An Interview with Benjamin Peters, the winner of the 2017 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize
An interview with Benjamin Peters by Stephen Hutchings
This article was orignally posted in the March NewsNet.
Q. You suggest in your book that the failure of Soviet efforts to create a native “unified information network” was not inevitable. In assessing the reasons for the failure, I wonder if you can say what the balance is between “structural” features connected to the particular nature of social networks in the Soviet Union and their relationship to the command economy, and issues connected to individual agency (personal conflicts and errors of judgment), or even to arbitrary accidents of history?
A. Perhaps contingency stories render nothing inevitable, including the tragedy of grand failure narratives. Let’s consider whether this oversimplification may be workable: historical narratives tend to land somewhere on a spectrum between, at one end point, grand narratives where civilizational or meta-level structures describe change with its own ineluctable logics, such as Cold War battles between flattening market and hierarchical state ideologies, and, at the other end point, the contingencies and happenstance of events, such as, as you note, command economy relations, personal conflicts, and errors, making mincemeat of those assumptions. In other words, given the choice of grand narrative vs. contingency, structure vs. agency, logic vs. chance, I see no reason why any history should be only one or the other. Perhaps no grand narrative can satisfy without some kind of surprise twist and perhaps no contingency story can even be a story without some kind of underlying narrative arc.
So, of course, in the book, I try to draw on both narrative techniques: namely, I argue that the contingencies of the management of the national economy—and in particular the ways that those rough waters rocked decades of attempts to build national computer networks to manage the economy—subvert and rework traditional grand narratives that advocates of the Soviet state and its critics have long told about the grand socialist experiment.
In particular, the book draws out the conflicting institutional interests that drove continuous reform of the economic ministries and bureaucratic core of the Soviet national economy; it also charts how technocratic approaches to state reform, in an age of Soviet cybernetics, struggled to account for the unaccountable informal factors in their systems-thinking. In the end, Soviet state socialism was incompatible with network technologies not because it was, as Manuel Castell claims, a statist hierarchy in principle, but because it was what the book identifies as an informal “heterarchy” in practice. We need not decide whether Anthony Giddens, among others in a long line since Georg Simmel, is right to call for a general reconciliation of structure and agency in order to agree that, at least in terms of attempts to articulate history, it is precisely in identifying how grand narratives and contingency stories inform one another that we can begin to see their reflexive dual nature. Computer networks could have networked the Soviet economy for the same reason it did not: there was such institutional unrest that one could conceivably believe, even in matters of Soviet state reform, to put a spin on Pomerantsev’s’ recent book title, that nothing is true and everything is possible.
Q. Without wishing to take you too far from your own area of expertise, I would be interested to know if you are able to extrapolate from your initially counter-intuitive, but ultimately utterly compelling, insight that the Soviet OGAS project was the victim of untrammeled competition among “socialists,” whereas the American ARPANET succeeded thanks to centrally guided cooperation among “capitalists,” and identify other areas of Soviet society and the Soviet economy which did not realize their potential for similar reasons?
A. With gratitude for the question, I’m inclined to leave the extrapolation to others, and try instead to restate the book’s hook in a way that others might want to take it up. The first global computer networks emerged out of a situation in which American capitalists behaved like socialists, rather than Soviet socialists behaving like capitalists. I mean this hook as more than just a reversal of the obvious Cold War logics: it is an invitation to move beyond them. In fact, while I have been delighted by a wide range of positive responses to the book (more at benjaminpeters.org), I find it illuminating that the main two threads of criticism so far come from, on the one hand, promoters of capitalism who fault the hook for giving socialist state too much credit (these critics take my tragedy to be historical, where I mean it as a literary arc that ends in ruin and unfavorable circumstances) and, on the other hand, promoters of socialism who fault the hook for meaning that socialism may only exist in capitalism. Both criticisms miss the invitation of that hook, which is, after deconstructing cold war discourse, to move beyond these two twentieth-century ways of reading twentieth-century history. The conclusion argues, drawing on Hannah Arendt (who read beyond the –isms of her day first), that the liberal economic discourse positing an ideological conflict between private markets and public states fundamentally fails to describe the most constitutive and crucial moments—the building of a modern state for the benefit of the many at unbearable costs, the uneven ushering in of the information age, and the eventual internal collapse of the Soviet state—that governed the outcome of the Cold War over that very ideological opposition. The living victim of the varieties of networked societies to emerge in the late twentieth-century is now arguably the analyst—for perhaps we have no adequate language for describing the privations of network surveillance in the wake of the Cold War without defaulting to its own traps. Habermas once pointed out that the word “publicity” had been bought out by the advertising and public relations men; this book makes a similar point for the idea of “privacy”—and I suspect it will take many more specialists with expertise far beyond my own to equip ourselves with the appropriate vocabulary for adequately criticizing modern network power.
Q. You make the fascinating observation that whereas the pioneers of the American ARPANET (the precursor to the Internet) foresaw a national network simulating a “brain without a body”, their Soviet equivalents anticipated a network nation simulating a body with a brain. Would you care to speculate how a successful “internet” based on the Soviet model might have differed from the one we know as a result of this difference?
A. Sure thing. I say a bit more about this specific question in here. I am particularly eager to elaborate, but perhaps not until I complete work on my next manuscript, tentatively titled Outsmarted: How the Global North Mistook Smart Media for Intelligence, a largely Slavic, but also northern European and American history of how the current media environment became so smart and at once so toxic. Of course, first, we should admit that such speculation is anathema to the historical sensibilities which welcome negative histories, but not counterfactual ones. Nevertheless, were we to persist in wondering what a nation networked as if it were a brain with a body might have looked like, the Slavic intellectual tradition has diverse competing brain-nation imaginaries to help us think with. For example, as the Soviet internet book outlines, Viktor Glushkov and his team at the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev imagined a networked nation primarily in terms of mapping an information nervous system onto the economic base of the nation’s means of production. As the next book is exploring, there are other longer traditions such as notions of the mind in virtual telecommunication with other minds in an age of radio (recently chronicled here by the master reader Vladimir Welminski); or Evgenii Sokolov›s prescient modeling of the brain as a predictive Bayesian statistical system--a notion resonant with chess grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik›s schemes to build a predictive and intuitive computer chess models. Other seminal thinkers, such as Nikolai Bernstein, and of course Theodosius Dobzhansky in the modern evolutionary synthesis of genetics and statistics, ground predictive models of intelligent collectives in biology and physiognomy. I understand Iurii Lotman, too, promoted an organicist, “embodied” account of semiosis, and there are no doubt dozens of others clamouring for attention.
What occurs to me as perhaps the most interesting avenue for future research is that all of these examples seem to offer predictive networked models for “smart” behavior, but that none of them embody that behavior into a literal organism: instead, the national economy, chess boards, statistical species behavior end up being “smart.” Wherever this takes us (and I’d love comments from readers), I am confident the Slavic intellectual tradition has much to help rethink current techno-obsessive approaches to “smart” environments and intelligent bodies.
Q. At the end of your book you comment on a key challenge besetting the contemporary networked world: that of the extent to which state institutions can and should limit the creeping “logics of private domination”. Does your experience in conducting research for your book lead you to advocate or caution against adopting particular models or principles in this context?
A. This is a good question, if one understands good questions to be those to which I do not know but want an answer. I suppose an overarching principle I might take away from the experience of writing the book is the empiricist’s instincts to “trust but verify” and to distrust interpretations except for those that cannot escape evidence. I will save for another time some thoughts about why I think contemporary privacy debates cannot help but misunderstand the problem (hint: it has something to do with the logics of private domination networking information-omnivorous corporations and states) and instead rehearse what may seem hackneyed truisms for the student of Soviet history. I learned while writing this book that who you know ends up mattering even more than what you know. In particular, this book owes volumes to the historian of science Slava Gerovitch at MIT and Vera Glushkova in Kiev, and in that sense the book may owe more to interpersonal networks than computer networks. The first thing one needs to know before arriving in Russia is your host; and that, as the Finns joke, in Finland everything works and nothing can be arranged, while in Russia, nothing works and everything can be arranged. I’d be glad to save more details for a conversation in person, although I think the larger point should be obvious: the muses of informal relations which characterizes both the method and the argument of this particular book, have much mischief and insight to offer Slavic scholars and students.
Benjamin Peters is director of Russian Studies and associate professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa as well as associated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He is the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Union (MIT Press, 2016) as well as editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton University Press, 2016). More at benjaminpeters.org and @bjpeters
Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies at University of Manchester ((UK).