How the Computer Got Its Revenge on the Soviet Union

Slava Gerovitch in Nautilus:

5828_48000647b315f6f00f913caa757a70b3Here was a target that checked the ideological boxes. In May of 1950 Boris Agapov, the science editor of the Soviet Literary Gazette, penned a scornful critique of the American public’s fascination with “thinking machines.” He scoffed at the capitalist’s “sweet dream” of replacing class-conscious workers and human soldiers—who could choose not to fight for the bourgeoisie—with obedient robots. He mocked the idea of using computers for processing economic information and lampooned American businessmen who “love information [like] American patients love patented pills.” He poured contempt on the Western prophets of the information age, especially the most prominent of them—cybernetics creator Norbert Wiener, a mathematics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cybernetics, which was then just a couple of years old, declared that control and communication mechanisms in biology, technology, and society were fundamentally the same.

Philosophers chimed in, bashing cybernetics for “clinging to the decrepit remnants of idealistic philosophy,” as well as for being “mechanistic” in reducing the activity of the human brain to “mechanical connection and signaling.” Cybernetics, they claimed, was doubly guilty. It deviated from dialectical materialism, the official Soviet philosophy of science, in two opposite directions—toward idealism and toward mechanicism—at the same time. The media portrayed it as both “idealistic” and “mechanistic,” “utopian” and “dystopian,” “technocratic” and “pessimistic,” a “pseudo-science” and a dangerous weapon of Western military aggression. Soviet critics ignored, or possibly were unaware of, Wiener’s openly pacifist stand, which he had taken after Hiroshima, and his refusal to participate in military research.

…The trouble with these public attacks against the use of computers was, of course, that the country desperately needed computers. The military, in particular, recognized the value of the nascent technology, and the risks of being left behind.

So, in a classic example of “doublespeak,” the Soviet Union began to secretly pursue military computing while condemning the West for doing the same. While the press ridiculed American “fantasies” of robots giving military orders, Sergei Sobolev, the chief mathematician of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, tirelessly promoted the development of new computers. These included the Soviet Union’s first computer, the MESM, and its first small computer, the M-1.

Read the full article here.