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

(Ben Green) #1

174 Chapter 5

hierarchy—and not, say, a fully distributed design or even an unevenly
decentralized or heterarchical model—was a matter of reading the writing
already on the wall: Nemchinov and Fedorenko decided to “build the coun-
try’s unified net hierarchically—just as the economy was planned in those
days.”^32 (The institutional histories of CEMI and the Institute of Cybernet-
ics conspicuously leave out the names of Glushkov and Fedorenko, respec-
tively, although evidence of the early alliance abounds in personal memoirs
and interviews.) Justified by a grand cybernetic analogy between the formal
design of the command economy and the formal design of the computer
network, Stavchikov reasons, any other network design would have been
politically unviable in a formally hierarchical command economy. The
network visionaries had no choice but to design a computer network that
matched a system that did not exist except, like the networks, on paper free
from the informal competitive practices of administrative-economic reality.
Design logics can be compelling—too compelling at times. The cyber-
netic analog between hierarchical economy and network also fit the politi-
cal values of the period. Fedorenko and Glushkov felt they had no other
choice: they had to align their technical national architecture with the
political system architecture. They also appear to have wanted to do so.
All evidence suggests that these leading cyberneticist entrepreneurs were
committed believers and practicing promoters of the official socialist ratio-
nales of the command economy, which also made them reformist critics
of the irrational status quo. For these network entrepreneurs—Fedorenko,
Glushkov, Kharkevich, and Kitov—the heterarchical competition at every
administrative level was the signal problem that was in need of a sociotech-
nical fix. According to CEMI Secretary Stavchikov, “In this, [Nemchinov
and Fedorenko] planned to use extant economic-mathematical methods,
allowing [them] to guarantee mutual conformity, the very best interdepen-
dence of the numerous units of the hierarchy downward and horizontally—
between the units of one level, as well as to develop new units.”^33 In other
words, according to Stavchikov, these economic cyberneticists decided to
model the structure of the network after the structure of the socialist econ-
omy, in essence invoking the well-established trope of cybernetic thought
that technical systems share common information structures with social
systems—including mind-computer, body-machine, and society-media sys-
tems. The hierarchical form came as cybernetic analogic impulses such that
the decentralized network proposal was designed, according to Stavchikov,
to “guarantee mutual conformity” and “interdependence” between the
formal Soviet economic hierarchy and its technical network.^34 The cyber-
netic instinct to design the OGAS after a nervous system for the national

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