a perfect superposition of tragedy and farce
December 7, 2016 11:42 PM   Subscribe

How the Soviets invented the internet and why it didn't work - "Soviet scientists tried for decades to network their nation. What stalemated them is now fracturing the global internet."
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 administrators. The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.

In the fate of the Soviet internet we can glimpse a clear and present warning to the future of the internet. Today the ‘internet’ – understood as a single global network of networks for advancing informational liberty, democracy and commerce – is in serious decline... consider how often companies and states are seeking to silo their online experiences: the ubiquitous app is more of a walled garden for rent-seekers than a public commons for browsers. Inward-looking gravity wells (such as Facebook and the Chinese firewall) increasingly gobble up sites that link outwards.
also btw...
posted by kliuless (26 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I've long been a fan of the notion that the creation of the Internet - and its co-joined twin, the open source movement - was about as perfect an example of workable socialism as you can get, while the USSR's computing and networking efforts combined the worst aspects of capitalism and stateism.

The balkanisation of the Internet depends entirely on regulation, and whether it is biased towards freedom or control. In that, it tracks pretty exactly the underlying state policies on freedom and control generally.

There are two confounding factors, I think. One is efficient machine translation for human languages, which is getting good but is a long way from the ideal - where I could browse the Chinese internet as easily as I can the American one, and vice-versa. Language remains a very strong factor in isolating communities on the Net, and amplifies technical barriers.

The other is wireless, which is not nearly as amenable to state or commercial choke points. I've been looking at an experimental ham satellite proposal which basically puts a 10Mbps shared encrypted open pipe in the sky, reachable by cheap equipment and dishes that look like ordinary satellite TV antenna (because they are). That this is doable as a non-commercial, non-state enterprise is just as interesting as the technology: by itself, it's nothing much to anyone but hams, but enough of these things - and enough cross-border terrestrial wireless links, either where border populations are close enough to sniff each others wifi or mobile networks, and the porosity becomes interesting and significant.

Yes, the trends are worrying. No, the game's not over and no, the technology isn't standing still.
posted by Devonian at 3:40 AM on December 8, 2016 [31 favorites]

I think it doesn't just need to keep moving, but go backwards to a deeper kind of neutrality: neutrality of search results and an end to targeted ads. The internet seemed to work so much better when content wasn't so ubiquitously under algorithmic control and websites just served basically the same content to everybody without trying to read their minds and deliberately walling people off inside little filter cages made of their own previous browsing behaviors.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:19 AM on December 8, 2016 [19 favorites]

As someone said on another thread this week, advertising is black magic — it's no wonder everything, including the good stuff, has gotten fucked up online with all that evil woven through the incantations.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:51 AM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Why did we call it the Internet when it could have been ASs-ASs?
posted by b1tr0t at 5:53 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

because "ass to ass" would have been too on the nose, as a description of how people would come to treat one another over the network
posted by eustatic at 7:00 AM on December 8, 2016

Why did we call it the Internet when it could have been ASs-ASs?

Well, I know what we're going to call it now. (Should we say "Ass dash ass" or just double ass?)
posted by drezdn at 7:12 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been looking at an experimental ham satellite proposal ...

Wow, that sounds really interesting - what's the name (assuming you can divulge it)?
posted by eclectist at 8:04 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hands up if you want to shut down Wikipedia?

No? Then you're not against centralisation, you're against corporate control.

(For the record, I'd shut down Wikipedia without a backward glance).
posted by Leon at 9:17 AM on December 8, 2016

The first principles of communications through packet switching, at the heart of the modern Internet, were developed by a Frenchman Louis Pouzin.

The French monopoly PTT had its own network called Transpac and France developed a national terminal system for everyone called Minitel, so Louis's ideas floundered--in France. In the US, Bell Labs was creating a similar top-down digital connection system for everyone called ISDN.

But there was another group in the US who had Defence dapartment research money (from ARPA), and was taking Louis's ideas to create ARPANET (with help from a Senator pushing hard for their funding--Al Gore).

The defense research group liked it because its decentralization meant that it would be hard to disrupt with a single blow. Its decentralization also meant that it could grow without needing a central director. Universities connected to each other buiding up the ARPANET and its advantages meant that it just naturally grew and grew.
posted by eye of newt at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

We don't need our social media groups to create our filter bubbles.
posted by infini at 9:24 AM on December 8, 2016

Inward-looking gravity wells (such as Facebook...

Dang, after resisting these many years, now I know I've gone to the dark side. After getting sucked into the political clickbait this election, I've started to hit that unfollow button so hard there's a dimple in the screen on the pc. I just want pictures of my family and friends and info on horse events. Is that to much to ask?
posted by BlueHorse at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes. Apparently it is. Sorry, BlueHorse.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:37 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Facebook's downright evil sometimes. It actively suppresses outside links, forcing content producers to post things on Facebook. Want to convince people that Facebook is doing this? Good luck, your post with a link to an outside source showing this is the case won't be showed to many if any of the people following you.
posted by explosion at 10:38 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Facebook isn't evil, it's just spectacularly mismanaged. For a site that was built to allow you to see what your friends are up to, it's surprisingly bad at allowing you to see what your friends are up to.

When they first launched it worked pretty well - but the current incarnation, where the naked greed is obvious, it's shit. The end result is that I never log in on mobile without using the app (why let it track my non-Facebook browsing?) and on a desktop I keep Disconnect installed and active (again, if I'm not on your site, you have zero right to track me). I post cell phone shots of my kid or a snarky comment once a week or so. I don't scroll down more than 2-3 screens to see what people posted. I don't hit "like" or comment on much. I passive-aggressively tell it that basically every ad it feeds me is unwanted, off target, or offensive, depending on my current mood. Other than that, I essentially don't interact with the site, at all, because they have made it so goddamn useless at actually serving me the content that attracted me in the first place. They are actively driving away users in their attempt to force-feed us all ads. I mean, seriously: With my early posting history in their database, with me tagging relatives and explicitly specifying degree of relation, with my early use pattern, they still couldn't figure out what kind of ad or news I even cared about, or tell which people are truly friends I want to keep in touch with vs. those people you "friend" just because you met them once at a conference or etc.

I keep waiting for the company to implode. I'm positive that they truly have no clue what to do with the data they have on everyone. They have TONS of data, but they are absolutely shit at actually using it for anything. They're still convincing advertisers that it's worth using the platform, but... how long is that going to last? Shit-ton of cash, but zero focus. If they were actually evil, they'd have some ultimate end goal in mind and we'd all be fucked. But they don't. They're just good enough to have effectively killed email in favor of status updates, and just incompetent enough to have broken the replacement they built such that posting a status update guarantees that 95% of the intended audience will never see it.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:56 AM on December 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

If you're interested in reading more about early attempts to develop civilian computer networks, I would really recommend Cybernetic Revolutionaries. It describes the conceptually and ideologically related attempt to create a Cybernetic economic planning system in Allende's Chile.

Actually, jumping off of Devonian's comment, it seems that the major sticking point in developing Cybersyn wasn't so much bureaucratic as economic. While the Cybersyn team had the full backing and support of the government, no amount of planning could prevent the economic destabilization caused by Allende's strategy of nationalization and the US embargo.
posted by phack at 11:54 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hey, caution live frogs, do as I did over a year ago: just delete your Facebook account and quit.

I haven't missed the platform nor the rage it induced in me for a second.
posted by Captain Fetid at 2:32 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

consider how often companies and states are seeking to silo their online experiences: the ubiquitous app is more of a walled garden for rent-seekers than a public commons for browsers.

I once thought that we were overdue for the pendulum to start swinging in the other direction and for the hassle of maintaining individual apps on multiple platforms (iPhone, Android, etc) to be replaced by the ease of a single meta-app, much in the same way that web browsers had supplanted the need for local, compiled applications.

...but then I realized that web browsers came about not only in an ecosystem that was much more fragmented, but also one that was much deeper. Computers were expensive and people needed to be able to connect to the net on their five, six, and seven year old PCs. It made sense to have an all-encompassing software platform that was completely independent and able to support the widest number of devices. Now everyone gets an automatic upgrade every three years, so there's no incentive keep the platform independent of the hardware. I can install the latest Firefox on my seven year old netbook and browse the web just fine, but I'm SOL with my equally old Samsung Galaxy S which I can't even update the browser's signing certificates.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:14 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Should we say "Ass dash ass" or just double ass?)

The future of the Internet is pooping back and forth, forever.

posted by rokusan at 4:46 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's remarkable that all the truly astonishing things achieved by the US in the 20th century were the result of state-sponsored centralised programs.
  • Interstate Highway system
  • Manhatten Project
  • Apollo Programme
  • The Internet
All of them were socialist enterprises.
posted by Combat Wombat at 5:20 PM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

It's pronounced GIF
posted by blue_beetle at 6:42 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was hanging around a lab at MIT, the CDC 7600 minicomputer arrived, with no software whatsoever. Nicholas Negroponte says, "You! Write an operating system! You! Write a compiler! You! Write a graphics library! You! Build a network protocol!"

And all of those guys did what they were told with flying colors, except the network guy who was always patching and reworking things, with his head down and shoulders sagging hunched over the terminal monitor. "This is a lot harder than you think, harder than I thought, writing a network protocol, there are so many little details to work out."

At first I thought maybe he just wasn't the same kind of superstar guru that the other guys were, but the more I talked to him about what he was working on day to day, and watched his growing despair, the more I sympathized that he had a really daunting task there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:10 PM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

It's pronounced GIF

posted by disconnect at 5:54 AM on December 9, 2016

"The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists."

This pull quote reminds me of an earlier mefi post on Soviet submarine designs, and how in that case too, the different Soviet submarine design groups were competitive between each other -- but it worked out better for them in that case, as they came up with more innovative designs, as opposed to the more monolithic designs Americans held on to.
posted by of strange foe at 11:25 AM on December 9, 2016

EFF - "To the Technology Community: Your threat model just changed."
posted by kliuless at 3:12 AM on December 28, 2016

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