How Not to Network a Nation

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States rivaled one another on many scientific and technological fronts. In many fields this technological race was competitive. The USSR launched the first space satellite and was able to develop a hydrogen bomb one year after the United States. One thing that the USSR failed at was to create a national network similar to ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet we have today.

The Internet is arguably the most impactful invention of the last fifty years. If the Soviet Union was so close to the United States in other technological fields, why was it never able to develop anything similar to ARPANET?

Benjamin Peters tackles this question in his thoroughly researched book How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. This book compares the successfully funded government ARPANET project of the United States with the numerous failed attempts to create a national network in the USSR.

The author details numerous institutions and individuals within the USSR who had dreams of creating such a network and why each of them failed in this task. These failures were not due to technological reasons but to bureaucratic, political and idealogical reasons.

How Not to Network a Nation is not a technological book, though it does describe technologies. Before anything else, it is a book about the failures of the Soviet bureaucratic systems. In the United States, the ARPANET was successfully developed in part due to a cooperative nature of the universities and institutions involved in its creation.

By contrast, the USSR was actually full of competition for power between different sectors of the government, the party, the military and the bureaucracy. This competition between rival groups prevented a successful creation of a national network.

This book is great for those interested in seeing how destructive Soviet institutions were to scientific advancement, especially scientific advancement outside of the military. It is also a well researched overview of different cybernetic researches from the Soviet union. It is an interesting study of different social systems and focuses on the failure to develop a Soviet Internet.

This is not a book which delves deep into the technical details. But the reason that Soviet Union never built their own Internet is not due to technical reasons but social reasons.