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

(Ben Green) #1

114 Chapter 4

The associated costs and scale of such a supercharged system were
accordingly colossal. Glushkov captured the sentiment of network effects,
which is still alive in surveillance capitalism’s promotion of big data today,
in this phrase: “world practice shows that the larger the object for which
an information-management system is created, the greater its economic
effect.”^8 More than komchamstvo, or Lenin’s term for “Communist boast-
ing,” the basic OGAS blueprint affirms its staggering magnitude. In its ini-
tial proposals, the OGAS Project estimated that it would take over thirty
years to be fully online, that it would need a labor transfer of some 300,000
personnel, that costs would be upward of 20 billion rubles for the first fif-
teen years, and that tens of thousands of computing center and interactive
access points would be distributed across the Soviet population.
All this would prove net efficient, promised Glushkov. The 300,000
knowledge workers would constitute an enormous labor transfer, as well as
a net reduction in the ever-rising number of people who were employed in
economic planning. The 20 billion rubles would be distributed over three
five-year plans, with the first requiring a seemingly modest 5 billion rubles.
Acutely aware of the advantages of the well-regulated financial management
that was enjoyed by the successful military nuclear and space programs,
Glushkov insisted to Prime Minister Kosygin that, if the OGAS were to be
developed, this civilian program would require a similarly well-managed
funding stream, even though it would prove more complicated and expen-
sive than both military programs combined. For his distinctly decentralized
civilian economic communication infrastructure project, Glushkov sought
fully centralized military-style financial funding. Only with well-managed
funding could this civilian project pay for itself, which it promised to do
handsomely, returning fivefold on the first fifteen-year investment, or “no
less than 100 billion rubles” (roughly $850 billion in 2016 U.S. dollars), and
even this estimated windfall in savings “was a conservative figure.”
Cost, in other words, is the simplest reason that the OGAS Project never
developed as proposed. A networked command economy, as economist crit-
ics noted, would simply prove uneconomical. No such sum of funding was
granted, and the projected costs soared slowly upward until, according to
varying estimates, the OGAS, if built in the late Soviet Union, would cost
the staggering sum of 160 billion rubles (or $1.4 trillion in 2016 dollars, or
roughly the U.S. deficit in 2009).^9 Still, costs are never black or white. The
OGAS Project imagined a series of adjunct projects with less painful price tags.
As early as 1963, the EGSVT technical network proposed a far more afford-
able fraction of this vision—one center in Moscow, twenty to thirty regional
computing centers, and unspecified local computing “access points.”

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