How Not to Network a Nation

petersI’ve been looking to read How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters since MIT Press announced it last November, but a mixture of delays, library closings over summer, and general busyness meant that I didn’t lay hands on a copy until a few weeks ago. I’m really glad that I remembered, since it’s a wonderful book that sheds a lot of light on the development of computer networking and the internet.

Peters examines a series of failed attempts to create large-scale civilian computer networks in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which he explains in the context of the Soviet economy and the development of cybernetics as a discipline. (Those wanting a overview of the argument can listen to his lovely interview with the New Books Network). By analyzing these Soviet proposals, Peters not only describes Soviet efforts at network-building but also sheds some light on the parallel processes going on in the United States.

Comparing the success of the Internet to the failure of the Soviet network proposals helps highlight the distinctive features of the network that ultimately developed out of the US ARPANET experiment. It also casts what Peters calls the “post-war American military-industrial-academic complex” in the unusual role of altruistic and disinterested benefactor. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where the military and its suppliers jealously guarded their power and priorities, the US government ended up funding a lot of research that – though loosely justified on the basis of military need – was more or less unrelated to specific military requirements and ended up being spread far and wide through civilian connections before it ever proved to have military significance.

How Not to Network a Nation is probably most rewarding for those with some knowledge of the Soviet economic and political system, including its perennial bureaucratic battles and black markets deals for influence and resources. (Anyone wanting to know more, for example, about the debates over how to mathematically optimize the planned economy, with or without computers, should read Francis Spufford’s well-footnoted novel Red Plenty.) Its biggest omission is any discussion of the technical features of the Soviet projects. Arguably, one of the reasons that the internet became the Internet is that it was built from architecture (particularly TCP/IP) flexible enough to span multiple thinly-connected networks with varying capabilities and purposes. That flexibility made it possible for networking to thrive even without the kind of deliberate and wide-ranging support that a large-scale, well-planned project would have required. Peters’s book, illuminating as it is, never addresses those aspects of network development.

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