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

(Ben Green) #1

168 Chapter 5

enterprise costs on average about 800 thousand rubles (or roughly just over
$1 million U.S. in the 1970s or over $4 million U.S. in 2016), ASUs were
introduced slowly and steadily in the late Soviet Union. According to one
account, as few as twenty-nine ASUs were introduced between 1971 and
1975, thirty-two between 1976 and 1980, and thirty-four between 1981
and 1985. Another report holds that from 1971 to 1975, the number of
ASUs grew almost sevenfold, although, even if the OGAS Project were sud-
denly approved, they could not easily be unified.^14 Other accounts mention
even higher numbers, including one that claims that between 1966 and
1984, approximately 6,900 ASUs of different configurations were estab-
lished throughout the USSR.^15 This vast discrepancy underscores the point
that whatever systems were developed under a sweeping state mandate to
advance information technology throughout the country, they were done
so without the benefit of any organized coordination from the state. The
lack of coordination hurt the effectiveness of the OGAS Project. Official
statistics determined that the computer technology that was in place ful-
filled no more than a sixth of its projected capacity in the affairs of local
economic management.^16 The introduction of more computing processing
power in the form of third-generation computers adopted from abroad sig-
nificantly altered these modest growth trends in the managing of the com-
mand economy. The effort to network local enterprises and factories was
met with resistance from workers and managers. There was brooding fac-
tory floor–level discontent with the local factory computer control install-
ments, which were the local nodes that someday might be connected to
form the EGSVTs and OGAS.^17 The workers did not feel empowered by their
access to the circuitry of the state’s master plan because the master plan
exercised managerial oversight over only local factories. As in early comput-
ing industries elsewhere, the simultaneous development of different core
computer systems in different systems led to protracted interoperability
problems and technical delays.
The state secrecy that characterized the OGAS Project from 1959 to 1977
facilitated a kind of boundless technocratic imagination about the possibili-
ties of networked computing that was not tempered by the humbling reve-
lations of practical experience. Although the early developmental period of
the OGAS saw profound accomplishments (including the launching of sat-
ellites and astronauts in space, the harnessing of the atom, and the advance
of problem-solving machines), when those technological innovations were
applied to everyday routine operations and tasks (such as sending and
receiving economic information across the command economy and devel-
oping automated programs for deciding what to do with that information),

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