult of Stalin in 1956, the country was seized with a sense of opening up opportunities. On this stage, many projects have arisen to link the national economy, among which was the first in the world proposal to create a national civil computer network. The idea was the brainchild of military scientist Anatoly Ivanovich Kitov.
A young man with short stature and fascinated by mathematics, during the Great Patriotic War, Whales were promoted to the ranks of the Red Army. Then, in 1952, in the secret military library, he met Norbert Wiener's masterpiece Cybernetics (1948). The title of the book is a neologism, taken from the Greek language, to headline the post-war science of self-managed information systems. With the support of two other leading scientists, Kitov transformed cybernetics into a whole Russian-language approach to the development of computer-based control and communication systems. The flexible system dictionary of cybernetics was aimed at equipping the Soviet state with high-tech tools for rational Marxist governance, an antidote to violence and the cult of personality, characterizing the state of Stalin. And indeed, cybernetics may
In 1959, as director of a secret military computer research center, Kitov focused his attention on directing “an unlimited amount of computing power” to solving national economy planning tasks, which were permanently hampered by the problem of coordinating information that stands in the way of the entire “Soviet socialist project” ". For example, in 1962 it was discovered that the error in the manual counting at the census of the population in 1959 resulted in an error in the population forecast of 4 million people. Kitov expressed his thoughts in a memorandum sent by Khrushchev. He proposed allowing civilian organizations to use existing military computer systems for economic planning at night when most of the military are sleeping. The note said that economic planners can use computational surpluses of the military to correct census problems in real time, if necessary also adjusting the economic plan. He called his military-civilian national computer network an automated economic management system.
As it sometimes happened, Kitov’s military leaders intercepted the letter before it was delivered to Khrushchev. They were furious with his proposal that the Red Army should share resources with civilian economic planners — resources that Kitov also dared to call backward from time to time. A secret military tribunal was organized to consider his crimes, for which Kitov was quickly denied membership in the Communist Party for a year and dismissed from work on a permanent basis. So ended the story of the first ever proposed national computer networks.
The idea, however, survived. In the early 1960s, another scientist took up Kitov’s proposal, a man with whom life’s ways turned out to be so close that after a few decades their children even got married - Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov.
The full name of the Glushkov plan - “The nationwide automated system for collecting and processing information for accounting, planning and managing the national economy of the USSR” - speaks for itself and shows the grandeur of ambition. First proposed in 1962, the OGAS automated system was to become a national computer network with remote access in real time, built on existing and new telephone lines. In its most ambitious version, it would cover most of the Eurasian continent, representing a nervous system that is integrated into every plant and enterprise of a planned economy. The network was modeled after the hierarchical three-level pyramidal structure of the state and economy:
Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov in 1979
In accordance with Glushkov's extensive experience in the field of the country's life, the network architecture is not accidental contained the principles of decentralized design. This meant that although in Moscow it would be possible to indicate to whom what permissions to grant, any authorized user could contact any other user through the pyramid network - without direct permission from the parent site. When designing, Glushkov well understood the benefits of using local knowledge, spending most of his career, working on consonant mathematical problems, constantly moving between his hometown and the capital (he jokingly called the Kiev-Moscow train his “second home”).
The OGAS project seemed to many bureaucrats and economic planners, especially in the late 1960s, to be the next step in solving the old puzzle: The Soviets agreed that communism is the way of the future, but no one from the times of Marx and Engels knew how exactly to get there. According to Glushkov, network computing could bring the country closer to an era that the author Francis Spafford called the “red abundance”. It was the way in which the slow base of a centralized economy — quotas, plans and collections of industry standards — turned into a neural network of a nation driven by an incredible speed of electricity. The project claimed no less than the establishment of "electronic socialism".
Such ambitions require brilliant, purposeful people who are ready to give up the old mindset. In the 1960s, such people could be found in Kiev - a few blocks from the place where the Strugatsky brothers wrote their science fiction at night and worked as physicists during the day. There, on the outskirts of Kiev, Glushkov, since 1962, led the Institute of Cybernetics for 20 years. He recruited ambitious boys and girls to his institute - the average age of researchers was about 25 years. Glushkov and his young employees dedicated themselves to the development of OGAS and other cybernetic projects that were in the service of the Soviet state — such as an electronic check system, which had to replace hard currency with virtual currency, and turn it into an electronic invoice system — and this was in the early 1960s. Glushkov, who is known to he could even silence the ideologues of the Communist Party, quoting Marx’s phrases from memory, described his innovation as a faithful fulfillment of a Marxist prophecy about a poor socialist future. Unfortunately for Glushkov, the idea of the Soviet electronic currency caused only far-fetched fears and did not receive the approval of the commission in 1962. But his grandiose economic network project lived to the next stage.
The cybernetic group represented, in its own way, a smart neural network, a nervous system for the Soviet economy. This cybernetic parallel between the computer network and the brain left its mark on other innovations in computational theory in Kiev. For example, instead of the so-called “bottleneck” of the von Neumann architecture (which limits the amount of data transferred in the computer), the Glushkov team proposed a model similar to the simultaneous triggering of a large number of synapses in the human brain. In addition to countless computer projects for mainframes, theoretical works also included automata theory, paperless workflow and the natural language programming paradigm that would allow people to communicate with computers in a semantic rather than syntactic language, as programmers do today. On a large scale, Glushkov and his students theorized “digital immortality,” a concept that we could call today “mind loading,” holding Isaac Asimov or Arthur Clarke’s books in his hands. On his deathbed, decades later, Glushkov consoled his grieving wife with a deep reflection: "Do not worry," he said. “One day the light from our Earth will reach distant constellations, and in each of them we will be young again. So we will be together forever! ” and in each of them we will be young again. So we will be together forever! ” and in each of them we will be young again. So we will be together forever! ”
After a working day, cybernetics indulged in amusements full of frivolity and bright jokes bordering on outright rebellion. Their club for “work after hours”, which is the place where steam was released, was also considered a virtual country, independent of Moscow’s government. At the New Year's party in 1960, they christened their group Cybertonia and began to organize regular public events in Kiev and Lviv — dances, symposia, conferences, sometimes even publishing mocking articles like “About the desire to remain invisible — at least for the authorities”. Instead of invitations to events, the group issued puns passports, wedding certificates, newsletters, currency with punched cards, and even the constitution of Cybertonia. As a parody of the Soviet management structure, Cybertia was ruled by a council of robots,
Glushkov personally also had fun: he called his memoirs “Contrary to the authorities”, despite his official post of vice-president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Counterculture, as the ability to resist other forces, according to Fred Turner, has long been a close companion of cyberculture.
All this, however, required money - big money, especially for the OGAS project. This meant the need to convince the Politburo. From this it turned out that Glushkov ended up in the Kremlin on October 1, 1970, in the hope of continuing work in Cybertia and donating the Internet to the Soviet state.
On the way, Glushkov was one person - Finance Minister Vasily Garbuzov. Garbuzov was not eager for some kind of “real-time optimized computer networks” to manage the economy of a whole state. Instead, he called for the creation of simple computers that will light up the lighting and play music on chicken farms to increase egg production, which he personally observed during a recent visit to Minsk. Of course, his motives were not the product of pragmatism. He wanted to get funding for his own ministry.
There are even rumors that he personally met with the reform-minded Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Alexei Kosygin, threatening that if the Central Statistical Office retains control over the OGAS project, then Garbuzov and his finance ministry will sink any reform projects that he will put forward. he did this in part of Kosygin's liberal reforms five years ago.
To oppose Garbuzov and support the Soviet Internet, Glushkov needed allies. But they were not at the meeting. That day there were two empty seats - one was the chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the second was the general secretary and the well-known technocrat Leonid Brezhnev. They were the two most influential people in the Soviet state, and probably supporters of OGAS. But, apparently, they decided not to resist the rebellion of ministers.
Garbuzov successfully convinced the Politburo that the OGAS project, with its ambitious plans for modeling and managing information flows in a planned economy, was too hasty. The commission, which almost accepted the position of the other side, considered it safer to support Garbuzov. So, still the top-secret project OGAS remained in limbo for another decade.
The factors that opposed OGAS are reminiscent of the forces that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union — surprisingly unofficial forms of unfair behavior. Rebel ministers, status quo officials, winding up plant managers, confused workers, and even other economic reformers opposed the OGAS project because it was in their local interests. Without government funding and overall coordination, the national network project split in the 1970s and '80s into a patchwork of dozens, and then hundreds, of isolated, non-interoperable factory local control systems. The Soviet state failed to unite its nation, not because it was too rigid or prescriptive in its structure, but because it was too inconstant and disastrous in practice.
There is irony in it. The first global computer networks gained success in the United States due to well-regulated government funding and joint research, while similar (but often scattered) efforts in the USSR failed due to unmanaged competition and institutional fights among Soviet officials. The first global computer network came about because the capitalists behave like cooperating socialists, not socialists who behave like competing capitalists.
In the fate of the Soviet Internet, you can see a serious warning about the future. Today, the Internet, understood as a single global network of networks that guard informational freedom, democracy and trade, is in serious decline. If the statements of Prince andThe Associated Press Guide doesn't sound convincing to you, think about how often companies and states today seek to spread their influence on the Internet: mass applications are more like a “fenced garden” for tenants than a public resource of users. Closed systems with "increased gravity" (such as Facebook or Chinese firewall) are increasingly blocking sites that link to the outside. Heads of France, India, Russia, and other countries seek to intervene in ICANN activities and tighten local laws for their citizens. In fact, hundreds of non-Internet networks have operated in corporations and countries for decades. The future of computer networks is not one Internet, but many different online ecosystems.
In other words, the future undoubtedly resembles the past. The 20th century showed an example of a multitude of national computer networks claiming global status. The drama of the Cold War, what we could call “Soviet nyetworking” with a wink, or, as the article by the historian Slava Gerovich, the Soviet InterNyet, helped to complete a comparative study of the computer networks of the first wave. The feeling in the air of past and potential future networks that there is only one global network of networks seems to be the exception to the rule. Considering that the irony of the Cold War at the heart of this story is that the cooperating capitalists outwitted the competing socialists - played a sad role for the Soviet Union, perhaps we should not be too sure
Anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour once said that technology is a society made durable, meaning by this that the very basis of technology lies, first and foremost, social technology. For example, the Google PageRank algorithm is considered “democratic” because, among many other factors, it counts links (and links to sites that make links) as votes. Like politicians with votes, the pages with the most links have the highest rating. Today, the Internet seems to be a means of freedom, democracy, and commerce, in part because it is so frozen in our minds, just as Western values seemed to triumph after the Cold War. In the context of the Soviet history of the Internet, Latour’s aphorism can be reversed — social technologies have become short-lived.
In other words, as our social values change, so does what seems obvious in technology. The values of the Soviet Union of those years - cybernetic collectivism, the state hierarchy and a planned economy - seem alien to us today. The same can be said about the values that modern readers endow the Internet with, but through the prism of future generations. Network technologies will exist and develop, even if our most courageous social notions about them will end up in the dustbin of history.
Glushkov's story is also a large-scale reminder to investors and other agents of technological change that the originality of genius, foresight, and political acumen is not enough to change the world. Public institutions are often crucial. This is a clear lesson from the Soviet experience, the modern media environment that continuously accumulates data, and other cases of privacy breaches — public institutions that underlie the creation of computer networks and their cultures are vital and far from unity.
While new network projects and their evangelicals will promise a bright future, individual institutional forces, if not checked, will continue to benefit from controlled networks designed to interfere with our lives. Perhaps it is this that actually forms the privacy landscape - the extensive influence of institutional forces that can penetrate our lives, and not just individual rights to protect against this penetration. A Soviet study reminds us that the NSA's spying program and Microsoft's cloud servers are part of a more long-standing tradition of 20th-century general secretariats, committed to appropriating personal and public information for their personal gain.
In other words, we should not be too comforted by the fact that the global Internet first emerged due to co-operative capitalists. The history of the Soviet Internet is a reminder that we have no guarantee that the private interests that form the Internet will influence the situation better than those large forces whose unwillingness to cooperate not only signified the end of Soviet electronic socialism, but also threatened to put an end the current head of our era.