When brilliant Soviet cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov designed a blueprint for a computerised planning system, the Soviet Union looked on track to become web pioneers. In the end, however, there was to be no digital network. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The Calvert Journal:

Visions of an advanced postcapitalist economy run by digital networks have long haunted the socialist imagination. Alexander Bogdanov’s 1909 Bolshevik sci-fi fantasy novel Red Star imagined the achievement of communist utopia on Mars, an abundance of wealth and leisure made possible by a sophisticated command economy planned and automated by prototype computers. Cerebral Martian engineers, their “delicate brains” connected to the machines through “subtle and invisible” threads, fine-tune economic inputs and outputs from a control room tracking production gluts and shortfalls.

Bogdanov’s thought experiment anticipated contemporary speculations about the possibilities digital networks open for new forms of economic exchange. One current best-seller, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, suggests that the ease with which information can be shared online, together with the advent of 3D printing technologies, is seeding a new economy in which goods and services can be exchanged for free. Another, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future, envisages an automated economy set in motion by the seamless interactions of millions of connected devices.

Many of today’s digital utopians draw inspiration from a real world attempt to implement electronic socialism: Salvador Allende’s abortive 1970s programme to rationalise and democratise the planning of the Chilean economy through a nationwide network of telex machines.

Project Cybersyn’ was cut short by Pinochet’s coup, but – helped by the surviving images of its iconic retro-futurist central operations room – the episode continues to symbolise radical aspirations to harness technology to break through to an alternative economic system.

Cybersyn was conceived during the same era as a still more ambitious but less well documented project: a well resourced programme to digitise the planning of Soviet Union’s vast command economy.

The labyrinthine story of the ‘Soviet internet’ is told in detail in a new book by Tulsa University professor Benjamin Peters, who – venturing into Moscow archives ‘lit by a single flickering light bulb’ – pieces together the tale of plans to supercharge the USSR’s stuttering economy through the installation and networking of a constellation of mainframe computers at major production points from Leningrad to Siberia. The project was one of the most spectacular manifestations of the restless Soviet ambition to lever technology to create the material conditions for ‘full communism’.

Read the full article on The Calvert Journal.