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

(Ben Green) #1

From Network to Patchwork 91

although this or any other “first” claim ignores the complex interdepen-
dencies of institutions and individuals that create any major technologi-
cal project. The rush to make “first” claims usually is seen in histories of
technological invention (especially histories written by retired professional
technologists) to enhance biographical hagiography and ignore claims
made elsewhere. It also can be difficult at the edge of any innovation to
distinguish between a slight improvement to an old technology and an
altogether new technological invention. Kitov’s EASU, like most of the pro-
posals examined here, assembled a network out of preexisting and new
telegraphy, telephone, radio, and radar networks. Rather than thinking of
them as computer networks, EASU was framed more as telephone networks
with computers. Simultaneously, the Soviet military, including computer
network designer Nikolai Matiukhin, knew of and sought to imitate the
automated air defense radar network that went operational in the United
States in 1958, although little about the classified SAGE project or its classi-
fied Soviet equivalent filtered into civilian science.^29
Thoughts about ambitious civilian networks were percolating elsewhere
as well. Just months after Kitov’s second letter, the American psychologist
J.C.R. Licklider’s 1960 essay “Man-Computer Symbiosis” featured a vision
of the potential social and civilian benefits of computers, although (with
one footnoted exception) his essay restricts itself to local human-computer
intersections. In that footnote, he “envision[s], for a time 10 or 15 years
hence, a ‘thinking center’ that will incorporate the functions of present-day
libraries.” From here, “the picture readily enlarges itself into a network of
such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines
and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system,” Licklider
concludes, “the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of
the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided
by the number of users.”^30 In 1963, Licklider scaled up his vision of that
network as a library with an internal memo that was titled (half in jest)
“Memorandum for Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer
Network” and that sketched out the system that became the ARPANET—the
technical predecessor to the Internet.
Despite their historical concurrence, all available evidence signposts that
the early Soviet economic networks and the ARPANET developed indepen-
dently of one another. When the ARPANET went online in 1969, it took
the Soviet state by surprise. I have encountered no evidence to imply that
Kitov or others knew about Western computer network developments other
than the SAGE project. Nor have I found evidence that the American secret

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