Exploring Soviet cybernetics as an alternative narrative of the future.
While it is common today to view computer technologies as a product of capitalism created with the backing of the Pentagon, back in the USSR of the 1960s some scientists and engineers saw computers as “machines of communism” and put forth their own vision of a global information network.
In her sci-fi video project After Scarcity, Iranian artist Bahar Noorizadeh tracks Soviet cyberneticians of the 1950s–1980s in their attempt to build a fully automated planned economy. Presenting this as an alternative history, she looks at the economic potential of socialist cybernetic experiments and their power to challenge contemporary financial worldview.
In search of alternative narratives of the future, more and more artists, speculative designers, and researchers from around the world are turning their eyes to the history of Soviet cybernetics. “How might we use computation to get us out of our current state of digital feudalism and towards new possible utopias?” she asks in her film.
On one hand, this allows us to think about how this alternative internet could have changed the course of history. What would the Communist Party and the Soviet military have used the new technology for? Would the Soviet internet have created digital tyranny? Having its own internet, how would the USSR have responded to the drop in oil prices, Perestroika, and Glasnost? And how would the USSR have looked at the turn of 1991? How would the Cold War have unfolded if the internet as we know it had been rivaled by a Soviet alternative since the 1960s?
On the other hand, exploring this legacy allows us to envision what impact the ideas of this unrealized digital socialism could have on our contemporary lives. Noorizadeh’s work makes us think what would Vladimir Lenin’s famous formula “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” sound in a world of blockchain and the Internet of Things?
The USSR wasn’t the only country experimenting with cyber-socialism. In 1970, under Salvador Allende, the Chilean government commissioned British cybernetician Stafford Beer to develop a computer system known as Project Cybersyn. However, the vision was abandoned due to the violent military coup led by Agusto Pinochet, and the project was deliberately dismantled.
It was the economic boom in the early 1960s USSR that led to the rise of the idea of Soviet communism with a cybernetic face. The ever-growing economy was now more difficult to manage, the massive amounts of data it generated were hard to process, and industry branches were almost impossible to synchronize. It became clear that public administration tasks needed to be facilitated with the computers and industrial control systems (ICS) that had already been widely used by the defense industry.
After Scarcity is focused on the figure of Victor Glushkov, a visionary mathematician and director of the Cybernetics Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, led Soviet efforts to deal with the looming economic stagnation. Thanks to him, the country saw the emergence of new specialized institutes and departments within major universities, all of which shared one goal—training new computer and ICS specialists.
“While the Stalinists opposed cybernetics, thinking it bourgeois pseudoscience, cyberneticists like Victor Glushkov rose to prominence in the 1960s as increasing bureaucratic demands of the centrally planned economy threatened to turn the Union into an absurdist administrative state,” Noorizadeh says in her film.
One of Glushkov’s greatest practical goals was the creation of the National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing (OGAS). He believed that in the face of impending economic stagnation it was the only lifeline for the country’s further development. Glushkov envisioned thousands of local computers connected to one another through a regional server. The mainframe network was supposed to be synchronized nationwide and connected to the main computing center in Moscow. The main idea behind the project was to make managerial decision-making less biased and dramatically improve industry and transport efficiency.
Glushkov’s project wasn’t the only failed attempt to create the Soviet internet. In 1959, Engineer Colonel Anatoly Kitov proposed the creation of a “unified automated management system” for the national economy that would link together large networks of computers installed at large factories and government agencies. The project, however, never received the support of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
The political reasons behind OGAS’ failure and the complex relationship between information and power are explored by science historian Slava Gerovich in his article InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union did not build a nationwide computer network. “Cyberneticians aspired to reform the Soviet government with a technological tool whose uses the government itself defined. This resulted, quite naturally, in the transformation of the tool itself—from a vehicle of reform into a pillar of the status quo,” he writes.
An obituary published in the United States described Glushkov as the “King of Soviet cybernetics.” In his book Fundamentals of Paperless Informatics, published a few months after his death, he wrote a visionary prediction: “Soon enough paper books, newspapers, and magazines will be no more. Every person will have an electronic notebook—a combination of a flat screen and a mini radio transmitter. No matter where you are in the world, if you key a specific code in the notebook, you will be able to summon texts and images from giant remote databases. This will forever replace not only books, newspapers, and magazines, but also television.”
Despite being written for a mathematically oriented audience, it became popular with people who had nothing to do with computer science. Glushkov also speculated about computational technologies in everyday life: future TV sets and television, multifunctional telephones, programmed washing machines, paperless documents and correspondence, computer games, language-based programming (a prototype of personal assistants like Siri or Alexa), electronic newspapers and magazines, and even electronic money (a Soviet e-currency project was proposed by Glushkov’s team in 1962).
For a New Year’s Eve party, the employees of Glushkov’s institute came up with “Cybertonia”—a virtual country ruled by a council of robots. Cybertonia enthusiasts organized regular activities in Kyiv and Lviv including conferences and children’s parties, published brochures, issued its own currency. It even drafted the Cybertonia Constitution, with Cybertonia becoming a speculative design project that imagined a Soviet cybernetic future that never saw the light of day.
In his 2016 book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, media scholar Benjamin Peters clearly shows that bureaucracy was to blame for the failure of the Soviet internet project. Instead of creating a collaborative research environment, different self-interested agencies and bureaucrats diligently stood up only for their own agenda. The Soviet Union was unable to build its own internet—not because it lacked technologies or the institution of private property, but because it was impossible to get a project of this scale approved by all of the necessary agencies, whose interests it sometimes contradicted.
“The first global civilian computer networks were developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists, while the socialists behaved like capitalists,” writes Peters.