How did the world of social media prove to be so anti-social? How did the internet, once thought of as a digital extension of democracy, end up snooping on its users?
Benjamin Peters, associate professor of media studies, director of Russian studies, and co-founder of digital studies at The University of Tulsa, examines related questions in a book that leads with a counterintuitively simple question: why was there no Soviet internet? It asks, what is there to learn from thirty years of attempts by Soviet scientists and statesmen to network their own nation—and what can their legacy teach us about the global internet today, almost thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union?
His book, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet was recently recognized with two book prizes. The first was awarded by the Association of Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian studies with its top book prize—the 2017 Wayne S. Vucinich prize for “the most significant contribution to the field in any discipline.” Peters reports being flattered and speechless at having received this top award, which often goes to far more accomplished Slavicists. The second was awarded by the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Awards, which honor “the very best in professional and scholarly publishing.” It has also been reviewed positively and widely in over thirty forums in eight languages, and a Mandarin translation is now in the works.
What do you make of all these honors?
When I started following the Soviet network story as a graduate student at Columbia, I had no idea that I would be publishing it on the cusp of the 2016 U.S. election when Russia and networks would be in the news every day. Looking back now, I cannot deny that this book has probably garnered more attention than it would have had the U.S. 2016 election not shaken out as it did.
I certainly hope that, now that these questions are firmly embedded in our public consciousness, the book can serve as a timely cautionary tale about the institutional corruption that uneasily props up much of our digitally-lit world today.
I fear that recent events seem to confirm fears: much of the western assumptions about what makes networks great—the promises of publicity, privacy, the separation of state and market ideologies inherited from the cold war—are in fact upside-down. Our networked world is not what most think it is.
What are you working on next?
With the help of a generous faculty research grant from the University of Tulsa, I’m hard at work co-editing a volume tentatively titled Your Computer is on Fire: The Politics of Global Computing and New Media and drafting my own next book, which narrates more than the twentieth-century rise of intelligent machines and smart media. When I feel particularly alarmist, I find myself wanting to title it: The Computer is Not a Brain: How Tech Lost the Cold War, Outsmarted the West, and Risks Ruining the World.