How Not to Network a Nation. The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

(Ben Green) #1

104 Chapter 3

ever further, networking all technical signals into a network resembling the
pyramidal state while staying silent about any social ambitions. Yet these
early proposals fell prey to strategic veto points in the state administra-
tion that depended not on bureaucratic rules but on charismatic leader-
ship and personal power. The technical open-endedness of Kharkevich’s
ESS probably most closely resembles that of the ARPANET, although the
ARPANET began with the modest goal of scientific data exchange and the
ESS, like the others, began with an ambitious blueprint for an entire digital
nation. Unsurprisingly, the more ideologically charged economic networks
faced more ideological opposition, and the fate of the ESS points to the
charismatic actor-dependent institutional disorder that governed the Soviet
knowledge base.
Perhaps the signal lesson to take from these early Soviet network propos-
als is that there is no inherent connection between the designs of techno-
logical and political systems. Many digital theorists in liberal democracies
have imagined the effects of technology in the terms of their local political
systems, claiming that digital technologies must be deliberative, direct, and
participatory—similar to that of contemporary democracy discourse. So,
too, did these Soviet cybernetic theorists imagine that a nationwide com-
puter network would “naturally” map onto the design biases and design
logics of the formally top-down centralized administrative hierarchy of the
Soviet state. Both visions are theoretically imaginative because they neglect
actual political practices and their significant costs and consequences.
These network proposals ignored the informal, nonhierarchical functions
of the Soviet state and society, just as modern democracies involve far more
than just the representation of individual voices celebrated by many digital
media theorists. Centralizing computer networks and centralized socialist
states have as little to do with one another as the digital does with democ-
racy. Both propose imaginatively rich associations about what could be,
promising no less than some pseudo-automatic or pseudo-democratic form
of self-determination, but do little to affect careful or accurate assessments
of how politics actually works on the ground.^60
These waves of cybernetic imagination about the fit between computer
network and formal state and social structure repeatedly broke against the
rocks of widespread practice that countered the official Soviet imagination
of itself. Paul Baran struggled to secure institutional support from American
corporations and a state that refused to recognize the value of what became
the key network innovations of his age. So, too, in Moscow, Kitov had to
abort the EASU due to his unsuccessful attempt to bridge the abyss that
separated military and civilian research, Kharkevich’s ESS collapsed with

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