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

(Ben Green) #1

16 Chapter 1

Since the mid-1940s, cybernetics’ themes of communication and control
in computational biological, social, and symbolic systems have inspired
and bedeviled researchers across the natural sciences, social sciences, and
humanities. Accounts have identified cybernetics as a science of commu-
nication and control, a universal science, an umbrella discipline, a Mani-
chean science, and a scientific farce founded on sloppy analogies between
computers and human organisms.^2 Against its interdisciplinary backdrop of
a computer-compatible formulation of communication, scores of scientists,
philosophers, and policy makers advanced the midcentury computer as a
tool for modeling systems and specifically for the regulation of information
flows and behavior in the animal, the machine, and society. In addition
to computer modeling, it gathered together preexisting concepts such as
feedback loops in control systems, cooperative human-machine relations,
and some foundations for the network design of digital computing. In the
information sciences, it formalized midcentury mind-machine analogies
that continue to animate some corners of contemporary artificial intelli-
gence research. In the hands of polymaths such as Norbert Wiener, Warren
McCulloch, and Donald MacKay, the technical and technocratic insights
into a summary set of cybernetic sciences—operations research, systems
theory, game theory, and information theory—presented themselves with
seemingly cosmological force, delivering balance to a postwar world riven
by rage.
Modern computing talk owes a fair amount to these cybernetic sciences
as well. A visible contribution of cybernetics may be its consolidation and
popularization of a robust vocabulary for computing, including words such
as information, control, and feedback. In modern parlance, cybernetics also
gave currency to the widely used and now slightly pejorative prefix cyber
(-bully, -café, -crime, -dating, -fraud, -law, -punk, -security, -sex, -space, -ter-
rorism, -warfare) as well as the phrase “in the loop.” In popular culture,
cybernetics also helped breathe life into the scientific fictional imagina-
tion of the cyborg—or cybernetic organism—as an ensemble of human and
machinic parts, even though in practice formal cybernetics research rarely
dealt with cyborg research.^3
For the purposes of this project, cybernetics sets the scene and props up
the intellectual scaffolding that is helpful for understanding the promises
and problems of cold war computing initiatives and sciences, including
the U.S. ARPANET, the Soviet OGAS, and OGAS’s sibling network projects.
In this chapter, I trace a brief global history of cybernetics, including its
sources and consolidation in postwar America, its spread to other cold
war climes and countries, and its adoption in post-Stalinist Soviet science.

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