The Soviets planned to have a cyber universe of their own. Why did they fail?

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Although we have become accustomed to view computer technology as a product of capitalism created with the support of the Pentagon, in the 1960s USSR, some scientists and engineers saw computers as “machines of communism” and expressed their own vision. on the creation of a global information network.

Knowing this, we can ask ourselves how this alternative internet could have changed the course of history. What would the Communist Party and the Soviet army use the new technology for? Would the Soviet Internet have created a digital tyranny? With its own internet, how would the USSR respond to falling oil prices, Perestroika and Glasnost? And how would he look at the USSR in early 1991? How would the Cold War have unfolded if the Internet, as we know it, had rivaled a Soviet alternative since the 1960s?

Communism with cyber aspirations

The USSR was not the only country to experience cyber socialism. In 1970, under the leadership of Salvador Allende, the Chille government asked British cybernetician Stafford Beer to develop a computer system known as Project Cybersyn.

The vision was quickly abandoned due to the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, and the project was deliberately dismantled.

The economic boom of the early 1960s in the USSR led to the emergence of the idea Soviet communism with a cybernetic face.

The growing economy was now more difficult to manage, the massive amounts of data it generated were difficult to process, and the industries were almost impossible to synchronize.

It became clear that public administration tasks needed to be facilitated with the help of computers and industrial control systems (ICS) that had already been widely used by the defense industry.

The king of Soviet cybernetics

The figure of Victor Glushkov, a visionary mathematician and director of the Institute of Cybernetics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, stands out quite clearly in the landscape of Soviet cybernetics.

Victor Glushkov led Soviet efforts to cope with the approaching economic stagnation. Thanks to him, the country has seen the emergence of new institutes and specialized departments within major universities, all with the same goal – the training of new specialists in computer and industrial control systems.

“While the Stalinists opposed cybernetics, believing it to be a bourgeois pseudoscience, cybernetics like Victor Glushkov reached an important stage in the 1960s, as the growing bureaucratic demands of the centrally planned economy threatened to turn the Union into an absurd administrative state. Says Bahar Noorizadeh in filmul ei, After Scarcity.

One of Glushkov’s biggest practical goals was to create the national automated information processing and processing system (OGAS).

soviet internet - victor glushkov
Victor Glushkov – 1960

He believed that in the face of imminent economic stagnation, it was the only lifeline for the country’s further development. Glushkov imagined thousands of local computers connected to each other via a regional server. The mainframe network had to be synchronized nationally and connected to the main computer center in Moscow.

An obituary published in the United States described Glushkov as the “King of Soviet cybernetics.”

In his book Fundamentals of Paperless Informatics, published a few months after his death, he wrote a visionary prediction:

“Soon there will not be enough paper books, newspapers and magazines. Each person will have an electronic notebook – a combination of a flat screen and a mini radio transmitter. No matter where you are in the world, if you enter a certain code in the “notebook”, you will be able to summon texts and images from gigantic remote databases. This will forever replace not only books, newspapers and magazines, but also television. ”

Interestingly, Glushkov also speculated about technologies in everyday life: multifunction phones, programmed washing machines, paperless documents and correspondence, computer games, language-based programming (a prototype of personal assistants like Siri or Alexa), electronic newspapers and magazines and even electronic money. A Soviet electronic money project was proposed by Glushkov’s team in 1962.

Failure of the Soviet project “Cybertonia”

For a New Year’s Eve party, employees of Glushkov’s institute came up with the idea of ​​”Cybertonia” – a virtual country run by a council of robots.

Cybertonia enthusiasts organized regular activities in Kiev and Lviv, including conferences and parties for children, published brochures and issued their own currency. They even drafted the Cybertonia Constitution.

soviet internet - cybertonia

The Cybertonia project had become a speculative design project that imagined a Soviet cyber future that never saw the light of day.

In his 2016 book, “How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet“Scientist Benjamin Peters shows that the bureaucracy was to blame for the failure of the Soviet Internet project.

This is because, instead of creating a collaborative research environment, various agencies and bureaucrats have diligently risen only for their own agenda. The Soviet Union could not build its own Internet – not because it lacked technology or the institution of private property, but because it was impossible to get a project of this scale approved by all the necessary agencies, whose interests were contradicted by most times.

“The first global networks of civilian computers were developed among the cooperating capitalists, not among the competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists, while the socialists behaved like capitalists “, writes Peters.

Although the social and political environment of the time hindered the development of the Soviet Internet, it remains interesting to imagine what the big networks would look like now. Maybe we would have had a cyber “cold war” and there would have been little chance for the Soviets. We wonder what the technology would have been like without the American giants, but with giants of Soviet origin? There are still chances to answer.

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