The seeds of this book were first planted as I stood on the left bank of
the Volga River in Balakovo, Russia, one evening in the spring of 2001.
Balakovo, where I was living for several months doing volunteer service,
was a pleasant city of roughly 200,000 people who were struggling through
the economic depression that was sweeping Russia’s rust belt. As I reflected
on my picturesque surroundings—green trees, rolling hills, and the setting
sun’s reflections on the river—I sensed that something was out of place.
The peculiar features that were visible on the horizon, backlit by the sunset,
belonged to the Saratov hydroelectric dam, one of the world’s hundred larg-
est dams by output and stretching over 1,200 meters in length to form the
enormous Saratov reservoir. The city of Balakovo also is home to a thermal
heat power plant and a nuclear power plant with four working nuclear reac-
tors (the construction of two other nuclear plants was suspended in 1992).
If local rumors were to be believed, Balakovo once boasted secret Soviet
military factories, one of which produced a material for the cosmonautic
industries that was so tough that napalm balled up and rolled off it. This
peculiar pairing of natural scenery and outsized industrial infrastructure
struck me on the riverbank that evening. What force of imagination and
statecraft, I puzzled, could have decided to graft such hulking industry onto
such a remote city—and why would it do so? Thus began my interest in the
outsized infrastructural imagination of Soviet planners.
Six years later, in 2007, those seeds sprouted into the question driving
this book. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I wanted to learn
more about the international sources of the information age, a topic that
first crystallized for me in Fred Turner’s graduate seminar on “Computers,
Information Ideology and American Culture since World War II” at Stan-
ford University in 2005. If, to gloss Whitehead, all philosophy begins as a