Professor Peters’ new book rethinks cold war networks

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, a new book by Assistant Professor Benjamin Peters, is on bookshelves for summer reading. It is the first book in any language to tell the story of why Soviet socialists, behaving like capitalists, did not manage to network their nation despite 30 years of attempts.

In fact, between 1959 and 1989, top Soviet scientists and officials tried to construct a national computer network. None of these attempts succeeded, and the enterprise had been abandoned by the time the Soviet Union fell apart. Meanwhile, ARPANET, the American precursor to the Internet, went online in 1969. Why did the Soviet network, with all the means, motivation and mathematics at the height of the cold war tech race, fail while the American network succeeded?

Drawing on previously undiscovered archival materials and dozens of author interviews in Kiev and Moscow, Peters reverses the usual cold war dualities and argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state funding and collaborative research environments and the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats and others. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.

The book develops and then deconstructs this uneasy cold war reversal and then advances a fresh argument about how the Soviet network story stands as a sideways allegory for rethinking our lot in the current network world.

Peters presented a summary of How Not to Network a Nation at the American Historical Association conference in Atlanta in January as well as the Shift CTRL conference on new media and computing at Stanford University this month.