1. The Soviet internet is a sideways allegory for the present. The Soviet Union, once we work through its parade of horribles, helps separate us from and then rethink our current network values. General secretaries, whether state or corporate, have long been trying to privatize our information.
2. The reasons the Soviets did not develop a network are not the reasons we often like to think: it's not because networks are anathema to censorship and control structures (think cybersecurity and dictatorships today), it's not because of technological backwardness (que Soviet military networks since the mid 1950s), it's not exactly because their genuinely screwed up command economy was either too rigid or hierarchical (que the rest of the book).
3. The Soviet story is a tragedy of big science and state support gone wrong, as well as a cautionary tale for how we go about building the network future in those terms.
And a link dump: enjoy!
Review by David Strom
Review by Michael Gordin in Nature
Podcast segment with Kerri Smith (starts at 6:50) in Nature
Conversation in The Atlantic.
For a while (in the 70s and 80s) there were two competing, state-sponsored networks in France: Minitel, based on x25 and made by French telcos, and Cyclades, based on datagrams and made by French CS research labs. The telcos lobbied the government to cut funding for Cyclades, which they saw as a competitor, and it eventually happened (under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, probably neither Pompidou nor de Gaulle would have made that mistake).
There is a very good book (in French) about that story, called La France en réseaux, by Valérie Schafer. It is one of my favorite tech history books. I will certainly read yours and hope it is as good!
However, I saw it is only available as hardcover. Any chance you can make it available for Kindle?
MIT Press put out an e-book version, and the soft cover comes out later this year. (A pdf is probably out there too...)
In one small African nation the government was intensely interested in building a national system for finding lost cows. (This was a much-touted presidential initiative.) Basically, farmers would be able to text their cow's ID and the system would tell them if another farmer had found it.
In spite of the simplicity of such a system, it took them years of 'research and development', and enormous budgets spent, for a system which they discovered in the end, didn't work. It turned out, they couldn't figure out how to procure and install a server for it to run on.
Sure they could. There's talent abound in Africa. Unfortunately, the case here is usually corruption. That project money was siphoned to the politicians themselves or a connected pal, or both. Just old fashioned fraud here. I think "Africans don't know what they are doing" is a convenient scapegoat that empowers fraudsters. And if that narrative leads to more foreign aid, then wonderful, because the politically connected class abuse that too.
And... we shouldn't let these people simply re-organize under new names.
Just as I'm likely to look askance at anyone with Goldman Sachs in their resume. Only, I prefer to know and respond more specifically.
I guess the US took them because they had experience in the field?
(well, I guess the firearms registry was first, but you get the idea about the creators)
While this looks like an fascinating read, it's worth remembering that the thing that makes the Internet the Internet, distinguishing it from other Western systems like X25, Minitel, and telecoms in general is its peer-to-peer nature with minimal central arbitration(+).
The Soviet Union rationed access to photocopiers. There was no way it would ever build a network that was not entirely subject to central control, and this must inevitably handicap its usage and development.
(+) Minimal, not zero. The central point for a long time was Jon Postel.
Other European states that were never Soviet also have much cheaper much faster average internet connections than the US... but these places are much smaller and more easily connected and maintained, I suppose.
Anyway, the picture isn't so black and white, maybe we get screwed in the US, but maybe we don't or not as badly as you suggest.
Tangentially, I am amazed you can get unlimited satellite cell internet for $125/mo from Iridium now, I'm sure that plan is slow as molasses but... its global and that's amazing to me.
If this were truly the cause of the US's bandwidth backwardness, then denser pockets of the US should have been wired with gigabit access around the year 2000. Instead, urban areas often have much worse speeds and prices.
So given that I'm not really surprised 'soviet internet' didn't come to fruition even though I'm sure the book is an interesting read from the historical perspective.
And when you really decide to see what was so pioneering in Soviet computing industry, it all boils down from 'pioneering' to only 'interesting'.
Which helps to get a perspective on a true scope of Soviet CS research.
After all, layered copying of Intel x86 CPUs also was 'pioneering and interesting'.
It was; at some periods I think Soviets were world leaders in electronics reverse engineering. Those techniques were rumored to get used well after USSR death in some Asian countries.
MESM -> BESM-6 machines I've heard had some abilities like a number of simultaneously supported IO ports (AS system for space program?) - which may or may not be considered pioneering. Another example is Setun ternary computer; of course that's providing we should consider some computers after ENIAC 'pioneering enough'.
Edit: If you're interested in the late-40s zeitgeist in the US, Tjalling Koopmans' 1951 Charnes Commission report is available here: http://cowles.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/pub/mon/m13.... My apologies to Yale for hotlinking.
Edit 2: That's Cowles commission, not Charnes commission. Charnes might have been at the meeting (I forget off the top of my head) but it wasn't his commission!
It has also a dedicated website (http://www.redplenty.com/Red_Plenty/Front_page.html) so you can get an idea if this may be interesting for you.
To the reason why it looks fine right now, my guess, is that the Chinese community is very much self-sufficient, plus, the majority of Chinese readers don't use any other language than Chinese itself. So it might not be about how it was handled, it's about what China is like.
That is kind of like trying to understand the history of the Internet without understanding how the US Congress, DoD, (D)ARPA, and NSF relate and work.
> The first global civilian computer networks developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.
Great contrast! What is the deeper lesson here?
Most of it was pretty mundane and touchingly backwards, just less shoddily built than civilian equipment. I took apart a fair quantity of BMP-2 and T-72 instrument panels; call it my contribution to arms reduction and the world peace. My first joystick was converted from an ATGM control station. I've been with ZGV in East Germany while it's equipment and supplies were hustled away by entrepreneurial NCOs and officers. I worked with some of the guys who copied ЕС ЭВМ series from IBM products with cracking stories about realities on the ground.
There's no secret sauce, despite no shortage of impressive Cyrillic acronyms and chest thumping.
Well, neither you served in air defence, so other than some bizarre personal attack am not sure what your point was here. It is however remarkable how you paint me a greedy traitor for bringing a dose of realism to your unrestrained pioneer enthusiasm.
I worked with a bunch of people from NII SA, the principal developer of ES series. Some of them ended up as mobile mounted C&C elements for the military and on relay com stations, including strategic networks. They were equally shoddy however (and clones of the Western architectures to begin with). The shortest guy in the team once had to sit inside a panel fanning an overheating assembly with a piece of plywood during military acceptance test.
Soivet computing in 1980s was pretty stale. And it simply doesn't happen that people making sad shit for civilian side become sudden geniuses when switching to defence orders. Computing systems were inadequate on factories, research bureaus, power grid, they simply could not not suck in the military too. There were no separate research institutes designing computer architectures for military only, no factories producing separate component base just for military. If anything, the civilian production was a side business at most enterprises and were manned by same people. General state of research, production culture and scientific effort determines the baseline, and USSR was behind on all three in CS.