books

Books

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

How Not to Network a Nation
Hardcover | $38.00 Short | £28.95 | ISBN: 9780262034180 | 312 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 23 b&w illus.| March 2016

eBook | $27.00 Short | ISBN: 9780262334174 | 312 pp. | 23 b&w illus.| April 2016

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Excerpted in 20th-anniversary issue of First Monday.
Featured in Aeon 

Overview

Between 1959 and 1989, Soviet scientists and officials made numerous attempts to network their nation—to construct a nationwide computer network. None of these attempts succeeded, and the enterprise had been abandoned by the time the Soviet Union fell apart. Meanwhile, ARPANET, the American precursor to the Internet, went online in 1969. Why did the Soviet network, with top-level scientists and patriotic incentives, fail while the American network succeeded? In How Not to Network a Nation, Benjamin Peters reverses the usual cold war dualities and argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments and the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and others. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.

After examining the midcentury rise of cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems, and the emergence in the Soviet Union of economic cybernetics, Peters complicates this uneasy role reversal while chronicling the various Soviet attempts to build a “unified information network.” Drawing on previously unknown archival and historical materials, he focuses on the final, and most ambitious of these projects, the All-State Automated System of Management (OGAS), and its principal promoter, Viktor M. Glushkov. Peters describes the rise and fall of OGAS—its theoretical and practical reach, its vision of a national economy managed by network, the bureaucratic obstacles it encountered, and the institutional stalemate that killed it. Finally, he considers the implications of the Soviet experience for today’s networked world.

Endorsements & Reviews

“Benjamin Peters’s book is not only a scintillating explanation of why the Soviet Internet failed to materialize but also a first-rate sociopolitical investigative report and a delicious tale of how Soviet efforts to manage a command economy left them without either command or an economy.”

Todd Gitlin, Professor and Chair, PhD Program in Communications, Columbia University; author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives

“Peters offers a compelling account of the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to construct their own Internet during the Cold War period. How Not to Network a Nation fills an important gap in the Internet’s history, highlighting the ways in which generativity and openness have been essential to networked innovation.”

Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Computer Science, Harvard University; Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

“As early as 1962, cybernetics experts in the Soviet Union proposed a complex, large-scale computer network. It fit with a socialist vision but not with bureaucratic politics and a faltering command economy. It was never realized, but the story sheds light both on Soviet history and on the social conditions that shape computing and communications networks. It is a previously unknown story, now elegantly told by Benjamin Peters together with a thoughtful analysis that makes the early history of computing seem full of possibilities not obvious.”

Craig Calhoun, FBA, Director and President, London School of Economics and Political Science

“[Peters’] quarry is the great white whale of this specialized historiography: the Soviet Internet.”

Michael Gordin, Nature

“Peters has written the definitive narrative on the topic. For those looking to understand the Communist mindset in an information technology perspective, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet is an interesting read.”

Ben Rothke, RSA

“An immersive read that covers the ground in impressive detail.”

John Gilbey, Times Higher Education

“A great set of stories…a fantastic storyteller… really pleasurable.”

Carla Nappi, New Books Network

“The story of how Peters tracked down this and other facts is almost a Cold War thriller itself…. a cautionary tale for those tasked with building the networks of tomorrow.”

Dominic Lenton, Engineering & Technology

“A new and intriguing book… Anyone interested in the history of the internet, comparative systems, or the history of the Soviet Union should read this book.”

—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolutions

“Fascinating”

David Strom, network expert

“And so: the Internyet.”

Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture

Paperback | 2016 | $24.95 | £18.95 | ISBN: 9780691167343
Hardcover | 2016 | $70.00 | £51.95 | ISBN: 9780691167336
352 pp. | 6 x 9 | 3 halftones. 1 table.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400880553 |
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Reviews | Table of Contents
Introduction[PDF] pdf-icon
555 Questions to Make Digital Keywords Harder: A Teaching Resource

Google full text of this book:

A Q&A with Benjamin Peters

In the age of search, keywords increasingly organize research, teaching, and even thought itself. Inspired by Raymond Williams’s 1976 classic Keywords, the timely collection Digital Keywords gathers pointed, provocative short essays on more than two dozen keywords by leading and rising digital media scholars from the areas of anthropology, digital humanities, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, rhetoric, science and technology studies, and sociology. Digital Keywords examines and critiques the rich lexicon animating the emerging field of digital studies.

This collection broadens our understanding of how we talk about the modern world, particularly of the vocabulary at work in information technologies. Contributors scrutinize each keyword independently: for example, the recent pairing of digitalandanalog is separated, while classic terms such as community, culture, event, memory, and democracy are treated in light of their historical and intellectual importance. Metaphors of the cloud in cloud computing and the mirror in data mirroring combine with recent and radical uses of terms such as information, sharing, gaming, algorithm, and internet to reveal previously hidden insights into contemporary life. Bookended by a critical introduction and a list of over two hundred other digital keywords, these essays provide concise, compelling arguments about our current mediated condition.

Digital Keywords delves into what language does in today’s information revolution and why it matters.

Endorsements & Reviews

Digital Keywords interrogates some of the words at the center of our socio-technical world, revealing the way in which the digital has reconfigured culture. This inspiring book is essential for all who are trying to understand our contemporary mediated society. It’s a pure delight for anyone who hasn’t stopped to think about the power of these words.”

Danah Boyd, founder of Data & Society and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Digital Keywords is fascinating, erudite, informative, and delightful. This is a cabinet of present-day wonders to which I’m sure I’ll return many times.”

Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

“The distinguished contributors of Digital Keywords analyze the ways language has changed as a result of the digital revolution. The result is an engaging and readable tour through important concepts in scholarly debate and public discourse.”

Daniel Kreiss, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Now, 40 years after Williams began the journey into the politics and culture behind language, his work has been continued – and readapted for the 21st century – in a book that seeks to carry on where he left off, by digging out the roots of digital language and discovering how it has shaped the newfound society we live in today…. with the release of this book, the digital language journey is just getting started. ‘Digital Keywords’ serves as an in-depth interrogation of the meaning and development of digitised language, and strives to reveal the way in which the digital has reshaped society and rewritten culture. You can learn a lot about society from language, and those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the modern, digital world we all inhabit would be well advised to begin by taking a look at this book. Just as ‘Keywords’ made its way firmly onto reference shelves in the 1970s, so too will ‘Digital Keywords’ today.”

Jade Fell, Engineering & Technology
writing

Writing


How Not to Network a Nation

Peters, Benjamin. How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. The MIT Press, April 2016.


Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture

Peters, Benjamin, ed. Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. Princeton University Press, June 2016.

Peters, Benjamin. (2010.) “From Cybernetics to Cyber Networks: Norbert Wiener, the Soviet Internet, and the Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism.” Dissertation. New York, Columbia University. (Abstract: Available in full upon request.)

teaching

Teaching

Graduate Students

  • Scott Brennan, University of North Carolina, Comprehensive Exam Committee Member February 2016

Courses

Assistant Professor, Communication, the University of Tulsa

(Currently) Spring 2017

Communication Technology & Society (Information Technology & Society)” fall 2015, fall 2013, spring 2013, fall 2012, fall 2011. Required foundation course for major and general education course.

Global Media” spring 2016. Upper-level seminar.

Digital Studies” spring 2016. Upper-level seminar.

Digital Media Keywords” spring 2014. Senior-level seminar.

Visiting Assistant Professor, Communication, Hebrew University

Understanding Media (Media Between Nature and Culture)” winter break 2012-2013. Intensive doctoral seminar. Co-taught with John Durham Peters.

Postdoctoral Instructor, Communication, Hebrew University

Networks: Science, Technology, and Society” spring 2011. Junior-level course.

The Cybernetic Front: Digital Media and the Cold War,” fall 2011, graduate level seminar.

Adjunct Faculty, Media, Communication, & Culture, New York University

Mass Persuasion and Propaganda” fall 2009. Junior-level course.

Adjunct Faculty, Communication, Brigham Young University

“Research Methods in Communication” summer 2006. Co-led statistics laboratory for required sophomore-level course.

Adjunct Faculty, Communication, Salt Lake Community College
“Effective Communication” summer 2006. Introduction to the major.

Teaching Assistant to Professor Alexander Stille, Columbia, “Politics and Government,” spring 2007. Masters-level course.

Teaching Assistant to Professor Brigitte Nacos, Columbia, “Global Mass-Mediated Politics,” fall 2007. Senior-level seminar.

Volunteer Instructor, Russia, led daily public lectures and private lessons in Russian fall 1999-summer 2001.

Metrics

  • Average overall teaching evaluation ratings (10 is highest): instructor 9.0
  • Most Valuable Professor award, seven times, University of Tulsa, fall 2013-spring 2014
cv

Curriculum Vitae

(Last updated September 2016)

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about

About

Benjamin PetersMedia scholar and author, I write and teach on how media change over regimes of time, space, technology, and power. My work takes critical, historical, and global approaches to that basic puzzle of why media in general–and digital media in particular–take hold differently in different contexts. My work tends to gravitate around new media history, critical information studies, and global media studies with emphases in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where I lived during the Arab Spring.

My first book asks why, despite 30 years of attempts, was there no Soviet internet? (Tl;dr: Network talk gets the cold war wrong.) My first edited volume gathers leading voices on the role language plays in the age of search on the 40th anniversary of Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords. Other projects in the works are critical of intelligent mind discourse, the history of computing and small groups, and global computing. Other publication topics to date include new media in history, comparative network analysis and history, search engine politics, early Soviet information science, religion and record-keeping, and pre-cybernetic literature in interwar Europe; working paper topics on the theory in conspiracy theories, the metaphors for copyright, property and transgression, the digital commons, and piracy cultures, among others. I’m always looking for the next idea, so please be in touch.

On a more personal note, I have developed these interests over the last decade and a half alongside Kourtney Lambert, who is, in addition to so much else, an incandescent high school math teacher and alumna of Columbia’s Teachers College. Together we luxuriate in learning languages, sampling cuisines, and geeking out. Kourtney chronicles the occasional antic on her blog.