ARPANET to Internet and why we might end up with OGAS

I’ve finished, Where Wizards Stay up Late by Hafner and Lyon and read “How the Soviets invented the internet and why it didn’t work” by Benjamin Peters.

“Standards should be discovered, not decreed.” -Unnamed TCP/IP advocate.

After finishing Where Wizards Stay up Late, I began to wonder how on earth any of this could have happened especially with so many companies trying to profit off of it at every step and simultaneously stop others from doing so. BBN tried to keep their IMP software secret, but gave in and let people have the source code (for a fee), ARPA nearly sold the whole ARPANET to AT&T (AT&T still thought packet switching wasn’t the future — close call). But in the end the major decisions were made by engineers who yelled at each other a bunch and implemented things in ways that worked even when some governments supported another way (like TCP/IP vs OSI). email was hacked together using ARNPANET’s file transfer protocol and soon began being used for all sorts of not-allowed things like socializing or anything that wasn’t government business (email didn’t care but ARPA technically did). This all happened somehow, with a lot of government funding and companies that funded long-term internal projects that had no immediate value and often weren’t commercially viable (notably, BBN had financial troubles because they failed to make enough of their products profitable — but at the same time they did quite a bit for the Internet). We only need to look at the infamous business model of AT&T/Bell and their telephone network to see a sad example, not of failure but of an inability to allow for real innovation. The ARPANET was in some senses like a monopoly, albeit government controlled (socialists?!) but predominantly benevolent and open/free. Once TCP/IP took over more and more networks started being connected to the ARPANET (hence the Inter-net). This is precisely what AT&T feared most regarding the telephone network; it simply wasn’t in their interests to let other companies profit using their network. The openness of innovation in the ARPANET and early Internet isn’t at all characteristic of the free market, where money and profit drive rather than discovery and true innovation done by people and companies who did not necessarily get rich off of it — even if their idea caught on.

This train of thought led me to wonder what the Soviets were up to at the time. A short search later I found that the Russians did indeed have something, kinda, and that it was a complete failure. OGAS (All-State Automated System) was meant to facilitate economic planning and pricing decisions across the Soviet Union. It was an idealist’s dream for the communist (cyber)state. In typical Soviet fashion that meant nothing and conflicting rational interests kept OGAS from becoming anything. At least, this is how Benjamin Peters describes it. According to Peters, “The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.” I don’t know enough about Soviet politics to know whether waring government ministries could ever be described as capitalist competition, but it does seem plausible all the same.

Peters continued by referencing Bruno Latour’s argument that technology is society made durable. In other words (says Peters) this means that “social values are embedded in technology.” He quickly ties this into modern mass surveillance projects like Facebook, Microsoft Cloud and NSA saying thatthese may lead to continuing the “20th- century tradition of general secretariats committed to privatizing personal and public information for their institutional gain.” As society moves towards accepting centralized control on massive scales (governments that see all and Facebook that knows all) our technology will begin to reflect this centralized philosophy; exactly theĀ  opposite of the “values” of openness, innovation and discovery that were the initial drivers of the Internet.


In other news, nano has a built in spell check!

Leave a Comment

Log in