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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Awarded the 2017 Vucinich Book Prize for “the most important contribution to the [Slavic studies] field in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences”
Received
 a 2017 PROSE Award Notable Mention in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
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
Finalist for the 2017 Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form, Media Ecology Association

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.

  • (Forthcoming) Peters, Benjamin. “The Computer Never Was a Brain, or the Curious Death and Designs of John von Neumann,” in Verhaltensdesign. Technologische und ästhetische Programme der 1960er und 1970er Jahre. Edited by Christina Vagt and Jeannie Moser.
  • (Forthcoming) Peters, Benjamin and John Durham Peters. “Foreword” to Communication Theory through the Ages, by Igor Klyukanov and Galya Sinekopova, Routledge Press.
  • (Under Review) Peters, Benjamin and Marijeta Bozovic. “Russian Hacker” in HackerCurio.
  • (Under Review) Peters, Benjamin. “A Network is Not a Network” in Your Computer is on Fire, Thomas Mullaney, Marie Hicks, Benjamin Peters, Kavita Philip, eds. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • (Under Review) Peters, Benjamin. “Afterword” in Mullaney, Thomas, Marie Hicks, Benjamin Peters, Kavita Philip, Your Computer is on Fire, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • (Under Review) Peters, Benjamin. “The Theory in Conspiracy Theory is Dangerous” in Fake News: Understanding Media and Misinformation in the Digital Age, edited by Kembrew McLeod and Melissa Zimdars. NYU Press. Also translated into German, “Vorsicht vor der Theorie der Verschwörungstheorie” in special issue of Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, Vol. 19: Faktizitäten.
  • (In Development) Peters, Benjamin and Hu Yong. “A Conversation on Network Histories.” Preface/afterword to special issue on “Computer Network Histories” in History and Informatics journal, edited by Gabriele Balbi.
  • (In Development) Kneese, Tamara and Benjamin Peters. “Digital Afterlives, 1844/2044.”
  • Peters, Benjamin. 2017. “The Missing Medium: Rereading Revelation as Interruption.” A Dream, a Rock, a Pillar of Fire. Maxwell Institute Press: December 2017.
  • Shilina, Marina, Robert Couch, & Benjamin Peters. 2017. “Data: An Ethical Overview,” introduction to the special issue “The Data Turn & Ethics” in the Russian Journal of Communication. Volume 9: Issue 3, 2017.
  • Peters, Benjamin and John Durham Peters. 2017. “Introduction” to the special issue forum on “Mormonism as Media” in the Mormon Studies Review. Volume 5, 2018.
  • Tatarchenko, Ksenia and Benjamin Peters. 2017. “Tomorrow Begins Yesterday: Data Imaginaries in Russian and Soviet Science Fiction” in Russian Journal of Communication. Volume 9, Issue 3.
  • “Cybernetics” The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy (ed. Klaus Bruhn Jensen)
  • “Norbert Wiener” The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy (ed. Klaus Bruhn Jensen)
  • Peters, John Durham and Benjamin Peters. (2017) “Norbert Wiener as a PragmatistEmpedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 7: 2, 157-172.
  • John, Nicholas and Benjamin Peters. (2016) “Why privacy keeps dying: The trouble with talk about the end of privacy,” Information Communication and Society.
  • Benjamin Peters and John Durham Peters. (2016) “Master and Disciple: Communication.” As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture, ed. Julie M. Smith. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 173-7.
  • Geoghegan, Bernard and Benjamin Peters. (2014) “Cybernetics” in The John Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Marie-Laure Ryan, et. al., eds. John Hopkins UP: Baltimore, 109-112.
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2013) “Toward a Genealogy of a Cold War Communication Science: the Strange Loops of Leo and Norbert Wiener.” The Russian Journal of Communication. 5: 1, 31–43. (Also available here.)
  • Peters, Benjamin and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2013) “New Media,” Handbook of Communication History, Peter Simonson, et. al., eds. Routledge. (Also available here.)
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2012) “Normalizing Soviet Cybernetics” Information & Culture. 47:2, 145-175.
  • Peters, Benjamin and Deborah Lubken. (2011) “New Media in Crises: Discursive Instability and Emergency Communication.” The Long History of New Media. Peter Lang.
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2009) “And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History,” New Media & Society, 11:1/2, 13-30.
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2008) “Betrothal and Betrayal: The Soviet Translation of Norbert Wiener’s Early Cybernetics,” International Journal of Communications, 2:1, 66-80.
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2008) “The Search Engine Democracy: Metaphors and Muhammad,” in The Power of Search Engines /Die Macht der Such-maschinen, edited by Marcel Machill and Markus Beiler, (Leipzig, Germany: Herman von Halem), 228-242.
  • Peters, Benjamin. (2007) “The Cybernetics of Nabokov’s ‘Beneficence,’” Ulbandus: The Slavic Review of Columbia University, ed. by Marijeta Bozovic, 173-190.

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, Dissertation Committee, Outside Reader, 2016-2018. Currently, a postdoc at Oxford University.
  • Carlotta Chenoweth, Yale University, Dissertation Committee, Outside Reader, 2018-Present.

Courses

Assistant-Associate Professor, Media Studies, the University of Tulsa

  • “Inquiry into Media Studies” fall 2017. Required mixed research methods course for the major.
  • Communication Systems (Introduction to Communication)” fall 2017, fall 2016, fall 2015, fall 2014, spring 2014, fall 2013, spring 2013, fall 2012, spring 2012, fall 2011. Required introduction to the major.
  • Communication Theories.” spring 2018, spring 2017. Required core course for the major.
  • Cyber Culture since 1945” spring 2017, spring 2014, spring 2013, spring 2012. Upper-level honors seminar.

Communication Technology & Society (Information Technology & Society)” fall 2018, fall 2017, spring 2017, fall 2016, 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

about

About

Benjamin PetersA media 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. I am particularly concerned with how and why media technologies distribute and concentrate power and knowledge unevenly–and what to do about it.

My first book asks why, despite 30 years of attempts, was there no Soviet internet? (Tl;dr: The cold war got network talk backward.) 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. I am currently at work on a number of other book projects critical of “smart tech,” computing history, and global new media. Other publication topics to date include new media history, comparative network analysis and history, conspiracy theory, privacy discourse, search engine politics, cold war information science, Soviet science fiction, religion and record-keeping, and interwar Europe literature. 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 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.

Get in Touch