Putting the life back in science fiction

The Soviet Internyet
October 21, 2016, 10:35 pm
Filed under: alt-future, science fiction, Speculation, The Internet | Tags: , ,

Just another little note.  In case you’re wondering why I’m not writing about climate change, it’s for two reasons.  One is that we’re moving next week (just a few miles, but paperwork and packing are paperwork and packing), and the other is that I’ve been commenting in real life on climate action plans for local jurisdictions, so I don’t feel like ringing the *we’re all (not quite) doooomed* bell again until Halloween, when it’s seasonally appropriate.

That said, I tripped over this interesting essay on Aeon about the Soviet Union’s abortive attempts to create an internet, and how what strangled those efforts has echoes today.  I won’t spoil it too much, because it’s a fun, fast read.

I havea couple of questions about it, and I’m hoping someone reading this could enlighten me.  One question is how accurate and/or useful this article is.  I’m not in the IT industry, and so I don’t know if this is relatively common knowledge or something neat and new. I also don’t know if the article is accurate or laden with male bovine exudate.

My other question is whether this is the kind of thing that alt-history is made of.  For example, if Comrade Garbuzov had had an attack of appendicitis or something that had prevented him from attending that fateful meeting, and Glushkov had prevailed with Brezhnev’s support, what would the world look like if the USSR had developed the first internet.   Would a Soviet Internet have been Big Brother’s playpen, would the proposed distributed network model have enabled the fall of the Soviet Union that much faster, or (gasp, shock horror, paging Ken MacLeod), would an early internet have actually made the planned economy work?  Or perhaps all three simultaneously?  That might make for some interesting science fiction.  Or has it been done already?

What do you all think?


3 Comments so far
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The USSR wasn’t trying to create the internet, but rather a cybernetic control system to manage the command economy. The Chilean Allende government wanted to do the same and one of my B-School visiting profs, Stafford Beer, was involved in that project until Pinochet took over. Beer wrote several books about how to organize cybernetic control systems. A brief bio is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stafford_Beer

Comment by alexandertolley

I’d pick Jack Womack rather than Ken Macleod. eg. Let’s put the future behind us.

Comment by Julian Bond

Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty”, referenced in the article, is a great book about the ultimately failed attempts to apply mathematics and computers to the planned economy of the USSR. A few years back the blog Crooked Timber had a seminar about it. This was my favorite in the series of posts and comment threads in the seminar:


I contributed a couple of comments there but there’s another Matt in that comments thread who is not me and is making some different points.

One of the problems in planning a whole economy was modeling all the variables in a mathematically/computationally tractable way. I don’t think that computer power became sufficient to find optimal solutions with known algorithms for problems of this size until sometime after the turn of the millennium, well after the USSR was already gone. Maybe there were approximate algorithms that could have done OK on the much less powerful computers of the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t know enough about the history of mathematical optimization to hazard a guess.

The other problem was that a lot of the input to planning was garbage. There were pervasive incentives for Soviet managers to set unrealistic targets and for underlings to lie about having met them. (If this sounds a lot like Dilbert, it’s perhaps because a large corporation operates very much like a planned economy, with similar benefits and problems.) I suggested in one of the comments on the CT thread that you might be able to bypass the deceitful human element today by harnessing pervasive surveillance and machine learning for optimizing production instead of detecting terrorist plots or getting people to click on advertising. Again, this would use computing and communications technologies that became sufficiently powerful only recently.

Comment by Matt

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