SOVIET CYBERNETICS: PROMETHEUS OR PROTEUS?
The history of Soviet cybernetics is a story of rebellion and conformity, enchantment and disappointment, the fascination with a new revolutionary language, and the frustration when this language was appropriated by official discourse. This is a story of Soviet intellectuals of the Khrushchev era, who believed in the possibility of a universal method of problem-solving, if only those problems were formulated in the right language. They saw computer simulation as this universal method, and the language of cybernetics as a language of truth. Soviet cybernetics emerged as a project for radical reform but eventually lost its rebellious spirit and turned into a tool for maintaining the existing order rather than changing it.
No other scientific or engineering discipline underwent such frequent and profound changes of attitude in the Soviet Union as cybernetics. In 1954, the Short Philosophical Dictionary defined cybernetics as a "reactionary pseudo-science," "an ideological weapon of imperialist reaction." In the late 1950s, cybernetics was portrayed as an innocent victim of political oppression and "rehabilitated," along with political prisoners of the Stalinist regime. The Soviet lag in computing was blamed on the earlier rejection of cybernetics. In the 1960s, cybernetics was canonized in a new Party Program and hailed as a "science of communism." Later on, the growing disillusionment of former cybernetics enthusiasts was reflected in this widely circulated joke: "They told us before that cybernetics is a reactionary pseudo-science. Now we are firmly convinced that they were wrong. It is just the opposite: cybernetics is not reactionary, not pseudo-, and not a science." Finally, in the 1990s, a Russian publication on the World Wide Web put a blame on cybernetics for the alleged harm inflicted on Soviet science: "This doctrine, which called itself a science of control, has chained the technological élan of a great nation. . . . Domestic science not only wasted immeasurable time and effort on the chimera of cybernetics, but was also deprived of full-scale funding in the field of computer technology."
Cybernetics may serve as a lens magnifying key features of Soviet
science and engineering in the late Stalinist period and the Khrushchev
era. The fluctuating attitudes toward cybernetics represented
something larger than mere rejection or acceptance of a particular
scientific approach; they manifested profound changes in scientific
methodology across a wide spectrum of disciplines, in the system
of power relations within the scientific community, and in the
political role of scientists and engineers in Soviet society.
When looking through a lens, one does not see the lens itself,
and many observers looked through cybernetics without questioning
its optics. This study treats cybernetics not as a simple lens,
but as a complex microscope and attempts to open its "black
box" and understand its mechanism. I examine how Soviet cybernetics
was made to see certain things, or-to use a more apt speech
metaphor-how the cybernetic language was employed by Soviet cyberneticians
to say certain things.
Cybernetics is a very peculiar historical phenomenon. It can be classified neither as a conventional scientific discipline, nor as an engineering approach, nor as a philosophical doctrine, although it somewhat resembles each of them. As presented in Norbert Wiener's 1948 seminal book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, cybernetics comprised an assembly of analogies between people and machines: human behavior was compared to the operation of a servomechanism, human communication was likened to the transmission of signals over telephone lines, the human brain was compared to the digital computer both structurally and functionally, life was identified with information and order, and death with entropy and disorder.
Some of these analogies were age-old, some were relatively recent, some were rooted in wartime projects aimed at creating new types of weapons which incorporated human fighters as part of the machine. Returning to civilian research after the participation in such projects, Wiener, Julian Bigelow, Claude Shannon, and other mathematicians and engineers reinterpreted the concepts they had elaborated for specific situations of military command and communication and universalized them for the whole of human nature. Wiener aspired to create a new worldview based on all these disparate analogies. He attempted to integrate contemporary developments in control engineering, communication engineering, computing, physiology, thermodynamics, and social science and produce a unified theory. An eclectic set of mathematical models, explanatory frameworks, and appealing metaphors from those disciplines, however, did not converge. What held the diverse cybernetic ideas together, in my view, was a common discursive basis-a shared vocabulary and a common manner of speaking-in other words, a common language, which I call "cyberspeak."
To create this new language, Wiener combined concepts from physiology (homeostasis), psychology (behavior and goal), control engineering (control and feedback), thermodynamics (entropy and order), and communications engineering (information, signal, and noise) and generalized each of them to be equally applicable to living organisms, self-regulating machines (such as servomechanisms and computers), and human society. In Wiener's view, humans and machines were two kinds of control systems, which, operating in certain environment (which included other control systems), pursued their goals (hitting a target, increasing order, achieving better organization, or reaching the state of equilibrium) by communicating with this environment, that is, sending and receiving information about the results of their actions through feedback.
In cyberspeak, the problem of human communication was reformulated as a struggle between certainty and uncertainty, between information and entropy; the freedom of speech was likened to an essential problem of communications engineering-the accurate transmission of signals in the presence of noise. The difference between life and death was conceptualized as the problem of thermodynamic stability of living organisms; life was identified with organization and order, which could be prevented from the chaos and disorganization of death only by the constant influx of negative entropy. The mechanism of control via negative feedback employed in control engineering provided the framework for speaking of physiological homeostasis, locomotion, purposeful behavior, and social equilibrium. Human neurons were formalized as logical elements; vacuum tubes played a similar role in computers; thus emerged a structural analogy between human brains and computers. The implementation of the stored-program concept turned computers into self-regulating devices with memory and provided a basis for the functional analogy between people and computing machines. Speaking of humans as control devices and applying anthropomorphic terms to computers became two sides of one coin, brought into wide circulation by cybernetics.
Cybernetics promised to find solutions to a wide range of social, biological, and technological problems through computer modeling, information processing, and rational control via feedback. Complex social and biological phenomena looked simpler and more manageable when described in cybernetic terms. The common cybernetic language spoken across a wide range disciplines not only suggested similar solutions for control and communication problems in different fields, but also masked the differences in the nature and scale of those problems.
Historian Paul Edwards in his insightful analysis of American
cybernetics in the context of the Cold War regarded cybernetics
as a key component of the so-called "closed-world discourse."
This discourse embodied certain features of the military mindset
and ideological stereotypes of the Cold War and conceptualized
the political world as a closed system subject to technical control.
In my view, if analysis is extended to the Soviet case, it would
become clear that cybernetics was not firmly attached to a single
type of discourse. I would maintain that cyberspeak as a language
supported very diverse discourses in different political, social,
and cultural contexts.
Historian Paul Josephson has recently written: "It is unimaginable that a culture so fascinated with the potential of science to build communism, a culture whose achievements in the 1950s included the hydrogen bomb, nuclear power, tokamaks, and Sputnik, could dismiss the promise of cybernetics." As many other unimaginable things, that was precisely what happened in the Soviet Union. The origins of this anti-cybernetics campaign have long puzzled the students of Russian science and technology. In the historiography of the Cold War period, the Soviet condemnation of cybernetics was usually cited as a case of unwarranted interference of politics with science in a totalitarian society. Cybernetics was said to have been rejected on strong ideological grounds, as "clearly an alternative and a challenge to Marxism-Leninism."
The subsequent rise of Soviet cybernetics is often explained away as a natural result of the political changes brought about by the post-Stalinist thaw, which "helped to remove the barriers that stood in the way of a smooth and uninterrupted flow of the most recent theoretical advances from Western centers of scholarship to the Soviet Union." The interpretation of Soviet cybernetics as a simple case of "science transfer" treats cybernetics as an unproblematic scientific achievement, masks the profound differences between Wiener's cybernetics and its Soviet version, and reduces the significance of the Soviet context to politics, while ignoring specific cognitive and cultural meanings attached to the problems of control and communication in Russian and Soviet scientific and engineering traditions.
Many threads of the cybernetic quilt had their parallels in Russian and Soviet science and technology. In his Cybernetics, Wiener acknowledged some of the contributions by Russian scientists and engineers to the bulk of ideas that led to the formation of cybernetics, but the actual scale of Russian research in this area was far greater than he imagined. Russia had a strong tradition in control engineering, going back to the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the Russians pioneered the study of language with stochastic methods. In the 1910s, Russian thinkers discussed the possibility of creating a "general organizational science," which would uncover the general structural principles of any systems in living or non-living nature and the general laws of their transformation. Right after the Russian revolution, the ideas of rational control of production became immensely popular in Soviet Russia, resulting in the Scientific Organization of Labor movement. In 1920, the Institute of Labor was established, which developed methods of training workers to act as efficient machines; at this Institute, the physiological studies of "biomechanics" set a paradigm for interpreting the human body as a mechanism. In the 1930s, the Soviet Academy of Sciences sponsored work in the field of automation, remote control, and computing and established the Institute of Automation and Remote Control.
Any attempt to draw a strict line between the "foreign" and the "domestic" in Soviet cybernetics would lead to a vicious circle. Ideas that appeared foreign often had Russian roots, and conversely, ideas that seemed indigenous not infrequently had Western predecessors; a search for the ultimate origins would make one jump across the border back and forth without end. The Soviet "cult of the machine," for example, was very much inspired by Taylorism and Fordism and could not be attributed entirely to the Marxist belief in the power of science and technology, not to mention the Western roots of Marxism itself.
The tendency to reduce the specificity of Soviet cybernetics to a single cause-politics-and to attribute the difference between Western and Soviet cybernetics to political barriers standing in the way of scientific ideas often produces perceived paradoxes. David Holloway, for example, has observed: "Paradoxically, it is not in the West, but in the Soviet Union, where cybernetics was originally condemned as a 'pseudo-science,' that this 'general ideology' has been most widely adopted." It would be difficult to explain this paradox away by the mere reference to Soviet "healthy scientism, Marxism, and belief in the power of the machine." The attempts to juxtapose Soviet Marxism with cybernetics produce ambiguous results: at one moment Marxism seems to support cybernetics, at another they are at odds; at one moment the "belief in the power of the machine" is strong, at another it mysteriously disappears into the thin air.
The concept of "Soviet ideology" as a clearly defined
set of political principles uniformly imposed on all Soviet people
was a Cold War construction; the attempts to treat cybernetics
in a similar way-as a clearly defined set of ideas theories and
techniques-is an abstraction from the actual process of reinterpretation
of cybernetic ideas in different social, cultural, and political
contexts. In this study, both Soviet ideology and Soviet cybernetics
are examined not as fixed, immutable entities but as fragmented,
flexible, and mobile discourses. The relationship between these
two discourses is interpreted not as either essential agreement
or animosity but in terms of dynamic tension and mutual adaptation.
This study explores the development of cybernetics in the Soviet Union from the object of unbridled criticism during the anti-cybernetics campaign in the early 1950s to a vehicle of reform in the post-Stalinist system of science in the late 1950s and early 1960s to a convenient tool of bureaucracy in the late 1960s. Cybernetics is treated here not as a finished and unified scientific theory, but as a constantly revised project, which produced diverse and sometimes contradictory theories.
The first two chapters focus on the late Stalinist period and address the problem of the origins of the anti-cybernetics campaign and the impact this campaign and other historical developments had on the early Soviet computing. I critically examine the claim that the Soviet gap in computing was a direct result of the harmful influence of this campaign and discuss the role played by the Soviet practices of centralized control, rivalry, and secrecy in the field of computing.
The next two chapters deal with the rise of Soviet cybernetics in the early post-Stalinist period in the context of a political thaw, the attacks on dogmatic philosophical discourse, and the realignment of forces in the Soviet scientific and engineering communities. The unique mediating role Soviet cybernetics played in Soviet science of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the attempts to create a new general scientific methodology, and the entrenchment of a new computer-based concept of objectivity are examined. The role of cybernetics in the struggle against the legacy of Stalinism in science and technology lies at the center of this analysis.
The last three chapters concentrate on three subfields of Soviet cybernetics-"cybernetic physiology," "cybernetic linguistics," and "economic and military cybernetics." In each case, cybernetic discourse broke right into the middle of fierce debates over the validity of man-machine analogies, the applicability of mathematical models, and the role of automated control in the respective disciplines. The various strategies by which different groups reappropriated cybernetic discourse, the diverse roots of the opposition to cyberneticians' radical projects, and the transformation of cybernetic concepts in specific disciplinary discourses are explored. This study questions the common assumption that Soviet cybernetic research was directly commissioned by and enjoyed a uniform support of the political authorities, who wished to achieve a greater control over Soviet society. It emphasizes the active role Soviet scientists and engineers played in shaping the agenda of Soviet cybernetics research.
The great variability and flexibility of Soviet cybernetics, which served many masters and always escaped a narrow definition, prompts a comparison with Proteus, a reluctant prophet in Greek mythology, who knew all things in the past, present, and future, but did not want to tell anybody his prophecies and escaped from visitors by assuming various shapes. Like Proteus, Soviet cybernetics could be said to have hidden its core content in the endless variations of its form. One could perhaps see the essence of cybernetics in its Protean nature, which allowed it to be so pliable and-for this reason-seemingly universal.
The story of Soviet cybernetics evokes the fate of another personage
of Greek mythology-titan Prometheus-who, according to Aeschylus'
Prometheus Bound, stole from gods fire-a symbol of wisdom
and civilization-and brought it to the humankind. Prometheus,
who rebelled against the will of gods and was punished by them,
became a symbol of self-sacrificing rebellion. Like Prometheus,
cybernetics brought people a gift-the cybernetic language-and
similarly fell victim to its own rebellion. This study explores
the tension between the Protean and Promethean sides of Soviet
cybernetics-a tension that makes this subject so difficult and