A Book Review for Benjamin Peters’ How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, The MITPress, 2016

“At the philosophical scale, the abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet is not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. We do not seem to be able to exist within the shifting grey zone revealed to us by our increasingly ubiquitous information technologies, and instead resort to desperate modification strategies, bombarding it from the air with images and opinions in order to disperse and clarify it. It’s not working.” -James Bridle [1]

In Benjamin Peters’ “How not to Network a Nation” we learn that the USSR had the engineers with the technical knowhow and capacity to construct national computer networks of scale. Indeed, the Soviet military had such a network already in the 60s, but the question Peters wants to ask is why the USSR did not develop a ‘civilian’ computer network akin to the Internet we know and love today. The USSR did not develop a ‘civilian computer network’ because there was officially no part of the society which was independent of the state. Also, by the time anything approximating what we call the Internet began to emerge in the US, the USSR was already deep in decline. Thus, Peters’ question is moot and he only finds what is obvious from the beginning: that the social system of the USSR was incompatible with the liberal information-sphere of the capitalist West.

The book, though, should be praised for opening up and translating to English various documents, not yet available, which describe the work of early Soviet cyberneticists, and for mapping the institutional vicissitudes of the USSR at the time. We learn, for instance, about the brilliant cyberneticists Anatoly Kitov and Viktor Glushkov and their travails attempting to gather institutional support for a national civilian computer network in the USSR. Glushkov’s atrophied OGAS project forms the central narrative of the book, a project for an Inter-network of computers proposed years before Vint Cerf coined the term Internet in 1972. However, rather than appreciating the precocious cybernetic accomplishments of early Soviet theory, Peters blandly uses the “failure” of the OGAS to argue that the USSR was too perversely corrupt and bureaucratic to let progress take its course.

“Because the OGAS threatened to reorganize the social and economic spheres of life into the kind of national planned system that the command economy imagined itself to be in principle, it threatened the very practice of Soviet economic life: in [Eric P.] Hoffman’s analysis, “creates more choice and accountability and threatens firmly established formal and informal bases of power throughout the entrenched bureaucracies” [2]

Interdisciplinary historical studies of the academic, philosophical life of the USSR in English are sorely needed. Peters is sadly not sufficiently technically competent to give the reader any substantial insight into the structural concepts or proposals of the early USSR cyberneticists. It is certainly not clear from the information in the book whether any of the proposals would have produced anything akin to the Internet. In order to compensate for inadequate knowledge of political economy Peters sadly defaults to half-hearted liberal reproaches.

“Glushkov’s vision directly opposed the informal economy of mutual favours 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.”[3]

For readers interested in how the various prototype networks in the USSR (the OGAS, ESS and EASU) technically actually worked, anything about the USSR military computer network (analogous to ARPANET), how USSR computer industry differed from that of the capitalist countries, o how USSR computer theory differed from that of the capitalist countries, the book experience will be disappointing; it has too little of this. What’s really lacking is a strong attachment to the subject, the meat and bones of the OGAS, its material scale, how the projects actually ran, on a daily basis. Peters’ seems more passionately concerned with reasserting that capitalism is better than socialism because it produced the Internet.

Peters’ thesis is specious: “The first global civilian networks (sic) developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists, and the socialists behaved like capitalists. “ [4] The capitalists in this formulation are merely individualists, who, to Peters’ mind, surprisingly cooperated to build the network. The socialists, in his formulation, are altruists who couldn’t live up to their principles, competing with each other for resources like professors in a badly run faculty. Peters unfortunately appears not sufficiently interested in either socialism or capitalism to nuance these historically heavily-laden terms.

The utopian project, imagined by the Soviet cyberneticists for the USSR and exemplified in the Cybersyn project in Chile, was that a socialist society could manage the entirety of national production distribution and disposal more efficiently and effectively through an internally transparent communication system. Cybersyn was, however, no prototypical Internet. Such a network as Cybersyn would also likely have to be highly secure (since national security would depend on it) and the data exchanged there only selectively available to an exclusive few. Thus, such a system would not likely have produced the vibrant media environment of the Internet we know today.

Peters does not technically imagine how such alternative forms of networked computation might work. Instead he consistently returns to the vague claim that the USSR was too ideologically conflicted, flawed and corrupt to allow the flourishing of the genius of figures like Glushkov to permit the panacea of an Internet-like network to be developed there. “The history of the OGAS project is akin to the history of a miscarried effort to perform an IT upgrade for the corrupt corporation that was the USSR itself.”  [5] And cloaks his disparaging attitude in befuddling doubletalk. “The Soviet network projects did not fail because they did not possess the engines of a particular Western political or technological values. They broke down for their own reasons.” [6]

What reasons? They broke down because there could be no Internet in the Soviet Union.

Why not to Network a Nation

The book points out that the difference that created the conditions for the development of a civilian network such as the Internet was the fact that the US had a private sector which could fund research and production independent of central governmental approval. Curiously, Peters’ gives the example of Paul Baran, inventor of the packet-switching technology essential for the Internet as we know it today, who, seeing his projects disregarded by the priorities of the military industrial complex at the time, eventually abandoned it, only to see it implemented in the US after the British Post system’s research generated the same idea. Here we have two “socialist” government-funded communication projects in “capitalist” competition, apparently the secret to the technical success of the Internet.

A Soviet civilian network, equivalent to that of the nascent Internet in the US, would have meant a network of scientific/academic institutions working outside the classified military information-sphere. There was no such “civilian” sphere. What Peters shows instead is that many of the efforts to implement a national computer network outside of the military were reformist, intending to ‘liberalize’ the Soviet economy and make it more compatible with the capitalist West. “Most of the new employees [of Glushkov’s state-of-the-art cybernetics institute CEMI] were young researchers with bold ambitions and a distaste for the culture of totalitarian control in the 1940s and 1950s. Enthusiasm for decentralized economic reform met with central flows of funding”. [7] Glushkov’s senior ally in the bureaucracy Vasily Nemchinov “sought to impose ‘economic cybernetics’ and its plausibly nonsocialist “dynamic models of balancing capital investment” in the ideologically most acceptable light”. [8]

Peters points out that the USSR’s ideals of social egalitarianism were superimposed on a society which was not used to such a distribution. It is often argued, that, unlike Germany (which Marx & Engels had in mind when they wrote their Manifesto) pre-industrial Russia was lacking the institutional, industrial and economic basis for socialism. The result was that the highly abstract egalitarianism of socialism clashed with the conditions on the ground there, and generated more contradiction, inefficiencies and strife.

The promise of socialism, though it is unprecedented, is that a fairer juster society for every inhabitant of the earth can be achieved. The contradictions between the ideal and the reality need to be allowed to run their course, but this time was not afforded the USSR, as it was not afforded Chile, Cuba, Venezuela, Congo or any other nation which have dared strive for an egalitarian society. Lenin, Allende, Castro, Chavez, Lumumba came to power through popular and democratic processes but were attacked mercilessly, undermined, even assassinated by intolerant reactionary alliances from without and within. Remember that minerals from the de-liberated Congo [9], fundamental to networked computing today, are extracted under the most extreme injustice and exploitative coercion.

Peters claims the the US “succeeded in “networking a nation” because its ethos is to ask “how“ rather than “why”, and that the USSR failed because they were too concerned with “why.” The inertia of systemic unfairness socialism has to confront is immense, and, since it must deliver on its promise to improve the living conditions of the great majority, it is understandable that considerations of “why” will slow down technological choices on a national or global scale. The US and Western economies under their influence had much less of such moral compunctions. Capitalism “frees” entrepreneurs to scale ideas up to industrial scale and ‘externalises’ any deleterious consequences. Today in the age of automated techno-industrial-powered environmental degradation, resource wars and climate change, it appears far too late anymore to ask “why.” Networked capitalism has long had the answer to “how”, though: more computers.

It seems Peters wants to say with this book that socialism can be good as long as it takes place within capitalism. But since Peters’ conflates capitalism with individualism he does not see that this would mean socialist practices merely serving their conventional function as unquantified subordinate contributions to rationalizing capitalist exploitation. When Peters writes that the US built the Internet because their capitalists behaved like socialists, he is merely indicating that socialist practices are a well-spring of the value extracted by capital. Marianna Mazzucato argues convincingly how public investment in fundamental education, technologies and infrastructure brought about the great prosperity (such that it is) and unprecedented cultural affordances such was we enjoy through the Internet. [10] Socialists build things for use value, capitalists build things for surplus value. The huge edifice of Internet-based and coordinated commerce is build on functionalities built in the public interest, not to mention the house of cards ponzi scheme of contemporary financialized capital. The grand juggernaut of US capitalism is still running on infrastructure built during its brief social democratic experiment in the 1950s, which itself was a concession to labour in order to ward off nascent communism at home.

Jeremy Corbyn aims to produce a surge of public investment in vital infrastructure, which, in the proceeding decades it can be assumed, will be reappropriated piece by piece by capital. Public spending on public services do not produce merely quantifiable benefits for “stakeholders”; they produce qualitative improvements which cannot be reduced to commodities, and therefore do not require computer networks to manage or employ, but on which we nevertheless all depend for our social lives.

It is fashionable today to envisage that we are heading, or should head towards a sort of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” (FALC), where an Internet of Things, transparently managed through a hive-mind, public-access liquid-democracy interface, a civic HyperCyberSyn, will provide unprecedented industrial efficiency and irrepressible prosperity, automatically for all. History shows however that such a system would be set upon and usurped by powerful alliances, just as has every technology in the history of humanity, for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. In the meantime, instead of FALC, we get Opportunistically Accelerated Predatory Rentierism, cyborg capital serving a persistent fully-automated financialized rent extraction system.

Peters attempts to close the book on a conciliatory note. “Neither American-style capitalism nor Soviet-style socialism should be considered a sufficient philosophical banner for making our way into a networked world… The social necessity of restraining self-interested competition unites, not divides, the modern legacy of cold-war capitalism.” [12] Peters’ appears to propose that capitalists (in his taxonomy) are the true socialists since they acknowledge the limits of their self-interest whereas socialists are dangerous because they must pretend as if self-interest doesn’t exist. But what can the benefit of this caricature conciliation of socialism and capitalism be? Only if we can mutualize the rentier system for the benefit of all according to their needs will we generate societies of sustainable social and economic justice worth the name communism, with all the myriad revolutionary technological affordances we can barely imagine today.

 

NOTES

[1] https://medium.com/@stml/cloud-thinking-d92c5cd4b439#.pidz5jjlq
[2] Peters, Benjamin, How not to Network a Nation, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2016, p. 173
[3] ibid p. 186
[4] ibid p. 2
[5] ibid p. 193
[6] ibid p. 192
[7] ibid p. 140
[8] ibid p. 139
[9] Congo declared independence in 1960 only to have its socialist leader assassinated by Belgian and American agents, and be re-subordinated to exploitation from colonial powers from then until this day
[10]  http://marianamazzucato.com/the-entrepreneurial-state/
[11] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/18/fully-automated-luxury-communism-robots-employment
[12] Peters 2016, p. 189