In 1948, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics, a book that heralded the coming information age. Cybernetics, according to Wiener, is “the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Just as the human body sweats or shakes to regulate its temperature, the “Roomba” vacuum-cleaning robot rotates and continues in a different direction after hitting a wall. In either case, both the animal and the machine use information, feedback, and control to interact with their environments and achieve goals.
By considering animals’ methods of control and communication similar to that of machines, Wiener and other scientists were able to design bigger and more powerful machines. A few years before Wiener’s book, British mathematician Alan Turing used cybernetic principles to create his Turing machine, which pioneered the design of the modern computer and deciphered Enigma, the ‘unbreakable’ World War Two-era cypher used by the German military.
In the wake of Turing’s invention and Wiener’s research, a tremendous enthusiasm for cybernetics swept world of American academia. The possibilities of cybernetics, it seemed, were endless. By simply posing the problem or asking the question in a way comprehensible to a logic machine, the machine could churn its gears and produce the correct, logical answer.
In current times, the term cybernetics has become outdated, replaced by more specific terminology in the ever-growing field of information technology. But even in the 1950s, its limitations were evident.
The emerging field of cybernetics was low-hanging fruit for Soviet propagandists looking for new material to demonize America. A 1949 directive “Plan for the Intensification of Anti-American Propaganda in the Near Future” ordered journalists to ramp up the rhetoric. Newspaper headlines soon declared “The Degeneration of Culture in the USA” and “Science in the Service of American Monopolies.”
In 1951, Boris Agapov, the science editor of influential Russian magazine Literaturnaia gazeta, stumbled upon Wiener’s theory on the cover of Time magazine. “Can Man Build a Superman?” asked the headline. Agapov knew very little about Wiener and even less about cybernetics. But for Agapov, the article was a goldmine of anti-American propaganda. Rather than reading Wiener’s book, Agapov paraphrased from Time. The result was an inflammatory article that denounced cybernetics as the “sweet dream” of American capitalists, who aimed to use automation to neuter class-conscious workers.
In the paranoia of Soviet society, both Communist apparatchiks and street merchants heeded the words of the state-run media. Soon after Agapov’s article was published, Lenin State Library, a hulking institution that overlooks the Kremlin, pulled Wiener’s Cybernetics from circulation. Others followed suit. The Institute of Philosophy labeled Wiener as a “philosophizing ignoramus” who belittled human thought as mere math equations. In 1952, a comic appeared in the magazine Tekhnika-Molodezhi, depicting a dystopic New York in which big business and the military have created robot soldiers, robot gangsters, robot Klansmen – all part of America’s nefarious cybernetic master plan.
As the media and other government agencies censored and ridiculed cybernetics, others grew frustrated. For scientists Ekaterina Shkabara and Lev Dashevskii, the daily papers were quickly turning their life’s work into a taboo subject. The pair was constructing what became the Small Electronic Calculating Machine (MESM), the first Soviet computer. Like other Soviet scientists, Shkabara and Dashevskii faced a catch-22 with their research: the government demanded that they “criticize and destroy” Western science while simultaneously ordering them to “overtake and surpass” it.
In his book From Newspeak to Cyberspeak, Slava Gerovitch writes, “In the murky waters of Cold War politics, Soviet scientists and engineers were caught between the Scylla of the national defense and the Charybdis of ideological purity” (in Greek mythology, Scylla was a six-headed monster and Charybdis was an inescapable whirlpool). Faced with this contradiction, Shkabara, Dashevskii and other leading Russian scientists tried to appease both sides, publishing articles that denounced Wiener’s cybernetics while praising their own research, which undeniably employed cybernetic principles.
Soviet military officials read Agapov’s mockery of cybernetics with trepidation. Research into high-speed digital computers had already begun in the Soviet Union, and suddenly it was a treasonous endeavor. Researchers realized they needed to change the language of their work in order to continue it. Instead of “computer memory”, they began using the term “storage.” “Memory” sounded too human — too much like cybernetics’ claim of animal and machine similarity. Likewise, “information” was replaced with “data” and “informational theory” with “the statistical theory of electrical signal transmission with noise.” Under this new, ideologically pure nomenclature, cybernetics remained indispensable. Soviet military researchers, quietly and tactfully, kept adapting cybernetic principles for their atomic, ballistic missile, and anti-missile programs.
With the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union entered the “Khrushchev Thaw.” General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev relaxed the strict ideology of Stalin, creating some limited space for dialogue and dissent. Scientists could now study abroad and invite foreign colleagues to Moscow. No longer having to “Criticize and Destroy” Western science, scientists celebrated cybernetics, erasing its taboo status. The Academy of Sciences began publishing a periodical, Cybernetics in the Service of Communism. By 1961, the government was directing the construction of computer factories.
The Party Central Committee now envisioned a use for cybernetics beyond guiding missiles: optimizing the economy. A national computer network was formed to amass and share economic data in real time. The plan was so grandiose that the CIA created a panel to investigate it. In a 1962 memo, Arthur Schlesinger, a senior aide to President Kennedy, fretted that “by 1970, the USSR may have a radically new production technology, involving total enterprises or complexes of industries, managed by closed-loop, feedback control employing self-teaching computers.”
But like many things in the Soviet Union, the whole endeavor was frustrated by the glacial pace and reticent attitudes of bureaucracy. Instead of using computers to increase communication and efficiency, each economic ministry individualized its computer systems, estranging itself to protect power and relevance. The result of the economy’s computerization? More data than anyone knew what to do with.
By 1985, Soviet economic agencies produced 800 billion documents per year – 3,000 documents for each Soviet citizen. More and more paperwork had to pass through the same number of officials, creating delays and stagnation. Gerovitch notes that in order to produce something as simple as a flat iron, a factory manager needed the signatures of 60 different bureaucrats. The bureaucrats themselves submitted, forged, or exaggerated data to keep their superiors happy. Of the billions of documents produced, few were of any value.
Many in the Soviet Union believed computers would secure their position at the top of the world order. Instead, the paper morass created by computers both revealed and exacerbated the economy’s shortcomings. Information technology, once “called in to prove the superiority of socialism,” concludes Gerovtich, “eventually proved the ineffectiveness of the Soviet regime.”
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Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
Slava Gerovitch, “How the computer got its revenge on the Soviet Union,” Nautilus, April 9, 2015.
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