January 29, 2008 Ben Peters

Is the Internet a Soviet idea? Did Soviets think of the ARPANET project first?

I cannot answer these questions, yet. A FOIA request and trip to Moscow may help clear up the matter some.

According to partially declassified CIA documents citing material previous to 1962, the Soviets came up with a project to build a “Unified Information Network” (ob”yedinyonnaya informatsionnaya set’?) intended to be a wide-ranging computer network. The ARPANET, care of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, picks up serious momentum to build the exact same thing in 1962 and go online in 1969.
A wild hunch: the Soviet military-industrial complex had the idea for a nation-wide computer network first. The American version got word of the project, got nervous about a Sputnik II, and managed to pull it off before the Soviets. (Thank you packet-switching!) It could be a classic story of Cold War technology competition: Soviet theory vs. American application. Reminds me of stories about brilliant Soviet programmers whose theories were (and still remain) cutting-edge but who had never seen a computer. Many did work on chalk boards.
Bonnie Honig in Democracy and the Foreigner suggests foundational narratives often draw on a foreign founder. The house of David has its Ruth, a Moabite; Oz has its Dorothy of Kansas; and now, perhaps, the Internet has its Soviet roots. As I argue in a recent article in the International Journal of Communication available here, Norbert Wiener became in part the founding foreigner for the Soviet tradition of cybernetics (the Russian kibernetika still embraces a much larger sense of the study of computers today). It is only fitting that the Soviets would return the favor.
More soon, above. (Blogs as chronological scrolls unrolling in reverse: how strange for stringing together topics yet how similar to the forward march of time!)

Comment (1)

  1. Ben Peters

    On second thought, “unified” is more /ob”yedinyonnaya/ not /coyedinyonnaya/. Ugh. (No good trying to think through a mental fogbanks brought on by this week’s sickness.)

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