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

(Ben Green) #1

Staging the OGAS, 1962 to 1969 113

dossiers on foreign scientists, engineers, executives, and companies in the
OGAS nationally networked database. (From 1963 to 1968, the associated
Department of Scientific Institutions gathered about 75,000 such dossiers.)
The proposal’s other ambitions went far beyond that of simply sluicing eco-
nomic planning information. In 1971, the deputy editor of Pravda, Viktor
Afanasyev, for example, reasoned that OGAS “can be used—and should be
used—for gathering, processing, and analyzing information on sociopoliti-
cal and ideological processes as well, for the purpose of optimal manage-
ment [of society].”^6
As a near synthesis of optimal management and total surveillance, the
OGAS is a full articulation of the wider political-economic imagination
of the Soviet Union as not just a single unified society and set of nations
but as a unified corporation with a socialist mission statement. The OGAS
appeared to its founders as the information technology upgrade that the
Soviet Union had long needed to be able to function as the corporation it
had already long imagined its command economy to be—a single and com-
plex organization that featured decentralized means of control and com-
munication for circulating the informatics lifeblood of a socialist economy.
Because socialism openly recognized economic activity as more than merely
computational, the network that would best facilitate its fitness would also
control and communicate associated political and social concerns as well.
The OGAS Project of course was no ARPANET. It sought much more than
data transfer and communication among scientists. From the outset, the
OGAS Project sought to bring the economic bureaucracy online by mak-
ing all relevant government documents electronic, allowing a decentralized
remote access to all economic workers, and allowing decentralized access
for controlling and optimizing the information in those documents. The
decentralized design of the network project is worth stressing. Although
still hierarchical, acquiescent to Moscow as the center, and state-led, the
longest-lasting Soviet network proposal was (unlike the full central control
in Kitov’s EASU and the radial design of Kharkevich’s ESS) openly worker-
oriented, antibureaucratic, and decentralizing in principle. This gives the
OGAS Project and its team more credit than many commentators and critics
have given it. Both international and internal critics, including the British
organizational cyberneticist Stafford Beer, were critical of Soviet manage-
ment techniques.^7 More than a network, the OGAS Project as formulated
by Glushkov outlines a daring technocratic economic imagining that was
meant to operate in a future Soviet information society by digitizing, super-
vising, and optimizing the coordination challenges besetting the national
command economy.

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