How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (Information Policy) Hardcover – March 25, 2016
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[A]n immersive read that covers the ground in impressive detail.―Times Higher Education
Anyone interested in the history of the internet, comparative systems, or the history of the Soviet Union should read this book.―Marginal Revolution
Benjamin Peters's book is not only a scintillating explanation of why the Soviet Internet failed to materialize but also a first-rate sociopolitical investigative report and a delicious tale of how Soviet efforts to manage a command economy left them without either command or an economy.―Todd Gitlin, Professor and Chair, PhD Program in Communications, Columbia University; author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (2017-01-01)
Peters offers a compelling account of the Soviet Union's failed attempts to construct their own Internet during the Cold War period. How Not to Network a Nation fills an important gap in the Internet's history, highlighting the ways in which generativity and openness have been essential to networked innovation.―Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Computer Science, Harvard University; Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society (2017-01-01)
As early as 1962, cybernetics experts in the Soviet Union proposed a complex, large-scale computer network. It fit with a socialist vision but not with bureaucratic politics and a faltering command economy. It was never realized, but the story sheds light both on Soviet history and on the social conditions that shape computing and communications networks. It is a previously unknown story, now elegantly told by Benjamin Peters together with a thoughtful analysis that makes the early history of computing seem full of possibilities not obvious.―Craig Calhoun, FBA, Director and President, London School of Economics and Political Science
- Publisher : The MIT Press (March 25, 2016)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 312 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0262034182
- ISBN-13 : 978-0262034180
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Item Weight : 1.2 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.06 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,955,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I saw him I believe in the Fall of 1977 at a Conference at Cornell at which time the Diffie Hellman encryption algorithm was discussed. I guess that half the attendees were not necessarily who they may have said they were.
Then some twenty plus years later I now had partners in Russia running my Russian network and the former head of the Czech PTT was now my Czech partner. My former "friend" used to work for him. Small world. Since I had worked on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Negotiations in the late 1970s, doing the networking for the seismometers, my Russian friends clearly knew me. During one of my conversations I was told by my Czech partner, a senior figure both in Czech as well as Soviet circles that they used the Bell System Technical Journals to design their telecom systems and the IEEE journals for data systems.
In fact, one of my Russian partners was one of the first to introduce the Internet to Russia and we completed the task in the late 90s. As such I have a different view than the author, one based on technical facts of the network and its operations.
This book is NOT about the Internet or its Soviet clone from a technical or operational perspective. Rather it is about the Soviet bureaucratic system and the need to make some sense out of its overwhelming administrative overhead using networks on both the economic administrative side and the military side.
Chapter 1 is a discussion of Wiener and Cybernetics. The author presents one of the best discussions regarding the acceptance of Cybernetics in the Soviet Union I have seen. Wiener was a brilliant mathematician and in addition could think in large scale systems. His book on Cybernetics was warmly received in the US but its theme was understanding large scale systems and the US was no longer, at that time, interested in that. It was moving from a War footing and into a capitalist industrial footing in the 50s. The Soviet Union on the other hand was further consolidating a centralized command and control economy and Wiener's ideas rang bells. Thus they adopted his view of the world. Chapter 2 presents a good overview of how the Soviet Union then took these ideas and tried to integrate them into this centralized world.
Chapter 3 is allegedly an attempt to present the networks used. It really is a discussion of the people and the politics and not the technical issues. Although interesting I really wanted to see some discussion of what the Russian had implemented and how their designs differed from ours. There were a mass of varying data protocols and data speeds and network transport mechanisms that were developed in the US and I wondered what did the Soviets do in parallel. The author depicts the Soviet's response as a response to SAGE and then I wondered what the response was to the packet ideas of Baran. In fact, the work of Roberts and in turn Kahn at ARPA were almost all in the open literature and the goal was a survivable network, apparently perceived by the Soviets as a threat. If so I wondered just what they did. I am certain that there must now be a great deal of unclassified CIA and DIA reports that would clarify that but the discussion is missing.
Chapters 4 and 5 go through the 60s and then 70-80s respectively and the author presents the principals who tried to accomplish something in this realm. The politics seemed to be always creating roadblocks and the innovation that ARPA allowed seemed to foster what we have today.
The author has an interesting discussion on the Mansfield Amendment, that in 1969 put an end to DoD funding anything but specific program supported work. Until that time DoD funded what has become the foundation of our information based economy, and with Mansfield we saw a total collapse of that development. I often wondered if the Soviets saw that for what it did.
Overall the book is an excellent presentation of the people and politics of what would become some of the infrastructure in the Soviet Union. I wondered what the role of a RosTelecom would be in that mix, an element not discussed. In addition, the Soviets had satellites the Molyniya System which were not equatorial but polar, and thus their communications ground stations were expensive and subject to failing. Their cable connections were also mixed with spotty interconnections across the wide expanses. The author provides some maps but it would have been more useful to have some detail.
This is a well-organized and presentation of the system, as politics, not the system as technology. Given how closely the Soviets monitored US technology and how open we were then and now, I have often wondered what the Russian created from whole cloth and what was reproduced. The Russians were and are technologically on a par with the West in terms of human capital but it was often the weight of the system that slowed them down. That burden was lifted after the fall but I wonder how much may have returned.
During the period from 1960 thru 1990 Russia developed a variety of networks, many for military use and many for central command and control. Based upon my own personal first hand experience working with them they clear were at the same level as the west. Thus in rethinking the book by Peters teviewed here, thought that his title was most likely totally out of place.
Using the title How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet was in my opinion out of place. The Internet was a construct that grew out of the arrogance of AT&T more than any uniqueness on the part of US technology. If AT&T had agreed to work with ARPA then this would have just been an extension of the monopoly network. Instead the arrogance of the monopolist, the entity that saw itself above everything else, created the creative destruction that led to its collapse.
Thus there is a real story of a set of brilliant technologists in Russia that may very well go untold. It was not a question of "How Not to" but the advantage the early ARPA team had in facing an adversary, not Russia but AT&T, and having the resources to overcome it.
Perhaps some day there will be a work on Soviet networks, a works which commends the efforts of many brilliant men and women in Russia who created a parallel universe and who when the borders fell allowed in a seamless manner the full expansion of the global IP network.
If one further looks at the time one also sees the IBM SNA network, akin to many of the centralized schemes we may see in Russia and Europe. But as a backdoor way to get around AT&T we had TCP/IP.
Thus understanding the reality of what occurred, it is not, "How not to" but ask ourselves the question; what really happened. Also one hopes there is a tale of Russia's advances to tell the complete story. From that we can learn that our then adversaries were as bright as we think we were.
In my reading of internet history, which is admittedly not as comprehensive as I'd like, I never had discovered a book that covers this gap of time and location of the Cold War period. Peters convincingly takes an untold story and presents the tell of the Soviet's attempt to build a computer network comprised to readily fit their socialist ways and lifestyle. Although this network was never functionally realized, this story of how almost it came to be guides the reader into bigger questions and analysis: what if it worked/where would we be today? How was this history and the social conditions related to shaping the computing and communications networks? The book's constant "zooming in" on specific issues and "zooming out" to look at the big picture was extremely successful.
This is a book of role-reversals, and it will completely flip the script on anything you might think you know about this period--or at least it did for me. I highly encourage anybody who is interested in either internet history, the Soviet Union, the Cold War, or any surrounding topics to give the book a look. The price for a hardcover might seem a little steep, but I can assure you it is certainly worth an investment. Good work, Dr. Peters!
My main criticism of this book would be that it gets a bit too fixated on the OGAS project/Glushkov. I know that was the author's focus but at times the focus obscures other important points. For example by focusing on the achievements and promise of the OGAS project, the author seems to gloss over at times its practical limitations. We're told for example the Institute's ASUs were very expensive and didn't always pay off... but it is barely suggested that this might have influenced the rejection of OGAS.
Similarly later proposals for smaller scale networks in the economic ministries for example are not mentioned despite these progressing well into the 1970s. Even when the author mentions a later proposal - Botvinnik's Pioneer project - he doesn't actually go into much detail. Readers might want to find a copy of Martin Cave's "Computers and Economic Planning: The Soviet Experence". This is a somewhat contemporary and very technical account of some of those other initiatives, as well as yet another point of view - one removed from the cyberneticists and a focus solely on networked solutions.