Ana and Camila chat about the development of a Soviet nationwide information network in the 60s that was meant to run a planned economy for the USSR. Built after Sputnik’s launch, it brought about Soviet cybernetics and promised a new era for Soviet sciences, mathematics economics and technology. Discussing the project’s termination due to inner-bureaucratic competition, this episode also looks at ARPANET’s simultaneous development; its surprisingly socialist structures of funding and collaborative mindsets that led to its success.
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Main research for the episode was done by Ana who also edited.
Music by Nelson Guay (SoundCloud: fluxlinkages)
- “How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet”, Benjamin Peters, 2016
- “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”, Ed Catmull, 2014
- “The Californian Ideology”, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, 1995
Hello. Welcome to our from the computer tech history podcast about alternative computing histories, social histories. Camila I don't know if we have a better explanation of what this is, but I think that's good. And I think, you know, maybe at some point we don't have to explain ourselves. Hopefully we'll get to that stage. Ana Here I run external pages and Internet art gallery and I develop websites and produce online tech courses. And Camila's here, too. Hello, Camila. Hello. How's New York and everything? Yeah, New York's good. Happy Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day to all of those who celebrate yesterday. I think when this comes out. Yeah, I don't celebrate Valentine's Day, but United States loves Valentine's Day. It's just it's everywhere. It's all about love. You United States. All about love. Even the thing that's weird to me is that it's all it's like things for your teacher. Things for, like, non romantic comics. It is platonic love. But in the container of, like this, the symbols of romantic love. So it's it's like, Dear teacher, happy Valentine's Day. But it's in like a red love heart with, like, flowers and shit. For me, I read that is very different to obviously what people here write it. Yeah, but it's also kind of boring. I just want Valentine's Day to be, like, sexy again. Just make it about sex. That's days ago. Exactly. Get these children out of here. How. How are you? How is Valentine's Day in London? Good. Yeah, I think Valentine's Day in London is, I don't know, maybe it's just me, but it feels a little non-existent in terms of its marketing. I don't really see it. I still see, like, chocolates that are Christmas themes. So what are we. What are we looking at for our second episode? What are we looking at this week? Yes. So today we'll talk about how apparently an alternative version of the Internet in the USSR was developed where a lot of fits and starts due to various competing private interests, which is a little ironic. And yeah, just to add a whole extra layer of that type of irony, this was completely distinct from that of America's state funded ARPANET, where technologists worked much more collaboratively than we would think. So OGAs means national automated system for computation and information processing, where say it again. But in Russian I can try. I know Polish for Russian, it's a whole other thing. It was a Soviet project that started in 1962 and it aimed to kind of create like a nationwide information network. And it was a three tier centralized network that communicated in real time using the existing telephone infrastructure. And it had kind of one computer center in Moscow. It had 200 mid-level centers and other major cities. And then on the peripheries of that, it had up to 20,000 local terminals in economically significant locations where they could kind of like input their data from the the like labor that they were extracting and the resources that they had. So so this was similar to cyber, right. Which was like connecting factories and sort of getting information from those factories. Yeah. To create a planned economy. Exactly. Okay. And it it's funny because it really reminds me of the same like economic structure as the horizontal autonomy that's like implemented by the Zapatista communities in Mexico, which are influenced by by like anarchist Marxism. And it's a cooperative model with kind of syndicalist aspects where the means of production are cooperatively owned by the public, and there are no supervisors or owners of the property. And similarly to the structure of Ojai, yes, there are three levels of government. So there's like the local government, which is like a group of comrades and families that all sort of like live together. And then there's the municipal government, which is actually just a network of the representatives of the local government, of the local groups. And these representatives are voted in and then they in the municipal government, they like resolve problems that could not be resolved by the villages. And then on the inside of that, in the center of that, there's like the zonal level, which is where advanced issues are resolved. I think like that's a really interesting comparison. But I do think it's important to know that like when you're looking at the Zapatistas against like the USSR, the Zapatistas are about like they're in service of renegotiating or like rebelling against power structures of the state and that their movement isn't really my understanding anyway of them is it's not really about like power, but more about community building and collectivity and sort of like reordering society to be more just with from a from a grassroots level upwards, you know, more you know more about it than I do. That was my kind of understanding. Yeah, definitely. I think I was just thinking about it a lot because of this this implementation of direct democracy through like a centralized system. I guess I was more like hinting to the, like technical structure of Ojai and the idea of it being a centralized system that maintains horizontal. It's similar to cyber Bresson rather than like the political structure of Ojai, because that is completely, completely different to horizontal ism and syndicalism and all that. I guess also in the same way with Ojai. Yes, you had everyday enterprise workers, managers and planners nationwide who could kind of communicate through a center that constituted the command economy under under the guidance of the Politburo in in the case of Ojai. Yes. Which is existed at the center and collaborated with the peripheral kind of everyday workers like farmers and factory workers and managers and all that. It almost seems like the potential of this could have been really radical for the USSR. And ideologically and technically, it was just maybe like too advanced for many politicians under the regime to accept, which for a lot of them they like served as obstacles in the development of this project. Because Ojai was eventually denied necessary funding in 1970 and it was never even tested by the public. It was founded by the Soviets. Big Math study. His name is Victor Glushko. He was like a famous mathematician and founder of i.t. And russia. And like he he founded soviet cybernetics as well, which I'll kind of get to later. But he was the main proponent of Ojai. Yes. And he set up the OGAs proposal and he essentially wanted to move the Soviet Union towards a money less economy so that Ojai would provide a system for electronic payments. Wow. Which is crazy to think of it already at that time, like four years. This in 1962. So they were thinking of structures like PayPal and and cryptocurrency all the way back in the Soviet times. But yeah, it failed primarily because of, you know, just managerial bureaucratic infighting, also widespread, unregulated competition amongst self interested institutions and bureaucrats. And the Soviet Union was really at the time in the seventies, it was kind of collapsing within the the system and also other key actors that saw it as a as excessive central control or like a threat to the Ministry of Finance. Oh, interesting. Okay. So, so so people were like, this is going to put us out of out of a job. Like if you if you if you make some money in this economy, what are we going to how are we going to be positioned within this? Yeah, it was so political when this was being built and it was definitely used as like a power tool. And obviously that was a threat to not just people's jobs but also entire departments. Yeah. And this sort of gap between like what the mathematicians or scientists want to do and then what the government or like the specific people in the government are willing are willing to do. Yeah, there's a massive gap between those two things. Unfortunately, as sometimes that happens quite often in politics. Nikolai Sutter Rinko then took the project over in 1964 and attempted to build an information network that could be used for the Soviet Union's planned economy. But it was very different to kind of Glushko initial idea, and it was successfully carried out technically on a micro level, but unfortunately it didn't spread into wide use. So is this like second version still considered Argus or is it a separate? It did actually have different names throughout the development, but they were basically just different versions of the of the project. But it was a huge achievement for Soviet cybernetics. The Soviet Union had a lot of dominant scientific ideologies that nurtured the nation's economic and political reforms throughout time. And these sciences would come into contact sometimes with cybernetics, especially after Stalin's death, because Stalin and his regime hated cybernetics. They called it American reactionary pseudoscience and he even said it was like a full embodiment of imperialist ideology. I mean, yeah, like, even though some cybernetic discourse was kind of popping up around the globe in different sort of centers, early on, it was seen as very American and even when so you can look at like USSR cybernetics, but also in France, in the UK, that for them to sort of fully accept cybernetics, they ended up kind of reframing it a little bit and making it their own and connecting it with their own, like national scientific histories. Yeah. And I think with this specific case of the Soviet Union, yeah, like cybernetics had been seen as this pseudoscience and kind of this anti United States rhetoric. But I think like after the death of Stalin, which was 1953, there there was you're right, like there was this move towards cybernetic theory that eventually became part of like more accepted Soviet scientific discourse. That was kind of, I think, also with the death of Stalin being the the kind of page turner was that there was this kind of denouncement of this like cult of personality around Stalin. And maybe like the way that cybernetics looks to create self-regulated systems sort of fitted in with this new shift in, in mindset. Yeah, it's very represented of, of like modernism as well. I think of like how that affects political ideologies, what that means for political ideologies. Like it's funny how even though, you know, cybernetics is a field that can be applied to many things and contexts, national doctrines would still find that difficult to accept. And it's almost like it's too kind of powerful and shapeshifting and scary because of the fact that it's like, so versatile, like such a versatile field of study. It's funny because I think, like, you're so right, but you can also look at it from the other side. So like with cybernetics, it is important to look at, to sort of think of it in relation to the era of its birth, which is this like post-World War two. Yeah, this desire for like self-regulated systems against a confusing world, confusing politically, socially, scientifically, with this movement towards more modern forms of science, like things like quantum physics, even stuff like game theory. And then of course, like the rise of technology and computing and so, well, like cybernetics, because cybernetics because it touches on these things can be a little scary. And it was also sort of like a bridging science, maybe like it offered a controlled way to navigate these really quickly changing fields, which is why. Yeah, I've seen it's like this umbrella term. It draws from many, many different areas. But in that way it's also kind of malleable. Malleable when it comes to defining what it really is. Yeah, for sure. And it's almost like, I don't know, I feel like it was kind of inevitable that it would be taken over or taken up by the political system because after, like I said, after Stalin's death, Khrushchev was inaugurated in 1955 and the articles on cybernetics were starting to pop up by various Soviet scientists, he said that cybernetics was imperative to Soviet science, and cybernetics really began to serve as an umbrella term for previously maligned areas of Soviet science, such as structural linguistics and genetics. And this liberalization caused also the word cybernetics to become a real buzz word among career minded scientists, which again represented the economic shift, I think, of the Soviet Union. I love thinking about the sort of these buzzwords that come out of cybernetics. I know that, like a lot of this research, particularly in English about origins, comes from the book How Not to Network a Nation, which you suggested. Benjamin Peters Yeah, yeah, it's really good. And I there was like a little bit of a discussion around these buzzwords and I'm sort of paraphrasing, but he talks about like words, like information control, feedback come from cybernetics and also the prefix cyber and the phrase in the loop. We love those. Yeah. And the idea of the cyborg as like the creature that is the human and machine, even though like cybernetics doesn't really look at look at that. But that kind of idea came out of this period of time as well. Yeah, it's it's interesting. Yeah. I mean, it also kind of fully saturated Soviet academia in the sixties as Ness came into power to become the regime's undisputed leader in 1970 and then Ogi, as the development of OGs kind of came to a halt, which is a real shame because the USSR was on a technological beat during the late fifties under Khrushchev. Not only did he enable the initialization of OGs in 62, but he also oversaw the launch of Sputnik one in October 1957 and this was like the first artificial Earth satellite. This is the first time someone had launched something, literally anything, into space. So as a huge political feat, one that really represented the Soviets to be at the forefront of technology and the satellites success was also really shocking to the US. It brought a so-called American Sputnik crisis, which is a real thing, and it triggered the space race as well, which took its part in the Cold War quite massively. And John Logsdon, a researcher of US history and its international space activities, said that, and I quote, Our movies and television programs in the fifties were full of the idea of going into space. What came as a surprise was that it was the Soviet Union that launched the first satellite. It is hard to recall the atmosphere of the time, although I imagine that there were definitely, probably feelings of hesitation around the belief of America as a superpower, perhaps defeat on a cultural level even, and in the midst of the Red Scare, there must have been uncertainty of any kind of American patriotism. And also, you know, for the Americans, the fifties were the decade of prosperity, literally. It's called the decade of prosperity. And we had the economic boom, industrialization. Society was being constructed rigidly in the domestic sphere as well. You had, like the Republican Eisenhower generation, kind of bolstering up the nuclear family. So, yeah, yeah. And like, you can see that totally with even like women's fashion, you know, there was this like the twenties and thirties, the forties of like some like women's lib movements and, and working, working jobs during the war. And then the war finishes and suddenly there's like a real shift back into these like traditional all female roles. The other clothing becomes a lot more restrictive. And literally the fifties housewife character came out of that time. Yeah. See I can imagine how it shaked up the American kind of psyche to have this this housewife and her like breadwinner husband observed this like alien satellite from the Reds UFO orbits. Kind of the stars are out outside their window across their white picket fence. I hate it when I can't say the stars or the satellites. Yeah, I know. It ruins the skyline as a response to that. The US government retaliated by throwing loads of money in technological innovation and science and research institutions, and I think it really instigated how America treats tech now, like it's just a huge political tool. Back then, the best thing for them to do was to just throw money at it, and they were desperate to get smarter. And Sputnik's launch was the beginning of a new era of political, military, technological developments that was basically just like a cause and result of the US and USSR, sort of just like constantly one upping each other. And while I was researching this, actually, I found an interesting tangent about how citizens of the two nations collaborated while their governments did not. So, like when Sputnik launched, the USSR requested amateur and professional radio operators to tape record the signal being transmitted from the satellite directions provided by the American Radio Relay League. Where to and I quote, tune in 20 mega cycles sharply by the time it signals given on that frequency, then tuned to slightly higher frequencies. The beep beep sound of the satellite can be heard each time around the globe. So the first recording of Sputnik's signal was made by RCA engineers near Riverhead, Long Island, and they then drove the tape recording into Manhattan for broadcast to the public over NBC radio. But as Sputnik rose higher over the East Coast, its signal was picked up by the ham radio station of Columbia University. So there was this, like geographical wandering of Sputnik into forbidden territories, you know, that of space. And the U.S. that I can see how scary that would be for like people in the United States that have been living within this rhetoric of this kind of anti-U.S. are. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that like you feel safe in your country and then suddenly there's like, oh, there's like a new border. There's a new border that is unprotected. And the enemy, you know, whatever is like coming into our space, space, safe space. Yeah, space is literally a gray area, a gray political area. Like who is going to colonize space? Yeah, Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, it was definitely quite astounding the fact that its record was obstructed and it was recorded by smaller American broadcasters that had the technology available and like just the deep interest to press record and worked very independently to the US government. So it's a really kind of cute, historic example of how curiosity goes beyond both borders, across countries on a lateral level and, you know, vertically as well along atmospheres in space. Yeah, I mean, it it is a really nice story and it makes me sad how much like money for Tech is so caught up in politics and competition. But in the end, we're all just like creatures on a rock looking up at the sky. I know, I know. Yeah. And at the end of the recordings, the Soviet Union also agreed to transmit on frequencies that worked with the United States existing infrastructure. So not only were Americans exposed to the success of the Soviets, like you said, but also were suddenly confronted with an opportunity to collaborate, Was there any kind of laws against being involved in it? Like, did people get in trouble for no, they didn't get in trouble. I can imagine. It was also maybe a time that individuals were quite interested in the USSR, whether that was like a positive interest or a negative interest, because the Red Scare was not just a political thing. It was also very much present amongst individuals. So I think by listening out to these Soviet objects flying unidentified objects, it was probably also incentivized by the government to just be like, you know, on the lookout maybe, I don't know. Right. Anyway, the success of Sputnik seemed to have changed minds around the world regarding a shift in power to the Soviets. For sure, it spurred the U.S. to create the advanced research projects Agency, which is very vague title, but it was called ARPA. And then later Dark. Wait, what's the date? Why did they at the day of. For the defense. The Defense Military Department. Great. Okay. Yeah, cool. Yeah. Like scary, scary mode. And then this resulted in ARPANET, which is the infant model of the Internet as we know it now. And that launched a lot later in 1969, I think October 29th, 1969. Yeah, it's sort of in the in the book how not to get recognition. He also talks about like I'm paraphrasing, I guess, but you can look at like ARPANET and Syverson all this like national network projects that do to offer in some cybernetic principles. But the difference being that like OJ S and Cyber Sin saw the nation as analogous to the human body with the with the computer network, it's like the neural network or the brain controlling communication. But with ARPANET, it was more positioning like the nation network as a disembodied brain. And this is where the idea of like socialism and network system theory comes in that like odious and cyber sin with, with those too, that the important idea was that it was like the nation and the government working, working together. But yeah, ARPANET was more just like this, like disembodied, disembodied brain. That's interesting. That's really interesting. I didn't know that because even when you code, you have usually in each HTML, you have the head and then the body. And those two things are are kind of. I never thought about that. Yeah. Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah, you're right. So you always have, like, the head in the body, but it doesn't really make sense because the body is like part of the head. But no, sorry, I think it's just part of the body. Yeah. And so it's it's quite astounding to just think that the Soviets had already thought of the idea of technological communication between servers as well, like even the technological aspect of how the system worked is very reminiscent of ARPANET Internet, because OGI has literally used a wide area packet switching network to maintain distributed control and use computers as well for the first time, not just screens and terminals like with previous cyber video tech projects in Europe. How much did they know about each other? They didn't have a lot of communication with Europe and the West. And also cybernetics theory was, like I said, very much dismissed. So they didn't have theoretical collaborators from the West, like in opposition to what happened with Cyprus and in Chile and suffered beer. I guess it's also it was very early. Yeah. Like orgies and you know Sebastian was early seventies so by the time that they were sort of coming out with that system, that network model and even stuff at beer like stuff at the was very established by that point and he was a like a management cybernetics so something like, you know, like it was very like a specific strain of cyber cybernetics. I also just think it's important to note that also the historic failure of OJ. Yes. Could have really been avoidable and should have not been symptomatic of the regime's original ideology, which was communism, because it's a story of the kind of life, work and struggles between often genius cybernetics scientists and administrators and the institutional settings that they were tasked with this enormous project. So like you mentioned earlier with the book, How Not to Network A Nation The Uneasy History of Soviet Internet. Benjamin Peters proposes that, quote, The primary reason that the Soviets struggled to network their nation rests on the institutional conditions supporting the scientific knowledge base and the command economy. Those conditions, once examined, challenge conventional assumptions about the institutions that build open, flat and collaborative networks and thereby help recover the Cold War. Origins of the information Society. It is a mistake as the standard interpretation among technologists and some scholars have it to project Cold War biases onto this history. Our networked president is the result of neither free market triumphs nor socialist state failures. Right? So it's not really about this kind of attack against them or them against them story. These tech histories kind of while influenced by what was going on, I mean, particularly with ARPANET, sort of sprouted up on their own, all of these different tech histories that kind of come up around the world are all sort of like part of our understanding of networks and how they relate to society in the present. It's not like, Oh, it was just ARPANET, and that brought us to where we are now. It's a global thing and sort of like a mid-century sort of search for, well, to use cybernetics to have communication and control. Yeah, but then I guess ARPANET sort of took over. But Benjamin Peters continues to say that the American ARPANET initially took shape thanks to well managed states subsidies and collaborative research environments. While the comparable Soviet network projects stumbled due to internal competition and managerial shifting for self-interest and power. As mentioned earlier, he says then that the first global civilian computer networks developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. So yeah, again, the kind of lesson learned is that that ARPANET wouldn't have worked without kind of like a socialist structure, which is essentially what they were executing. But they didn't really know that they were. Because at the end of this summary, he goes on to say his most famous quote, The capitalists behave like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists. It's a good quote. I can see why it's famous. Yeah, that's a good one. Something that's interesting is that I'll wrap up with this idea of civilian computer networks and the like. Is that how we view success in the computer network? I suppose it's a comparison to the internet, right? Like that. The we're so used to the Internet, the World Wide Web, because, you know, it's become so influential to the world because we all use it. It's a civilian. I mean, you know, civilian computer network. It's not it's not like defense, It's not ministry. It's not running the planned economy. Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. I wonder if if OJ's had managed to kind of at least do trials or begin being accessible by the general public, if that would have changed. Change some things. Yeah. I wonder too. I mean, O.J. eventually came to a halt also because the Soviet Union was collapsing. Schatz never really toppled the system. Khrushchev was the last kind of leader that truly believed in the Soviet Union and it just didn't, including the kind of people around him and the political party. But I think what Peter's argument also is really important here, because he says that this behavior of this internal like mismanagement eventually contaminated the entire political system and represented the downfall of the Soviet Union. So OSI as failing was both kind of like a foreshadowing and a symptom of this, which again, I think is really interesting and like a lesson to learn when it comes to how technology can represent underlying political problems or agendas. Peters supports his analysis by displaying it in contrast to the development ARPANET, which was not only well financed by the government, but also encouraged teams working together. And it was also like subsidized its use in a few cases. Right? So it's like it's not like, you know, the lack of a Soviet Internet or like a large scale computer successful computer network. Wasn't this like lack of technological knowledge or skill? It wasn't like, oh, the U.S. is just like more intelligent. It's about kind of the systems around them. And I mean, there was this idea that like, yes, it was well funded by the government. Yes, it encouraged teams working together. But like the reasoning behind it was so that they could like strive to go to this technological, technological advancement. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, all of these things are in store, right? All these things are like in service of technological advancement in a like a contentious world. Yeah. At a very specific agenda behind it for sure. I once read this book by Ed Catmull, who is the founder of Pixar, who document to the US post Sputnik tech initiatives that led him to obtain a scholarship from like an endowment that put all sorts of scientists in one room and simply observed and supported. What would come out of it? Was this like a like a creative think tank sort of guide? Yeah, it was like a think tank. They definitely didn't have the vocabulary for what it was at the time, but it was basically like research institutions that were funded by ARPA and they have studios. Part of it was that it was massively funded by the ARPA program, and Catmull said that the studio culture in these research institutions so strong that he could easily namedrop his peers where he, for example, work next to the guy who invented the PDF file, who was also then working together with like the founder of Photoshop. These are the people that I should talk to about why it's so hard to save a file as a PDF and Photoshop yeah, I think you should. I think you should call them up. Excuse me. I thought you were friends. Why are you making my life harder? And it also kind of massively explains how like a lot of these tech programs that were invented at that time are really entangled in its engineering. So definitely, like the reason why you're probably getting some like planned obsolescence with one app is because it's like technically tangled up with like another app that also needs updating or something like that. But yeah, with kind of all of this like inspiration going on around him, Catmull later went on to invent the computational z-axis, so he discovered how to like, visualize 3D space with a computer. I think he did that by like charting out his hand, like putting dots on his hand and then putting these coordinates into a database on a on a software. But it's crazy because that means that like from then on, computers weren't just constrained to seeing things on an X and Y plane, but also on said access space, which obviously can influence like game development and virtual reality and all these things. Pixar, massive industry. It's the Internet, which is the Internet that we know now was born from quotation capitalists that were actually just socialists, but they didn't even really know. It sounds like a really big thing, but reading The Californian Ideology by Richard Bradbrook and Andy Cameron and I read a quote in there, which was Americans have always had state planning, only they call it the defense budget. So it's literally just like the history of the Internet, really contradicts the beliefs of like free market ideologies, that it flourishes from natural competition and awesome Darwinian essentialist views of survival of the fittest. Because like for the first 20 years, ARPANET development was completely or almost completely dependent on the American federal government, which was either through US military or universities that essentially, like taxpayers money, went into building the net infrastructure. And yeah, much of its software and applications were invented by hobbyists or professionals working in their spare time. So it's funny to think how like streaks of that were already seen in the American hobbyist enthusiasm in the recording of Sputnik, which is only a decade before the the things like Homebrew computer clubs and video collectives and community radio stations were saying and these these things then led to the rising of the virtual class of the West Coast in the seventies. And that is then essentially like what built Silicon Valley. So yeah, there's kind of these remnants of that. Yeah, there is this sort of beautiful link between these, between all these histories that that lead us to kind of where we are now. I mean like, do I blame Otis for Tesla? No, but I mean, you know, he could very well be anyway. So thanks everyone for listening. I think we can end it here. Right. What are we talking about next? We have two episodes about the French Minutes Network, and I am so excited about it. I really like that one. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, it all marks our movement into a few episodes looking at video networks. So. Yeah, get it. Get ready for that one. Cool. Well, thanks, Camila. Thanks. An ugly day in New York. Thanks to everyone for tuning in. Happy Valentine's Day. Every day. Bye bye.