|Slava Gerovitch. From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet
Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2002.
This book is a marvelous account of the history of cybernetics, and of Soviet cybernetics in particular. Throughout, the author examines his subject through the appropriate lens of language.
Gerovitch begins his account in chapter 1, with a discussion of newspeak, the propaganda-sounding ideological language of Soviet discourse. Newspeak was pervasive. Any public endeavor had to be justified according to the rules and terminology of this linguistic medium. Filled with value-laden, meaningless terms (such as materialism, formalism, reactionary, subjectivism, and so on) that could be applied across a broad spectrum of scientific, social, and political activity, newspeak became the shared language of public discourse.
The emergence of cyberspeak in the “cybernetics circle” of American and European scientists and engineers in the 1940s is the subject of chapter 2. The author traces the evolution of cyberspeak, from a set of narrowly defined technical concepts, to a “universal language” for men and machines, and finally to the vehicle of a cybernetics bandwagon.
In chapter 3, the author examines the origins of the campaign against cybernetics in the Soviet press in the early 1950s, in conjunction with the development of the first Soviet electronic digital computers.
In chapter 4, the transition from Stalinism to the Krushchev period in Soviet science is explored, through the prism of changing Soviet attitudes toward computing and cybernetics. During Krushchev’s political “thaw,” cyberspeak openly challenged newspeak. The computer came to symbolize a new spirit of rigorous thinking, logical clarity, and quantitative precision, contrasting sharply with the vague and manipulative language of Stalinist ideological discourse.
The author examines the Soviet cyberneticians’ radical project of transforming a wide range of scientific disciplines along cybernetic lines in chapter 5. Initially, the flexibility of cyberspeak helped to establish the meta-scientific status of cybernetics, and to bring a large number of disciplines under the umbrella of cybernetics. At the same time, this flexibility resulted in a wide diversity of cybernetic discourses. The increasing ambiguity of the language of cybernetics threatened to undermine the entire project of bringing formal rigor and exact reasoning to Soviet science.
In chapter 6, the author documents the climb of Soviet cybernetics to the height of official recognition, and its concurrent fall to the depths of intellectual shallowness. After its inclusion in the 1961 Program of the Communist Party as one of the sciences crucial to the construction of communism, cybernetics became fully legitimized, officially recognized, and almost canonized. After Brezhnev replaced Krushchev, the academic and political establishment began to appropriate cyberspeak and computer technology as a means of conserving the existing administrative hierarchies and power structures. By the early 1970s, cybernetics had been transformed from a vehicle of reform into a pillar of the status quo.
Emphasizing the close connections between language and theory, between knowledge and power, and between science and politics, the author interprets newspeak and cyberspeak not as linguistic practices, somehow imposed on Soviet scientists, but as particular discursive strategies, developed by scientists in their efforts to adapt to a specific political or socioeconomic situation, and to manipulate that situation to their advantage.
The audience for this book should not be limited to historians. Parallels exist between the role of language in science and politics, as described by the author, and contemporary society. As Peter Wolcott, from the University of Nebraska, wrote in a review in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing: “Identifying the value-laden but meaningless terms that frame the discourse between scientists, politicians, and society today is left as an exercise for the reader.”
Computing Reviews (September 2003).