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

(Ben Green) #1

178 Chapter 5

The Pioneer Project and the OGAS Project shared more than a common
organizational framework and set of state-of-the-art computers. At core,
they shared a commitment to organize the real-time management of scarce
computational and economic resources. In the early 1980s, Botvinnik tried
to salvage the national economy with another proposal that he sent to
Party leaders. It contended that the Soviet economy should be regulated
by a software program that, like his Pioneer chess algorithm, would take a
generalizable approach to reasoned decision making. Botvinnik thus stands
out as the last of major Soviet figures (with Kitov, Kovalev, Fedorenko, and
Glushkov) to propose using computer software to salvage the command
economy. Available records do not speak to his proposal’s reception, except
that it was rejected at the highest levels. By the mid-1980s, Gorbachev’s
reforms had already sufficiently introduced market elements into the for-
mal command economy to render impossible any future systematic man-
agement of the economy. In the early 1990s, shaken by the collapse of the
Soviet Union and years from death, Botvinnik reached out one last time
with strategic advice for Yeltsin’s government but to no avail.^42
There is a truism in the history of science that science serves many spe-
cific social purposes but basic research need not begin with any single goal
in mind. Biologists, for example, run test on fruit flies—or Drosophila—not
because they are particularly devoted to improving the life of fruit flies;
they do so because fruit flies are convenient test subjects that reproduce
quickly and cheaply. Computer chess has been called “the drosophila of
artificial intelligence” (Alexander Kronrod’s phrase, popularized by Ameri-
can computer scientist John McCarthy) because it is thought to stand in
as an affordable test case for larger strategic programming projects, which
include both artificial intelligence as well as planning the Soviet com-
mand economy.^43 Kronrod, himself a distinguished Soviet mathematician
and computer scientist, also collaborated with Kantorovich on the com-
puter planning of the economy and with Botvinnik on the algorithm that
defeated the Kotok-McCarthy American chess program in 1966 and 1967.^44
The unexpected joy of computer programming lay in finding new applica-
tions for old techniques, which in many ways was the same allure that
fascinated general-purpose computer programmers since Turing. Although
OGAS, EGSVTs, ESS, ESAU, and even Botvinnik’s Pioneer Project “failed” on
their own terms, they also should be remembered for their contributions to
ongoing macrolevel experiments in rational planning, administration, and
policy making in a world of global information networks.
As these cases suggest, the consequences of the current networked infor-
mation revolution cannot be easily anticipated. The chess community has

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