October 22, 2008 Ben Peters

Why the Soviet Internet Failed

In a word, decentralization. I had the pleasure of presenting a working paper and my first stab at such an argument at the Harvard-MIT-Yale cyber-scholars working group at the Berkman Center Tuesday, October 21, 2008. The other presentations were stimulating, and all took place leavened by warm food and the smart and generous folk at Berkman. It was a real treat. A paper draft is available for comment at bj[insert my last name here]@gmail.com and a video of the presentation is available online (here).

Building on the fantastic “InterNyet” article (here) of MIT historian of science Slava Gerovitch, I argued, in brief, that the Soviet attempts to build a non-military nationwide computer network (namely Victor Glushkov’s 1964 proposal for a hierarchically-structured information network that could harvest and manage all economic data for the entire Soviet socialist economy) in the 1950s and 1960s need to be understood in the context of decentralized politics, administrative structure, and network design. Decentralized networks are obviously different than centralized networks but what many forget is that they are also importantly different from distributed networks as well (for this distinction, see Paul Baran “On Distributed Communication” 1964). The fact that Soviet state structure was decentralized hierarchically, and that ministries did not share information or funding sources between themselves, offers both an explanation of why no comprehensive computer network design could survive fractured implementation as well as a cautionary tale today for our own largely decentralized world saturated, as it may be at times, with comparable levels of talent, enthusiasm, and vision that too could prove shortsighted. One particular case study, the origins of the Central Economic Mathematical Institute in Moscow and the irony of purposeful funding (both the lack of money and a channeled flood of money can kill a brilliant project), was examined in particular.

Comments (12)

  1. Slava Gerovitch commented encouragingly on the paper, adding to the explanation:

    The de-centralized network that Glushkov proposed was clearly hierarchical, while the actual mechanism of Soviet power was not strictly hierarchical (though not entirely distributed either): formal hierarchies of the ministries and the local Soviets were superimposed on the criss-crossing structures of political connections facilitated by the Communist Party. For example, a kolkhoz chairman would call up a local party chief and request help, and the party chief would call up
    local factories and ask them to send workers and trucks to help with harvesting: there was no room for such an economy of exchange in the Glushkov system. The managers had to have some slack built into the system to allow for such
    informal exchanges. Glushkov’s scheme of rationalization of resources clearly
    undercut this gray economy of mutual favors that greased the rusty wheels of Soviet production. Ultimately, the Soviet Internet failed because no one wanted to join the network, for it went against their economic self-interest.

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