There are often questions or ideas that when you first hear them, you ask yourself: why didn’t I think of that? In How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (MIT Press 978-0262034180), author Benjamin Peters (Professor, Department of Communication at the University of Tulsa) asks the simple question: why didn’t the Soviet Union create something akin to the Internet before the U.S. did?
This is the same Soviet Union that beat the U.S. in the cold war space race. So why didn’t they do that when it came to interconnected networks?
Peters writes that the Soviets did try to create an interconnected network, but were never able to get it right. The Soviets had no shortage of brilliant scientists that could have gotten them to that goal. So it was clearly not lack of brainpower that stymied the Soviets.
The book begins with a somewhat dry overview of the global history of cybernetics and how it was used by the Soviets. Peters than gets into the intricacies of the mindset of the communist party and how it was what largely precluded the development of any sort of interconnected network.
Victor Glushkov, one of the leading Soviet cybernetic scientists plays a large role in the book. He created what was known as the All-State Automated System (OGAS in Russian) which could have led to an autonomous ARPANET-like network in Russia if deployed. In fact, Glushkov proposed the idea of OGAS in 1962, years before ARPANET went live in 1969.
Peters is of the opinion that while the Soviets had the raw brainpower to create an early ARPANET-like network, the failure to execute on that was due to entrenched bureaucratic corruption which was systemic in Communist Russia, in addition to conflicts of interest within the Soviet system.
While the Americans saw ARPANET as a way to share information and knowledge, Soviet bureaucrats thought such a network would undermine communism and threaten their control of the Soviet economy.
ARPANET was developed due to the collaboration of its developers in addition to grants from the National Science Foundation. Peters writes that ironically, the Americans that created ARPANET behaved more like socialists, while the Soviet scientists behaved more like capitalists.
Peters has written the definitive narrative on the topic. For those looking to understand the Communist mindset in an information technology perspective, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet is an interesting read.