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? 

Levine: Acquisitions?

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.

Further Reference

Announcement post for this episode at the Hearsay Culture web site.

Previously by Benjamin Peters:
"Why the Soviet Internet Failed", 2008
"Normalizing Soviet Cybernetics", 2012