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Reimagining the internet through the Soviet Union lens

As a universe of infinite exploration, the internet is the new world frontier, but America has merely skimmed the undeveloped potential of cyberspace. In his new book, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, Assistant Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters explains why America pioneered the internet before the Soviet Union, but he also highlights the Soviets’ innovative ideas that could reimagine the confines of the internet.

Ben Peters In the height of the Cold War technology race, America and the Soviet Union were in a parallel competition to develop cutting-edge science, but America pulled ahead with the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which would mature into the current global internet. Peters questions, “The Soviet Union clearly has the mathematics, motives and machines for pulling off computer networking. Why wasn’t there a Soviet internet?”

Peters strives to get beyond the misnomer that the Soviet Union “is the land of control, and America is the land of liberty,” he said. Instead, the Soviet internet was bogged down by institutions failing to cooperate. The bureaucratic infighting led to their network falling apart; and in America, the ARPANET takes shape with collaborative research environments and state funding. “In short, you see the first global networks taking shape thanks to capitalists behaving like socialists not socialists behaving like capitalists,” Peters said.

The narrative that a country simply needs to fund the next captains of industry and intellect proved false for the Soviets. “They combined massive intellect and technical acumen with political expertise, and they didn’t get innovation,” Peters explained.

But the Soviet Union did envision theoretical internet strategies that transcended the American imagination. From computer processors that function like the human brain to predicting the market equilibria, “they were trying to get the best of the market without the worst of the capitalist avarice,” Peters said. The Soviet Union foresaw an electronic socialism.

Despite the Soviets’ inability to launch their own internet, Peters believes their story allows Americans to rethink their internet values. “Imagine if you only had one story to tell how something came to be, you would only have one set of possibilities for imagining what that thing is,” he explained.

The internet is not only a vehicle for spreading democracy, commerce and liberty, but the dark web looms ever-present in our internet searches. Authoritarian dictators use the internet for surveillance, and drug lords sell their wares. “There can be real heartbreak and hardship baked into the markets for terrible things like cyber harassment,” Peters said.

The negative influence of the internet played a dramatic role in the 2016 presidential election. Russian interference through hacking and false news stories is “a grand insult to any democratically blooded person,” he said. But, America has been intervening directly into other countries democratic processes for years. Character assassination based on false narratives is not unusual, but the internet has reinforced the impact.

Peters knows the internet story is just beginning, and as an ongoing affiliated fellow at the Information Society Fellowship at Yale Law School and a senior fellow at two leading media studies centers in Germany, Peters will continue to ask questions that expand technology limitations.

Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication Joli Jensen believes examining how technologies are and are not implemented is insight into humanity. “Peters’ research is characterized by synthesis. He combines history, theory, culture and psychology with his knowledge of technology and the Russian language. Only he could have written this book,” Jensen said.

Through doubting outdated assumptions, the internet could be a “network of humanity” and a powerful source for good, Peters said. “The ethical conversation is both necessary and endless, but if we can’t have the debate, we’ve already lost.”

Interested readers can find more about Ben Peters’ work, including a book excerpt, at benjaminpeters.org and follow him on twitter at @bjpeters.