The Rise and Fall of Cybernetic Communism

The Soviets, the cyberneticists, and the SNAFU Principle


Cybernetics is for capitalists.

Here's a damned interesting story in Nautilus about the Soviets and the cyberneticists. When Norbert Wiener first conceived of cybernetics, Slava Gerovitch writes, the initial official reaction in the USSR was to blast the concept, with propagandists who had never even read Wiener attacking his ideas in steadily more hysterical terms. (One writer derided "semanticists-cannibals" who think "a larger part of humanity must be exterminated.") This posed a problem for the country's technologists, who understood that they couldn't keep up with the West's advances in computing if they ignored cybernetics.

So they had to tread delicately:

One had to avoid using any suspicious cybernetic terms. Even the phrase "logical operations" was risky, because it might be interpreted as implying that machines could think. Instead of "computer memory," researchers used the more neutral, technical term, "storage." "Information" was replaced by "data," and "information theory" by the convoluted expression "the statistical theory of electrical signal transmission with noise." A joke about Stalin's henchman, Beria, who was responsible for the nuclear weapons program, became popular. Beria comes to his boss and asks permission to use the notorious field of cybernetics for military purposes. Stalin puffs on his pipe and says, "Okay, but just please make sure the other Politburo members don't find out."

After Stalin's death, the situation started to reverse itself, and by the '60s cybernetics was a trendy topic in Moscow. The Communists became convinced that it could help them overcome the knowledge problems that always dog central planners—and the CIA, watching from Washington, agreed:

In a remarkable pre-Internet vision, researchers proposed to link together all Soviet enterprises through a unified national computer network which would process economic information in real time and optimize the entire economy. The proposal caused serious alarm among CIA analysts, who began to suspect that cybernetics was becoming too powerful a tool in the hands of the Soviet government. They raised concern with the Kennedy administration, and in October 1962 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., President Kennedy's special assistant, wrote a memo in which he gloomily predicted that the "all-out Soviet commitment to cybernetics" would give the Soviets "a tremendous advantage." Schlesinger warned that, "by 1970 the USSR may have a radically new production technology, involving total enterprises or complexes of industries, managed by closed-loop, feedback control employing self-teaching computers." A special expert panel was set up to investigate the Soviet cybernetic threat.

What Schlesinger may not have appreciated is the degree to which the Soviet establishment was appropriating cybernetics for the purpose of maintaining their administrative hierarchies, and resisting reform….The centrally planned Soviet economy was poorly prepared for computerization. Its cumbersome bureaucracy was too slow to implement rapid changes in production and distribution, and it was ruled by industrial ministries which, like separate fiefdoms, did not want to share their information or decision-making power. Each ministry therefore created its own information management system, disconnected from and incompatible with the others. Instead of transforming the top-down economy into a self-regulating system, bureaucrats used their new cybernetic models and computers to protect their power. Expensive and largely useless information management systems were strewn across the country.

System overload

By the '80s, the system was producing about 800 billion documents per year, all of which "still had to pass through narrow channels of centralized, hierarchical distribution, squeezed by institutional barriers and secrecy restrictions. Management became totally unwieldy. To get an approval for the production of an ordinary flat iron, for example, a factory manager had to collect more than 60 signatures. Technological innovation became a bureaucratic nightmare." The SNAFU Principle kicked in as well: "Big Brother, who wanted to see everything and know everything, became overwhelmed with information that was often distorted by lower-level officials trying to present a rosy picture. Vast clogs of inaccurate information paralyzed the decision-making mechanism, while accurate information was exchanged only locally, like black-market goods or forbidden books in the samizdat."

To read the whole article, go here.