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

(Ben Green) #1

186 Chapter 5

thought about it.”^59 The Party leadership had many more pressing worries
to consider, including the high capital investment that would be required
if the economy were to be reformed by networked computers amid a ris-
ing stream of affordable personal computers from the West. The OGAS had
long appeared a prohibitively expensive “hero project,” but now even the
more modest EGSVTs network could be built out by individual citizens who
were working on Western computers. In a sense, that is what happened:
large state network projects were abandoned, and in the late 1980s, a few
Soviet citizens joined in purchasing and connecting personal computers
to globalizing communication networks. By 1989, private Soviet citizens
began logging onto early Internet chatrooms, by which time the OGAS
Project, like the Soviet state, was slipping into history.
In summary, the OGAS Project was shipwrecked on the capricious
unregulated conflicts of self-interest that occupied the civilian knowl-
edge base (including but not limited to the economic bureaucracy) of the
Soviet system. It fell prey to the conflicts of interest that it sought to set
aside with automated networks. The sources of those conflicts arose from
the yawning disconnect between the formal plan for the civilian sector,
which was clearly hierarchical, and the massive gray economy of informal
exchange and personal favors. Each layer of the command economy—the
national, regional, and factory planners and managers—benefited from a
slack and informal freedom that allowed them to solve problems outside
of the plan’s commands. By rationalizing, making explicit, and automating
those resources, Glushkov’s vision directly opposed the informal economy
of mutual favors that oiled the corroded gears of Soviet production. In the
end, the OGAS Project fell short because, by committing to rationalize and
reform the heterarchical mess that was the command economy in practice,
it promised to encourage the rational resolution of informal conflicts of
interest—which worked against the instinct to preserve the personal power
of almost every actor that it sought to network.


The portrait of the final chapter of the OGAS Project that is presented here
fills out and begins to complicate the conceit with which this book began—
that global computer networks arose from collaborative capitalists, not
competing socialists (or in light of the OGAS Project, not from the unregu-
lated conflicts of self-interested socialist institutions). This surely is no plain
victory for any political order, nor is it only a plea for virtuously regulated
market-state interactions. Self-interest has been a recognized engine of

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