February 16, 2017
MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH: The tale of how the USSR almost invented the internet.
Many of today’s digital utopians draw inspiration from a real world attempt to implement electronic socialism: Salvador Allende’s abortive 1970s programme that sought to rationalise and democratise the planning of the Chilean economy through a nationwide network of telex machines. “Project Cybersyn” was cut short by Pinochet’s coup, but, helped by the surviving images of its iconic retro-futurist central operations room, the episode continues to symbolise radical aspirations to harness technology to break through to an alternative economic system.
Cybersyn was conceived during the same era as a still more ambitious but less well documented project: a well-resourced programme to digitise the planning of the Soviet Union’s vast command economy. The labyrinthine story of the “Soviet internet” is told in detail in a new book by Tulsa University professor Benjamin Peters, who, venturing into Moscow archives “lit by a single flickering light bulb”, pieces together the tale of plans to supercharge the USSR’s stuttering economy through the installation and networking of a constellation of mainframe computers at major production points from Leningrad to Siberia. The project was one of the most spectacular manifestations of the restless Soviet ambition to lever technology to create the material conditions for “full communism”.
This is like arguing that another socialistic utopian, Gene Roddenberry, almost invented the teleporter.