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Book Reviews

A rail odyssey that falls just short of a half-century, what got in the way of Soviet web, and a new biography of a true visionary.

The MIT Press

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

By Benjamin Peters, £26.95, ISBN 9780262034180

Politicians can have an odd relationship with the Internet. They want to be seen to embrace its world-changing potential, but are just as often clearly frustrated by the ability to eliminate national borders that makes it impossible to govern in traditional ways.

Nowhere is that frustration more evident than in Russia’s approach to the balancing act of exploiting the Web’s potential while maintaining the control its leaders would like to exercise.

The technology’s American roots don’t help. Recent weeks have seen the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, Ilya Rogachyov, questioning what he and many of his colleagues see as a US monopoly on running the Web. They’re keen on establishing what they describe as a more ‘transparent’ international mechanism that would give all countries an equal stake.

Had it not been for crucial missteps by the former Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th century, the situation could have been very different. Consider for a minute the resources the country had during the Cold War in terms of technical expertise, state control of massive infrastructure projects, and a sheer will to outdo the USA, and a question addressed by this fascinating book becomes obvious: why didn’t the Soviet Union create its own national-scale network at the same time as the USA’s, if not earlier?

As US academic Benjamin Peters discovered during the eight years he spent researching his book, there was once something that we might think of as an embryonic Soviet equivalent of what became today’s Internet. Between the late 1950s and late 1980s a group of scientists and administrators, well aware of Western initiatives like the US Department of Defense’s SAGE project, tried to develop a nationwide computer network.

These pioneers were convinced that using cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems, to coordinate industrial activity would save an ailing command economy and bring sweeping social benefits. The plan was perfectly in tune with Communist ideology and all the elements were there, so why didn’t it happen?

The most prominent attempt at a network, developed in the early 1960s, was the All-State Automated System, or OGAS. The project’s failure wasn’t inevitable, especially bearing in mind successes in similar areas such as space flight. Like many ambitious national infrastructure projects, resources weren’t the problem, it was the need for a flat, non-hierarchical and collaborative environment that was the opposite of the Soviet regime at the time.

The contrast between this and the USA, where the Internet predecessor ARPANET went online in 1969, is a paradoxical one. ARPANET enjoyed the sort of generous state subsidies and central control one would expect to be typical of the Soviet Union. Instead, OGAS’s developers were thwarted by unregulated competition between self-interested institutions and bureaucrats.

As Peters succinctly puts it, “The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.” The engineers were up to the job, but had to deal with politicians preoccupied with paperwork and power brokerage.

OGAS was never formally approved or rejected but ended up, as Peters puts it, “stalemated in a morass of bureaucratic barriers, mutinous ministries and institutional infighting”. In the end, the fate of what would have leapfrogged the Americans to become the most ambitious computer network project of its kind in the world, linking tens of thousands of computer centres, was sealed by the absence of just two people from a crucial planning meeting.

The fateful day was 1 October 1970, just a year after America’s ARPANET went online. Cyberneticist and project mastermind Viktor Glushkov travelled from Kiev to Moscow for a meeting with Politburo members in what had once been Stalin’s office in the Kremlin. With a pair of his supporters absent on other business, opponents who feared how much control they would have to cede to the people in control of the planned network seized the opportunity to kick it into the proverbial long grass and seal their country’s fate as the nation that missed the chance to grab the online initiative.

The story of how Peters tracked down this and other facts is almost a Cold War thriller in itself. Research included the frustrating task of trying to access source material at first hand in Moscow, “shuffling through dusty documents that were lit by a single flickering light bulb”. At one point, a stroke of luck puts him in touch with MIT historian Slava Gerovitch, who links him with key contacts in Eastern Europe and a series of visits to out-of-the-way archives.

The result is as much about the intricacies of politics and bureaucracy under a Communist regime as it is the technical challenges of building networks on a national scale. Peters acknowledges that what began as an account of a missed opportunity ended up being about much more, including a cautionary tale for those tasked with building the networks of tomorrow.

Dominic Lenton

Oxford University Press

‘You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future’

By Jonathon Keats (£16.99, ISBN9780199338238)

The inventor Buckminster Fuller, who described himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist”, was one of the 20th century’s true visionaries, whose creations are on the border between engineering and science fiction.

Nevertheless, his ideas were often dismissed during his lifetime and his name is probably only familiar to most people who would recognise it in connection with the freestanding geodesic dome structures for which he was best known.

With ‘You Belong to the Universe’, Jonathon Keats attempts to set the record straight with a run through a six-decade career that encompassed ideas as diverse as the three-wheel Dymaxion car and a bathroom requiring neither plumbing nor sewerage.

The objective throughout was to “make the world work for one hundred per cent of humanity”, an aim that’s as valid today as it’s ever been. By positioning it in a modern context, Keats argues that Fuller’s approach of “doing the most with the least” is actually more relevant than it was during his lifetime as we struggle to meet the demands of an exploding world population.

Readers coming for an illuminating biography of one of technology’s most colourful characters won’t be disappointed. What they’ll get as well though is a primer in a way of thinking about innovation that warrants a revival.

Dominic Lenton

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