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

(Ben Green) #1

26 Chapter 1

returned to lecture at Collège de France. Between 1947 and 1952, a flurry
of press coverage and public controversy sprung up between two camps of
anticybernetic communists and anticommunist cyberneticists.^32 (Jacques
Lacan, who served in the French army, may very well have been among the
anticommunists and early cyberneticists at the time.) These debates over
the future of the governance of the French state were fueled by a slow and
painful postwar recovery, with widespread poverty aiding popular com-
munist and pro-Soviet sentiment. However, after Paul Ramadier’s socialist
party voted to accept the American Marshall Plan during the international
Paris meeting in 1947, anticybernetic communists slowly fell out of public
favor and with it, the debate about cybernetics. Similar to the initial Soviet
rejection of cybernetics, the initial public reaction to cybernetics appears
less about its science than about its status as an American import.^33
At the same time, the public and implicitly pro-American defense of
cybernetics in the French press also helped reclaim this foreign science
as the heir to a distinctly French intellectual tradition that included the
rational mind-body concerns of René Descartes’ and Denis Diderot’s ratio-
nal encyclopedia, the physicist André-Marie Ampère’s coining of the term
cybernétique as a political science of peaceful governance in 1834, and the
structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure. Although I currently know of
no obvious direct connection between French cybernetics and the Minitel
network that developed between 1980 and 1989, the situation nonetheless
points to a generative and transnational intellectual exchange about the
scientific self-governance of a nation. As recent interpreters have argued,
many leading lights of postmodern French theory trace some of their basic
insights to French postwar cybernetic sciences. These include Claude Lévi-
Strauss’s treatment of language as a technologically ordered series (after
meeting with Macy Conference attendee Roman Jakobson in Paris in 1950);
Jacques Lacan’s turning to mathematical concepts; Roland Barthes’s turn to
schematic accounts of communication; Gilles Deleuze’s abandonment of
meaning, with Claude Shannon’s information theory in hand; Felix Guat-
tari’s, Michel Foucault’s, and other French theorists’ experimentation with
terms such as encoding, decoding, information, and communication.^34 Post-
modern French theory owes a deep debt to postwar information theory
and the cybernetic sciences.
In England, cybernetics took on a different character in the form of the
Ratio Club, a small but potent gathering of British cybernetic figures who
gathered regularly in the basement of the National Hospital for Nervous
Diseases in London from 1949 through 1955. Notable figures include the

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