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

(Ben Green) #1

I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking
about computers.
—John von Neumann, 1946

Cybernetics nursed early national computer network projects on both sides
of the cold war. Cybernetics was a postwar systems science concerned with
communication and control—and although its significance has been well
documented in the history of science and technology, its implications as a
carrier of early ideas about and language for computational communica-
tion have been largely neglected by communication and media scholars.^1
This chapter discusses how cybernetics became global early in the cold war,
coalescing first in postwar America before diffusing to other parts of the
world, especially Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, as well as how
Soviet cybernetics shaped the scientific regime for governing economics
that eventually led to the nationwide network projects imagined in the late
1950s and early 1960s.
The term cybernetics evades easy definition. Today there are still more
self-identified cyberneticists in the world than available definitions of the
field, although the first tally is dropping as the second tally creeps slowly
upward. In the English-speaking information science research environ-
ment, cybernetics failed to cohere as an institutionalized field, a fact that
partially explains the inability of specialists to agree on a definition for the
field. And yet the definitions are no easier in the territories of the former
Soviet Union, where cybernetics did take root and still enjoys institutional
recognition fifty years later. To this day, the definition puzzle holds: the
postwar science remains a rich subject for critical inquiry precisely because
it has escaped a clear-cut characterization.

A Global History of Cybernetics

Chapter 1

1 A Global History of Cybernetics

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