Friday, October 28, 2016

In Soviet Russia, Internet invents you

This article on the history of Soviet efforts to build something like the internet is absolutely fascinating. They didn՚t manage to succeed of course, but it looks like the nerdy subculture that grew up around the effort was amazingly similar to the US equivalent.

My favorite part was this:
The forces that brought down OGAS resemble those that eventually undid the Soviet Union: the surprisingly informal forms of institutional misbehaviour. Subversive ministers, status quo-inclined bureaucrats, nervous factory managers, confused workers and even other economic reformers opposed the OGAS project because it was in their institutional self-interest to do so….

There is an irony to this. The first global computer networks took root in the US thanks to well-regulated state funding and collaborative research environments, while the contemporary (and notably independent) national network efforts in the USSR floundered due to unregulated competition and institutional infighting among Soviet administrat. The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.
This hints at something I՚ve thought about for a long time but haven՚t really managed to articulate: that the human built-in propensities for both competition and cooperation, for self-aggrandizement and for doing genuine good for others, are more or less constant no matter what the formalized institutional system of society.

We live in an ostensibly capitalist system, but corporations sophisticated methodologies to make their inside feel like a socialist collective farm, with everybody pulling in unison for the team and acheive “alignment”, a little bit of Newspeak that Mao would feel right a home with. And contrariwise, it is certain that even in the deepest and most committed precincts of the communist world, people were quite adept at pursuing their own rational and individual self-interests, even if that could never be publicly acknowledged. This is what killed the Soviet internet and no doubt many other worthwhile initiatives.

It may even be the case that actual cooperation is inversely correlated to how much it is part of official ideology.

1 comment:

Gary said...

This is interesting. What about the role of scope, specifically the complexity/number of interactions at a given scope? E.g. Cooperation is actually optimal at low levels (within a department, tribe, etc) and competition better at higher levels (between regions, large orgs, etc).