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

(Ben Green) #1

92 Chapter 3

intelligence community knew about Soviet cybernetic developments before
1964, when Soviet specialists at the CIA began wringing their hands about
Soviet cyberneticists working on a nonmilitary “unified information net.”^31
Although subsequent Soviets would first pioneer socially ambitious nation-
wide network projects, the front of Soviet network projects, like the science
of cybernetics that underwrote it, proved anything but unified.
Other forms of international influence did lead to networks elsewhere.
In October 1957, for example, Soviet authorities set into motion events that
led to the ARPANET. Soviet rocket scientists used a missile to launch the first
manmade object into terrestrial orbit—Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite.
At the height of the cold war space race, Sputnik came after a number of wor-
rying developments. In November 1955, the Soviets air-dropped their first
thermonuclear nuclear bomb, during a time of tension when many Ameri-
can military strategists believed, probably incorrectly, that the Soviet fleet
of long-range bombers could reach American targets. The “bomber gap”
crisis in the mid-1950s, which was unfounded but drove defense spending,
launched that gap into orbital space. With Sputnik in orbit, the natural next
step was as obvious as it was terrifying: if a warhead were placed atop such
satellites, the world could be destroyed in a matter of minutes.
In February 1958, five months after the Sputnik crisis, the United States
Defense Department created the Advanced Research Projects Agency
(ARPA). This new government agency was charged with investing in and
advancing the frontiers of technology research beyond the immediate
needs of the military, especially in the spheres of space, ballistic missile
defense, and nuclear test detection. ARPA did not stay focused on milita-
rizing space for long, however. Two years after its creation, ARPA ceded its
space research jurisdiction to the distinctly civilian mission of the National
Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), which also was founded in 1958.
ARPA research then turned toward supporting basic, high-risk, and long-
term military research in information processing and computer systems for
tracking nuclear threats in the age of Sputnik.^32
The focus on basic computer research questions made ARPA an opti-
mal site—under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, a para-
gon example of a command-and-control hierarchy—for open-ended
basic research. Early computer innovations advanced by ARPA researchers
include distributed networking, time sharing, and packet-switching tech-
nologies (noted below). In 1965, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson
called for “creative centers of excellence” to advance basic research among
universities, the Department of Defense recommended using the ARPANET
to connect preexisting, government-supported computer research sites

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