February 7, 2008 Ben Peters

Round two: Is the Internet a Soviet Idea?

One more detail: according to American intelligence, the Soviet military may have been working on a “unified information network” as early as 1958, several years before the ARPANET project found traction in 1962 and went online in 1969 with the packet-switching computer network that eventually became the internet. I think it likely speculation that the Soviet “unified information network” would not have perfected packet-switching, an invention seemingly of Paul Baran at RAND in 1962, which Donald Davies coined and developed independently in 1965 (Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet, 2000). Still packet-switching, as I understand it at least, is an outgrowth of queueing theory and Leonard Kleinrock’s 1961 work on the mathematical study of waiting in lines. What could be more Soviet than information network built on waiting in lines?

Besides the potential for play here, the suggestion that the Internet was first a Soviet idea is worth more than just a curious correction to the historical record. The suggestion, too, carries rich overtones for cultural historians of the origins of online collectivist culture. Suddenly, it may be more thinkable that Cold War military initiatives in computer networks led to strains of revolutionary West Coast digital utopianism in the 1970s and 1980s. (Actually Fred Turner’s work From Counterculture to Cyberculture details that exact history. It’s fascinating, not sudden.) The origins of the idea of networked society were never inherent to the American military (nor to Soviet society). The suggestion also complicates the attribution genealogies of the Cold War technology races–we have the enemy to thank and admissions to make about our national security trumping plagiarism concerns (it’s unfortunate that the bilateral surveillance of military science had to be competitive, instead of cooperative as many scientists on both sides would have preferred). It may also raise perennial and pressing questions about the ethical practices of governments at war.

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