David S. Levine: KZSU Stanford. Welcome to another edition of Hearsay Culture. My name is Dave Levine. I’m an Associate Professor at Elon University’s School of Law, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, and a visiting research collaborator at Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy.
Today I’m very excited to have on the show for this inaugural spring quarter on KZSU FM’s schedule Benjamin Peters, the author of the just-released book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. So, you may immediately react to this in the first instance and say, “There was a Soviet Internet?” because that was my initial reaction when I heard Ben speak about this book at Yale’s Black Box Society conference that was organized by Frank Pasquale and the Yale Information Society Project a few weeks ago.
Ben did a presentation where he talked broadly about informational issues and transparency, but mentioned in passing that he had this new book. And I chatted with Ben after his really fascinating talk. He was very kind to offer me—and I say this on the air—the only copy he had of the book on the day that it was actually made public, and so I was very grateful for that. But then having read the book in the intervening few weeks, it is a wonderful and fascinating read.
Ben, who is at the University of Tulsa in the communications department as an Assistant Professor, and also affiliated with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, has written a fascinating history about the failed efforts of various Soviet bureaucracies, Soviet scientists, and indeed going all the way up to the upper levels of the Kremlin’s efforts in fits and starts to create something that looked in some ways like a current, modern Internet.
These nascent efforts occurred roughly from the 60s through—roughly, and Ben can talk about this in more detail—the fall of the Soviet Union. And there were a few kind of slower, minor efforts before a bigger effort that went over the course of (based upon Benjamin’s history) roughly twenty that really never coalesced into anything more than it appears to be, hopes and dreams. Those hopes and dreams were varied. And unlike how we understand the original founders of the modern Internet through DARPA but also the original theorists like Vannevar Bush and others, we had this image of this global information-sharing network that would have loose controls, which of course cyberutopianism focused on, but which has not played out in a lot of ways.
And interestingly, the early Soviet Internet architects had something similar in mind, but quickly ran into the Soviet bureaucracy and the power struggles that exist within totalitarian and secretive governments that quickly unraveled those efforts. The book is indeed a history, but it’s a history written with a very keen eye towards not only insights for today but a keen and really impressive understanding of the broader communication and sociological and political context of these efforts. And in that way, as I mentioned to Benjamin in our pre-interview, one of the highest praises that I can offer for any author on this show is to point out when I found insights for my own work, which is not on the history of the Soviet Union but which focuses on information systems.
So Benjamin’s book, and we’re going to dive into it in just a moment, really gives a very broad history, an insightful history, and well-annotated history, of this fascinating and not largely-known study. Benjamin notes that he went into previously inaccessible archives. Obviously it goes without saying that to do this kind of research one needs to speak the language. And so he was able to get into documents that had not been previously accessed by researchers. And some of those are reproduced in the book. But it is really fascinating, and I’m very excited to have Benjamin on the show today.
We are recording the show on April 22nd, 2016 for airing today on KZSU. Benjamin is joining us via Skype, and I appreciate Benjamin, you taking the time today to join me on the show.
Benjamin Peters: Thank you, David. It’s a delight. I’m flattered and glad to be here.
Levine: No, this is terrific. So, let me ask you this question, Benjamin. For my listeners that aren’t familiar, tell us a bit more about your background and why you wrote this book.
Peters: Of course, sure. Well, let me just say as a personal note, in addition to a scholar I’m also a family man. And right now there’s… My children have been singing the Hamilton soundtrack non-stop. And I have this one line stuck in my head. The Schuyler sisters go on about “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” And you know, there’s some truth in that for me personally as well as professionally.
I think about the purpose of this book, and why it’s coming out right now, and I think we’re at a special moment in time when I hope that this book can help speak to a number of issues. This is the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl. Right now, there’s on the Capital there’s populace protests against big money and government. We have a very interesting political debate in the national scene. And I’m hoping that this book can speak to the present. So I think that’s ultimately what it’s about for me today.
But it has a story that takes me back a little bit, so I’ll try to say a little bit about that. This book began for me kind of with a double fascination, or two moments in my personal history. The first is, to go back to let’s say the spring of 2001, when at the tail end of two years of volunteer service in provincial Russia, I found myself in a relatively small city called Balakovo. Balakovo is a no-name city today, but it was a beautiful place to have spent a few months. And I remember it was the evening of this beautiful spring night— There was a sunset and I was standing at the bank of the Volga River, which passes through, and I was looking out on this gorgeous sunset, looking at the reflection of the sunlight in the reservoir that stretched before me. And I thought what a gorgeous place. I’m so happy to be here in Russia.
And then I also was struck at that moment by this…something felt out of place. And that was, as I looked around I saw a giant hydroelectric dam that stretched almost a kilometer in front of me. There were four nuclear power plants on the far horizon. To my right, behind me, there was secret military factories that once produced materials for the cosmonautic industry. And I was just struck like, what in the world? What kind of imagination would decide that this bucolic, pretty little city in the middle of nowhere would be a great place to invest such industrial infrastructural might? Why would we plan a city like this? And I think it was at that moment, as a twenty-something year-old, that I became initially interested in the political-economic imagination of Soviet planning.
And then fast forward a little bit to 2007 when I was a doctoral student at Columbia. I was searching for a dissertation project. And I stumbled upon a footnote in the biography of Norbert Wiener, a founder of cybernetics, which I can say more about in a moment. And it was in the footnote that I read about 1962 report that the CIA had issued to itself. Some Russian specialist named John J. Ford. And he had noted that in 1962 the Soviets were developing “a unified information network.” And I remember just sitting there in my apartment on 112th and Broadway and thinking to myself, “Of course! Of course the Soviets were developing a unified information network, a project in 1962. Why don’t I know more about this? What happened?”
And those two moments, where I was already thinking about the larger state and social/political/economic implications of a regime now passed, and as well as this little sort of tenacious question that lodged itself in my mind, “Why wasn’t there a Soviet Internet?” that’s kind of brought me to you end up writing this book over the last few years.
Levine: And I did mention, and I think listeners would be interested, and you just alluded to it. So you spent a fair amount of time, obviously, having to do this primary research in the former Soviet Union, a variety of places. Talk a little bit about that more from an informational and research standpoint. Because as I mentioned, you allude to and reference documents that really weren’t previously accessible. Talk to us bit about that research process, particularly diving into files that thirty years ago it would’ve been inconceivable that anyone would’ve been seeing, much less an American scholar.
Peters: Yeah, thanks. Well, that’s great. So when I set out to do this project, I thought it was going to be, as it is, a history of computer networks and their sort of support pieces. And that’s true. But it also turns out that my story ended up hanging largely on interpersonal networks, and how they have their own rhyme and reason. And that became very clear to me as a researcher. So in 2007 I set off to figure out what’s going on with the Soviet Internet. And I did all I could from New York for a year, looking up FOIA requests and doing what research I could in the library and contacting people by email.
And then in 2008, the summer I ended up in Moscow with some invitations, I had all the tools, the language, and a few of the connections I needed to get into the libraries. And I remember just encountering brick wall after brick wall. And it was a very tough time. I remember this one moment when I was kind of in a central library at Moscow State University, and I had the sense that there were some important documents I needed to get to that were just like, one archive room away from me. But I also was quite clear that I just as an American or an outsider wasn’t going to be permitted to see those documents. And I remember the sort of discouraging disappointment setting in as I realized I was probably farther away from these materials then than I was even in New York.
But that changed. And that changed thanks to the good fortunes and of interpersonal networks. As it happened, at that moment actually, I emailed Slava Gerovitch, who is an MIT historian of science who had been an important contact for me previously. And I said, “Look, I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do. I’ve got this cool project. Do you know anything about it?” And I was building off of his earlier works on Soviet cybernetics. And he wrote back with the most amazing email. He said, “Ben, not only do I know who you need to go talk to, but I’m working on a draft of an article itself. Here it is.”
And so he gave me a draft of a pre-published article that ended up being the basis for the book. And that introduced and opened up to me a new social network, not in Moscow but in Kiev, in Ukraine. And so it was in subsequent years that I was able to make contacts with the social networks of the protagonist of of my book, Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov. And it was thanks to that kind of introduction that I got access to—not all the archives. Please don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely more to be told about this story. But I got access to an unprecedented amount of materials, including archives that weren’t even really archives. Stacks of papers that nobody had ever sorted or indexed, that were just kind of abandoned in an office from thirty years ago.
Marshall McLuhan, the media populizer and theorist once put it well. He said, “The first thing a foreigner needs to know when visiting Russia is that there are no phone books.” And I think the point is that Russia and the Soviet Union has long operated according to its own social network rhythms and reasons. And that was very evident to me as a researcher. And I can say more about how that ends up coloring and inflecting my conclusions later on in the interview.
Levine: Yeah, I’d love to get to that. We’re chatting with Benjamin Peters, author of the new book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet on KZSU FM Stanford. So, you alluded to this already, Benjamin, and in order to frame our discussion, you said that this is not just a history. And I agree, having read the book. Why focus on the lack of Soviet architecture, right? In other words, oftentimes you’ll read histories that focus on what happened. In a lot of ways, you’re focusing on what didn’t happen. Why?
Peters: That’s a great question. So, I think that, well…as my history mentors have made clear, there’s a very important difference between a negative history and a counterfactual history. And negative histories, or what didn’t happen, are totally fair game. One can ask why wasn’t there a Modernist sort of print revolution in early modern China in 900, when they developed their own version of the printing press? Or one can ask why wasn’t there…fill in the blank. A socialist revolution in the 1800s in America, right. But that kind of not, the negative question, the “not” in that question prompts us to study what still happens. And so even though you’re absolutely right to frame my question as one about lack, it is also a story of attempts and efforts and genuine initiatives, projects that administration and other efforts spent that were very real, and and have real stories that I think deserve a sympathetic and rigorous telling from from their own point of view.
And in the end, that’s an important kind of proposition to take seriously if we’re ever to understand science or technology, and especially law, which is that our administration, our institutions, they guarantee no success and yet they are real. And they shape things. And I think this injects a helpful dose of considered contingency into how we think about technology, society, and the law. It makes us realize that the history of new media innovations and technological and scientific progress, for example, is not a kind of parade of geeks and hackers marching to ever-warmer progressive beats. But instead it sort of says you know what? Things fail a lot, and we need to take this seriously. And it’s not unique to the Soviet’s experience, our common experience of a failure.
Levine: So, let me ask you this as we delve a little more closely to the book. I think I’m going to ask you your classic question that one would ask anyone who’s written a book that in any way has an academic patina. Meaning, you’ve done things like accurately and well footnoted your conclusions. So I’m going to ask you this question although I don’t know if it’s a fair question, Benjamin, but I’m going to ask it. What is your core thesis? Now again, and the reason I say it’s a tough one, is because as you pointed out, this book is a lot of different things. But if you were in front of a group defending the book, as it were, what is the thesis that you would want the reader to take away from it?
Peters: Excellent. It’s a two-step. Here’s the first step. That modern global networks to shape thanks to surprising amounts of institutional collaboration and state funding, while the Soviet contemporary projects stumbled due to you unregulated competition and infighting among bureaucrats, institutions, and other actors. So in short, the capitalists behaved like socialists in the case of the ARPANET, while the socialists behaved like capitalists in the case of the OGAS network, that I can describe.
So that’s the first step. And the second step is to point out that what that means is it’s kind of a sideways glance at— I want to twist and move beyond the old Cold War debates between state and market. But what this means for me is that our modern networked world is a result of neither market triumphs nor state failures alone. And the book complicates that uneasy reversal. It draws out an allegory to our own moment, I think, which is that modern science and technology needs to move beyond a debate around sort of, is this a product of private markets, or of public states. And it instead needs to recognize that private parties, for the longest time—today the NSA and Google, or in the Soviet period other general secretaries—have long been interested in privatizing our information.
And we can see throughout particularly the 20th century, a rise of private organizational power that has taken information very seriously, and often to the disadvantage of public-minded projects. And that those interests are equally shared among state and market actors. And my hope is that the Cold War comparative piece that I offer here can offer a kind of cautionary tale and insight into rethinking our own political coordinates. And maybe perhaps moving beyond the classic or the sort of liberal economic discourse of markets and states.
Levine: Well that, I mean, so you have said clearly something that now I could just say “expand” and then go get a sandwich, and that’s forty minutes right there. So let me take you up on what you had just said at the beginning, right. To delve a little deeper into that historiographical note that leads to those two steps. So, I simply say continue.
Peters: Okay. Well, let’s begin with the beginning. You can help shape this. So, I think if I were to tell a little bit of the story, our story needs to begin with what appears to be the height of a Cold War race, a tech race, right.
So, the US military-industrial-academic complex, and the Soviet often-militarized state and its big science projects, are in this seemingly parallel race to outdo each other in terms of rocketry, in terms of nuclear power, in terms of other big scientific endeavors. And so that kind of old Cold War first-past-the-post race logic helps us ask our question more clearly. Which is, “Alright, so the Soviets pulled off all these amazing accomplishments in some forms of scientific development. Why couldn’t they pull off of why didn’t they pull off a genuinely civil-minded public-oriented national network project?”
And as my research shows, they tried. It wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, for over thirty years there is a particular attempt to build a public-minded project that I think if successful would have had significant benefits for economic, political, and social purposes in the Soviet Union in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
But that same kind of initial logic, where you’re framing one state against the other in this race misses the larger picture. And that the larger picture is that the Soviet Union and the American mid-century institutional engines for science-making are not different so much as they are very very similar. And I draw out some important differences, of course. But ultimately, they’re both interested in building large-scale information projects that need regulation, and that are meant to capitalize on power acquisition. They’re gathering power for themselves.
And that I think is the much bigger point that we need to recognize. Because it helps reduce, or it provides an antidote to, kind of a post-Cold War technological triumphalism that I think is still very prevalent in many circles today, which would say, “Well, America and the West, we’ve won. And our technological approaches are better,” and this sort of assuming this blind faith, without really assessing what is it about our own ways of working that have worked in practice? And as I suggest briefly—it’s not an American history. But my book nevertheless suggests briefly that America was really good at collaborating and at using state funding to found important infrastructural projects around the ARPANET, but more broadly as well. And that’s an important reminder, I think. In fact it’s now almost commonplace among historians to say what I’m saying, that the mid-century’s defined by mixed economies. That even as we’re proclaiming ideological differences of capitalism versus socialism, in fact both countries are building, and other countries are building, a world based off of inter-agency, inter-industry collaboration and funding models.
And another way of saying this, is if there’s a virtue to what the American military-industrial-academic complex history is, it’s that there’s the word “complex” in that phrase. That is that there is a way for agencies and industries to collaborate with each other. And I think that’s an important takeaway in contrast to what my experience of the Soviet system is, which is while there’s all the idea and the goal and the motivation, there wasn’t on the ground the practical ways of collaborating and sharing resources and taking a loss as a private agency in order to advance a larger public-minded project.
Levine: We are chatting with Benjamin Peters, author of the book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet on KZSU FM Stanford and Hearsay Culture.
Benjamin, before we take a quick break, you’ve alluded to it here, and I think this is an interesting angle and insight of your book. And I think you can certainly share a few examples of what I’m about to describe. Your book is riddled with the competitive forces of not only the marketplace but of individuals who in tandem, as you allude to, are leading not to the development of a network but really the destruction of whatever’s there, and certainly impeding progress. And certainly Hearsay Culture listeners regularly hear from guests where we’re talking about utilitarian theories of intellectual property, and ultimately focusing on how we can create conditions for innovation.
One of the interesting conclusions that you draw in the book is that competition, which you’ve alluded, can be viewed as— Competition is both a marketplace failure, and ultimately can lead to less and not more innovation, which as you pointed out is not generally how we view our own systems. Can you share some examples of where you saw competition in the context of building a Soviet Internet, as leading to less innovation, and more problems, and how you define that competition within the market?
Peters: Beautiful question. Thanks. Yeah, that’s right. So, I see competition as neither good nor bad nor least of all neutral. That is it’s a practice that we encounter all over the place, not only in the Soviet context but on the street walking—just part of human nature. And it should be separated and then reconciled with whatever our economic or regulatory system is at the present. It certainly doesn’t belong to one or the other side of the Cold War.
And in the case of the Soviet network project, let me just say a little bit about that. So, my story is a story of the rise and fall of a number of ambitious network projects, most centrally the OGAS project. The OGAS project, OGAS, stands for All-State Automated System, or in Russian the Obshchee-Gosudarstvennaya Avtomatizirovannaya Systema, which was principally driven by a man named Victor Mikhailovich Glushkov. And Glushkov is sort of pushing this life work of his from basically 1961 through his own death in 1982. And he encounters, I think I could identify— I’ll say more about the network in a second, but I’ll identify maybe five major groups that opposed, or felt it was to their own self-interest to push back against his vision of a national network.
The first was, curiously enough, at the very top level of the government, in the central committee, and in fact the Politburo, where some Ministers whose various ministries were charged with overseeing economic information flows. And this was exactly what the OGAS project was meant to contribute to. It was a technocratic network meant to manage, automate, transmit, store, and optimize all economic information flows in the Soviet command economy. And thus it was meant to contribute directly to the Ministers of Finance and the central statistical administration, two major ministries at the heart of the Soviet bureaucracy.
And curiously enough, the… I’ll tell you a story. October 1st, 1970, the Politburo comes the closest it probably ever came to approving the OGAS network. All signs suggested that they were going to go ahead and approve it. The Soviet state desperately needed some response to the ARPANET, which had become public a year earlier. And Glushkov’s project was the best on the table, a very ambitious one, and Glushkov was widely liked by a number of actors.
And what ended up happening is, during that day, they got together and to make a committee report short, basically the Minister of Finance stood up and said, “Look, we can’t go forward with this project. It’s too ambitious. It’s too grandiose. Instead what we need to start is far more pragmatically. We need to talk about building computers that can turn lights on and off, that can turn music on and off, and thus installed in say, chicken farms throughout the Soviet agriculture. And that’ll stimulate egg production with very simple means rather than trying to optimize and actually get involved in the information politics of the economy itself.”
And as it turned out, on the surface of it, the Minister of Finance, Vasily Garbuzov’s proposal was accepted for those kind of talk technocratic, pragmatist reasons. It was simpler. But the the politics were more complicated, because it turns out that Garbuzov, the Minister of Finance had other ulterior motives in mind in proposing a more pragmatic way forward with computer networks. He was in fact worried that if the OGAS project were approved, the massive funding flows would go not to his Ministry of Finance, but would be stovepiped into the Central Statistical Administration, which was his seeming competitor Ministry, even though they shared overlapping purposes.
And so instead of being willing to support any form of economic reform or any network project that would benefit a competitor ministry, he had approached the Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin, who himself was an economic reform-minded Prime Minister, and had privately threatened Kosygin to say that “Look, if you approve the OGAS project, I personally will make sure that my Ministry does its all to submarine and undermine the OGAS project going forward.”
And in this case it wasn’t an empty threat. The Ministry of Finance had done basically the exact same thing five years earlier to the Liberman Kosygin reforms, which was a sort of partial, piecemeal attempt to privatize parts of the command economy that should have succeeded but was in part stymied due to internal pushback from the ministers and the bureaucrats themselves.
So instead of being a kind of rational Weberian bureaucracy, we encountered a bureaucracy that’s driven by self-interest, in that paradoxically enough although they’re charged with bringing about a space where no market competition can take place, they’re nonetheless inundated and compelled by sort of conflicts between their own institutional interests.
So, the ministers are just one of them. I promised four others. I’ll just briefly mention them. We can talk more, but— The OGAS project was also opposed, or…you know, people were free enough to oppose, as it were. They were not regulated in their choice to oppose the OGAS. The Red Army in the defense Ministry of Defense, despite some very top-level support, through and through opposed and refused to share resources with the OGAS project.
Mid-level bureaucrats themselves were afraid that the project would automate and thus kind of obviate their own positions. Factory workers, when when they understood the project (which was not all the time) were also afraid that their own livelihood would be sacrificed by a rational, functioning command economy. And so they opposed it, because in part they wanted to keep open access to the gray economy and the informal economy so that they could meet quota.
So there’s fascinating ways in which, on the ground, the live practice of the Soviet economy is anything but regulated. But it’s like, simultaneously regulated from on high, as well as dynamic and rich and pernicious in its internal negotiations.
And lastly, even the liberal economists themselves, who were very few and far between but were nevertheless very reform-minded, were afraid that the OGAS project would steer economic change away from market liberalization. The point is all of these folks are different examples of the surprising sources of competitive behavior in a Soviet state.
Levine: I’m sitting here, Benjamin, I have to tell, and this happens from time to time. I’m thrilled with all of my guests. But I was literally thinking as you were speaking that there’s so much there in what you just said that this should be a two-part interview, where we do a second hour. And I’m only only half kidding when I say it, but we’d have to schedule for a later date. Because what you’re talking about, of course as you point out, transcends the fascinating but somewhat narrow confines of a bureaucracy that built, as you point out, certain things quite well, like weapons, but was unable to build this out. And you draw—and I do want to ask you about it—you’re focusing of course on public networks rather than military networks, because that is where the challenge laid.
In your acknowledgements and really your dedication, you mention Michael Schudson among three other wonderful scholars, Joli Jensen, Fred Turner, and Gary Browning. I mention it for two reasons. First, Michael is going to be on the show. In fact I’m interviewing him next week for a show that’s going to air in May, on his new book The Rise of the Right to Know. But also because so much of what you’re referring to is in this phrase, or name, that has ebbed and flowed in its use, which you’ve alluded to earlier and which I want to get to now, which is cybernetics.
We don’t hear that word that much. Certainly it’s not a word that comes up much on Hearsay Culture. What is cybernetics?—
Peters: Thank you.
Levine: And how is that term used, both in the context of the history that you’re telling and today?
Peters: I rarely get a chance to talk about this, so let me say a couple things. Maybe I can speak to both points. First I’ll say that Schudson is a model mentor scholar and friend. You know, some of my own kind of unrepentant communalist instincts to focus on public rather than military networks are in part thanks to his mentorship. So, I owe him much and I hope that everybody reads his fantastic, terrific, new book. Which is many ways period-specific to what what we’re discussing today.
As for cybernetics, I would just note that this is perhaps in my mind the term that has… While the term itself no longer has any purchase, that it’s the milieu, the intellectual milieu, that it helped coalesce and codify in the post-war period has enjoyed massive intellectual success today. So, while we don’t talk about cybernetics, we talk very much about information systems, feedback loops, control systems. We’re in many ways preoccupied—I think too much—by sometimes misleading analogies between organic and mechanical and social systems. And much of this—of course it’s not unique to cybernetics—can nevertheless be traced back to an important kind of post-war articulation of self-governing systems and their information politics.
So while I don’t think of myself as a cyberneticist in any sense, or us today who lived in the modern media moment, I think nevertheless we inherit a lot of the implications of what one scholar has recently called the “cybernetic moment” in the post-war period. So, it’s the backdrop for the book. The cybernetics is the backdrop against which the rest of my actors played.
Cybernetics in the American context sort of finds its first public articulation in Norbert Wiener’s work, whom I mentioned earlier, 1948 when he talks about cybernetics as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Although quickly, that sort of limitation to biology and engineering expands, and by 1952 he’s writing a book about how his insights applied to society, to media systems, information system. And pretty soon, his own sort of scientific limitations have outrun themselves. And so while cybernetics is a failed institutional field, I would argue, nevertheless its kind of impulse, its vocabulary to analogize and think across information systems is very much alive today, and needs recuperation for that reason.
In the Soviet context, this field has even broader success. And in many ways I would argue that cybernetics, or what I call technocratic neutrality, is maybe the political impulse that’s closest to the heir of Stalin himself. So, Stalin dies in 1953, the strongman state sort of collapses, and it’s figuring out “what in the world are we going to do now?” And one of the best answers is hey, why don’t we see if we can find a scientific or rational way of introducing and maintaining control that doesn’t involve the often surprisingly informal and idiosyncratic power measures that Stalin implemented to maintain his top-down control?
And so really, the story is from the 50s through the 70s is this heyday of Soviet cybernetics. Cybernetics fills that political vacuum, as it were, and offers a rich vocabulary across the sciences for talking about control without the politics of a kind of cultish leader. Instead it appears to try to neutralize that away and say look, we can do this as scientists without Stalin.
Levine: We’re chatting with Benjamin Peters author of the new book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet on KZSU FM Stanford and Hearsay Culture.
Benjamin, this caveat that I’m offering now particularly applies to this interview although I say it to everyone. We’re now reaching the unfair portion of the show. And it’s unfair because we’ve got about fourteen minutes left, which starts closing in on having to cut short somewhat the time that you have to answer the questions. In other words, the luxurious nature of the interview begins to wane as we approach roughly about fifty-four minutes into the interview. So, with that I caveat, I’m going to ask you a question which fulfills the unfairness of the question.
You also use a phrase—and again the Hearsay Culture being a show that dives deep into the books, defining terms is essential—you use the phrase “technocratic neutrality” and its being a function of political forces. You’ve alluded to neutrality in the technological context already, but what is technocratic neutrality, and how does that insight and that definition inform our understanding of the lack of a Soviet Internet?
Peters: Excellent. I would say for me technocratic neutrality is a twenty-five cent way of saying a two-cent idea, which is that all people believe in finding solutions that minimize political cost, or political price. And for technocrats, which involved both bureaucrats as well as scientists in the Soviet period, technocratic neutrality is an heir to a post-Stalin era.
But I would also just for the the sake of argument suggest that technocratic neutrality is a belief that’s very much profoundly popular and alive today, which is that technological or technical solutions can bring about resolutions to ongoing real-life problems without shifting the balance of power. And I think that’s, among technocrats, kind of accepted as an article of faith. Although as I try to show the book, it’s also a really important rhetorical assumption that technocrats actually have to make publicly, in order to try to carry out real-life political maneuvers quietly.
So, if we were to tell the IRS or our university accountants that they had no power, they would probably kind of agree with you and say, “Look, I’m bound. My hands are bound by all these regulations. What I do is just what I do.” And yet, evidence suggests that those who quantify and operationalize our values, and particularly automate them in systems that are larger than ourselves, (insert discussion about algorithms and and the rest of it here) really do have tremendous infrastructural influence on how our values today play out. And that’s that’s the story. It’s an old story. But it’s an important story, I think, that both the Soviet cyberneticists, and the bureaucrats who opposed them, are partly guilty of. And it’s one that I think we can recognize very much alive and well today.
Levine: Another concept, and again this is where maybe a two-parter makes sense… There is reference with regard to this haggling and competition among bureaucrats that repeatedly stalled the building of a Soviet Internet. The concept of vertical bargaining, as an impediment to creation of the network. How did bargaining work within this project intended to be innovative and revolutionary? And perhaps you could give us a couple of examples of where this vertical bargaining occurred, and its implications.
Peters: Excellent. So, the concept “vertical bargaining” comes from easily the best descriptor of socialist economy, János Kornai, whose work I recommend. Let me lead with a joke. So, there is a factory manager who’s trying to hire…what do you call them in English? Tolkach[?] Somebody who acquires…like a procurement specialist, right?
Peters: An acquisitions person, right. And so he’s interviewing a number of possible candidates, and he submits to them only one question. And the question is how much is one plus one? And the first guy says, “Well, it’s two.” And the hirer immediately dismisses him. The second candidate also responds “two,” and so he gets dismissed. And and then they bring in ex-con who had been living life after parole, and the man asked him his one question, “How much is one plus one?” And the ex-con stands, turns, closes the door, leans in, and whispers, “How many do you want?” And I think that begins to suggest something of how the administrative bureaucracy works.
Let me say a little bit more about vertical bargaining. So, vertical bargaining is the corollary of market bargaining, except it’s across a vertical administrative structure. So, there’s a factory-level negotiation about what production and resources quotas should be every year. And then on top of that there’s a mid-level regional administrator who reviews those same numbers. And at the top, there’s a national sort of planning committee in the Soviet economy. And so the numbers of how many do you need, how many do you want, one plus one, go through this continuous up and down vertical bargaining sequence, where everybody above you knows that you’re going to ask for more resources and you’re going to promise less supply than you can actually do. Because that’s just in your self-interest.
And so your supervisors are necessarily going to negotiate the opposite way. They’re going to ask for more than you can provide and promise less than you can, with the hope that over a three month period you’ll basically come to some equilibrium. And this happens at every level of the the vertical bargaining. Which is just simply to suggest that this sort of— Well, how about this: it’s maybe not surprising that those in power in the post-Communist period Russia had been so quick to seize power and to understand political negotiation in genuine kind of capitalist without democratic impulses. Which is that those in power have been practicing market-familiar terms for a long time. And you know, we shouldn’t be surprised that the post-Soviet transition was very quickly capitalized by a few very well-informed power brokers. There’s long tradition for that type of power brokering within the informal and formal Soviet economies.
Levine: So, let me ask you. We have about…I don’t know, let’s say six minutes left. One surprising absence of a focus— And I don’t mean that in the sense of a criticism as much what I think one who’s not informed might expect, it would be a focus on surveillance. And it not a big focus, or much of a focus of this history. And I’m curious about that, particularly today—and this kind of leads to the penultimate question of, as you alluded to in the beginning—what lessons can we draw for today’s tech technological challenges?
But before we get there, perhaps you could take two or three minutes, Benjamin, and address this issue, right. I mean, particularly since you’re focusing on this public Internet, is there evidence that the goal here—as one would, I think, colloquially expect—that surveillance was a goal? Or control was a goal of an otherwise public Internet in the Soviet Union? Or is that really not evident from the research that you did?
Peters: That’s lovely. Because my instincts, too, going into this project was, well surely in an information control culture, there’s going to be intense surveillance, and that’s going to keep down any genuinely prosocial information project. That surveillance is somehow anathema to what takes place. And I think— Don’t get me wrong, I am very much opposed to needless surveillance. But the Soviet experience suggests something really important for us today, which is that networks are entirely compatible with surveillance. And many of our favorite things to talk about, then, peer-to-peer production, or end-to-end intelligence, kind of missed the point that I think is now obvious. That whether you’re the NSA or Google or whoever else…you’re a general secretariat, seeking to privatize our power, and you are surveilling us, because you have a network in place.
And now, in the Soviet context, surveillance wasn’t an explicit conversation. That wasn’t what they were talking about, but there was a very strong emphasis on economic management. And so I would say that the OGAS project should be understood as a surveillance project so far as you’re thinking only about economic considerations. And Hannah Arendt once pointed out beautifully, and I think this has relevance for us today, that well…let me see if I can connect this… That what Marx did wrong was he pedestaled the wrong image of the human being.
So, Marx fought for the laborer, the working economic man, the homo economicus. And that was his sort of high points in humanity. But what Arendt would have us do instead is to to vault a different type of person, a political actor, a person with a voice, who can change and bring about reform. And perhaps the problem with the OGAS network in part is that it could only focus on economic matters. And that it didn’t— Although Glushkov and others were very interested in thinking much more broadly about what these technologies could do, the political conditions were such that ideologically it could commit only to economic reform. And that in the end ends up limiting the capacity of these networks.
Surveillance was…except for in the case of one or two small cases, was not a live variable in this history. So there’s very little censorship, most of the actors that I discuss are well-positioned, ideologically faithful, card-carrying communists with a lot of access to secret information, and with a lot of power and capacity. And the simple fact is they lived productive, normal lives. And they helped to build—they wanted to build productive, normal lives. And in that sense I think are much [more] similar to us than we would care to admit, usually.
Levine: I’d almost stop there if this were a pithy ending. But I do want to ask you one last question. And you have about three minutes on this one, what I just alluded to. So, lots of technological challenges today, from e-government to ecommerce. Are there a few lessons you would like policymakers and theorists about what’s going on today take from this history?
Peters: Absolutely. So, I think the history is also a call for virtuous and limited governance, which is that it recognizes that infrastructural innovation in a modern networked world has already always involved mixed economies where collaboration is central. And I know that’s a big, general, maybe obvious insight to many, but it’s an important one, I think.
And also to help us get over the old, kind of narcissistic difference between corporations and states, when in fact their behaviors are often so very common. There’s ways in which the USSR command economy should be understood, I think, as the world’s largest corporation in some of its behavior. And I’d be glad to say more about that later.
And it just helps, I think, for us to refresh and take a new look at some of the hidden ideological biases that we inherit from a Cold War divide between private markets and public states. And instead helps pivot and I hope prompt us to think more carefully about the promise of public action in the face of overwhelming private power, which the private power here is occupied equally by Soviet states, by the NSA, by Google, by whatever large information organization you’d want to target.
Levine: Well, I’ll tell you what, Benjamin. I want, particularly as we are in the full silly season and it’s been a scary season in our presidential campaigns, I want you to take one more minute and draw out a little bit more the idea of this public action ability to impact private entities and behavior. And then we will close.
Peters: Okay. Alright. And, much more to say. Thank you so much for your time. I think I’ll just say this. Right now, we’re experiencing kind of the Europeanization of American politics, right. So we’ve got dropped Drump—sorry, Trump—kind of the right wing incoherent nationalist. And on the other side we’ve got Sanders, a left wing Socialist Democrat. And while they appear so opposed, and while our Facebook feeds are ever driving those differences, I just want to propose in light of this book that what they’re proposing is in many ways an old problem. And it’s an old divide that gets the debate wrong, in that whether you cede power to a state or to free market acquisition, you’re missing the real opportunity, which is I think to start building a higher social, political, maybe even moral order, where collaboration is prized, and incentives and innovations are distributed across many actors and fields. And that provides no solutions, I admit. But it, if nothing else, helps us refresh a very old conversation.
Levine: Benjamin Peters, Professor at University of Tulsa, author of the book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. Fascinating book, incredibly useful, and I really enjoyed reading it.
Like I said, I do invite you back on the show. We’re going to have to talk separately about when, because there’s just so much here to dive into, but for now I will simply say thank you for joining us today on Hearsay Culture and bringing this terrific and insightful story to my listeners.
Peters: Thank you, Dave. Looking forward.
Announcement post for this episode at the Hearsay Culture web site.