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Other networks. Access, emancipation, science fiction

Bahar Noorizadeh, ‘After Scarcity’ (2018), still / by courtesy of Bahar Noorizadeh

Cybernetics, initially rejected as a bourgeois project, became one of the most developed branches of science in the Soviet Union a few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. The cybernetic dream has been dreamt from the Bug River to the Kamchatka Peninsula by many who saw the science of the control systems as a tool for the efficient management of the biggest country in the world. The “communism machines” – poorly-developed computers the size of a wardrobe – were supposed to become means of achieving the socialist plan of a centrally controlled economy. This plan was, of course, centred around the figure of a labourer, working for the sake of the socialist economy. One of the most important people behind the project of cybernatization of the Soviet Union was Victor Mikhailovich Glushkov, according to whom cybernetics was expected to allow for the transformation of the socialist society into a cybernetic organism, based on a feedback loop and self-regulation. Among the Glushkov’s most important projects was the creation of the national information network – the National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing (OGAS) / Общегосударственная автоматизированная система учёта и обработки информации (ОГАС). In 1970, only eight years after the work on the project had started, the research funds were reduced, and the developed mechanism, on a smaller scale, was used for the service of the Druzhba [Friendship] oil pipeline network, which, in the official message, was supposed to be an example of a perfect marriage of cybernetics and ecology.

We’ve developed methods that allow for the use of contemporary computing machines to predict the behavior of all kinds of ecological systems, to model all future options for the development of these systems, and to discover the solutions that would allow us to find the right compromise between the economic needs of the people and their natural need to preserve the environment.1

Radynski adds that during the closed meetings Glushkov had a more critical attitude, pointing out the ineffectiveness of the adopted solutions, due to the inevitable resource depletion of the fossil fuels, including petroleum.

Bahar Noorizadeh, ‘After Scarcity’ (2018), still / by courtesy of Bahar Noorizadeh

Parallel to their work on the OGAS system, after office hours at the Institute of Cybernetics, the Glushkov’s team was letting their creativity run wild by creating artefacts of an imaginary state of Cybertonia. The Institute’s authorities treated this additional activity as a kind of a safety valve. The first presentation session of the Cybertonia took place on the New Year’s Eve in 1962, in the Theatre for the Little Spectator, booked for the evening at the Institute of Cybernetics. To get to the staged world of Cybertonia, guests and participants had to go through a hole in a wooden fence – which was quite a bitter metaphor of the country’s transformation from a heavy industry economy to a technological utopia. People included in the co-creation of the ephemeral community were given administrative props – passports and marriage certificates – confirming their Cybertonian nationality and belonging to a state based on four pillars: energy, laughter, dreams, and fantasy. This utopian state-project was supposed to be governed by an imaginary non-human creature – a robot saxophonist. This artistic-political-trickstery project of a cybernetic utopia, state within a state, was functioning with the permission of the Soviet authorities – the same authorities that several years earlier dismissed the possibility of developing cybernetics due to its provenance. After all, the twentieth century version of this science of system management was born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the United States.

The active imagination of the creators and participants of the Cybertonic project did not translate into a real change. Instead, it was more like a prelude to (and a witness of) the end of the vision of the potential Soviet Internet2. The sphere of imagination and plans gave way to a policy focused on here and now. Today, this Soviet technological utopia is brought to life again by Barah Noorizadeh in her video Scarcity3. Noorizadeh’s video essay starts with a quote from Darko Suvin, a science fiction scholar, who describes utopia not as a separate genre, but a socio-economic subgenre of science fiction, thus pointing to the inextricable bonds between the fantasy, scientific, technological, and socio-economic threads, none of which exist on their own.

Bahar Noorizadeh, ‘After Scarcity’ (2018), still / by courtesy of Bahar Noorizadeh

In the film, the artist recreates the fate of the Soviet cybernetics from the years 1950-1980, and the attempts to build a fully automatized planned economy. By going back to the middle of the 20th century, she speculates about the future, as well as the infrastructure of labour and production facilitated by the techno-industry of management, all this in order to try to find new methods of building coalitions in the uncertain working conditions that define modern relations between who produces and who benefits from the produced value. She asks: “How can we, if we can at all, use technology to liberate ourselves from the present state of cyber-feudalism, and get closer to the new possible utopias?”. Can going back to the Soviet strategy of cybernatization and digitalization, a utopia of social justice and radical emancipation, be a remedy for the cyber-feudalism, that is domination of so-called tech giants who monopolise the digital space4, and whose users turn into unpaid workers5 through the constant content production? A similar attitude can be found among the proponents of cyberutopia, that is a (long outdated) belief that online communication is liberating in itself, and the Internet is a space acting to the advantage of the oppressed, not the oppressors – a belief criticised back in 1995 by a collective of tactical media practitioners, Critical Art Ensemble6. As they wrote in the summary of the essay Utopian Promises—Net Realities

As saddened as CAE is to say it, the greater part of the Net is capitalism as usual. It is a site for repressive order, for the financial business of capital, and for excessive consumption. While a small part of the Net may be used for humanistic purposes and to resist authoritarian structure, its overall function is anything but humanistic.

Would setting cybernetics up outside the United States, founded on the rules of capitalism, lead to a game of constant increasing and fulfilling the purchasing needs, dividing the digitalized communication? I pose this question at the point when not only the right to the access to the web and its content is being discussed, but also the question of the quality of the content and the hierarchical structure of the access. At the moment of at least temporary transfer of a significant part of our everyday lives to the online sphere, the question of the legitimacy of net neutrality7 also comes up. Net neutrality is a rule whereby Internet service providers are obliged to treat all Internet connections equally – with no discrimination or additional charges, depending on who the user is, or what type of content he/she uses, i.e.: a website, platform, application, type of device, source address, target address, or method of communication. The global quarantine and even bigger immersion in the web revealed the problem of the content overproduction, at the same time emphasizing the need for the equal access and a strategy for the equal information distribution and digital participation. This is one of the human rights in a highly digitalized Estonia, where every person was granted the right to access to the public information via Internet connection available at the public libraries8

Staff of the Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics of National Academy of Science of the USSR (currently the Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) © Sputnik/EastNews

Since if we are to create a post-scarcity economy, which Noorizadeh postulates in her video, it would have to be a reality in which the primary values are relations and the possibility to build them – and this depends on the possibility to use the technological infrastructure, its quality, and what type of reality its owners envisioned. The web infrastructure is built by a system of private properties, its capacity is limited, and maintenance takes place in a close and intense relation with the environment – which, for reasons probably related to the image, more and more often becomes a factor of change; today Microsoft is working on building the first underwater data centre, which would reduce the energy costs of cooling down the overheated equipment9. The access to information and communication, the ability to co-create and participate, have their own materiality and weight, temperature and an invisible infrastructure – just like the still operating Friendship oil pipeline network, and unlike the ephemeral Cybertonia. And it is infrastructure, as a strategic element of a complex networking system, that should be a starting point for building a new future. By accepting it as a reference point in designing the future (to a large extent based on a digitalized medial communication), we take into account issues frequently ignored: differences and inequalities, relativeness, work, maintenance and repair, or impact on the environment.

The project of cybernatization of the Soviet Union is not the only one in which the utopian vision of socialist emancipation is combined with the possibilities created by cybernetics and technology. CyberSyn was a technological project serving as a tool for the implementation of a political project, planned for the time of Salvador Allende’s term of office. He was Chile’s first socialist president, elected in 1970 and meant to create a social-democratic Chile, that is a country respecting the constitutional provisions, as well as individual liberty of its residents. After the nationalization of several companies spanning from the northern to the southern end of Chile, by the efforts of a team led by Fernando Flores in cooperation with a British cyberneticist Stafford Beer, a project of cybernetic organisation, prediction, and quick reaction was created. As a part of the project, The Ops Room, maintained in a retro-futuristic style, was also created. Its function was to facilitate the decision-making for the management and help with better interpretation of the gained and presented data. The project also involved the independence of the reporting factory and company workers, even though the state interference was planned to increase.

The Druzhba (Friendship) system of trunk oil pipelines functioned in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Photo: Building the second pipeline with a diameter of up to 122 centimeters in the Hungarian People’s Republic, 1974 © Sputnik/EastNews

Coup d’état, Allende’s suicide, and a seizure of power by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973 interrupted the process of the cybernetic planning in Chile. However, as pointed out by Eden Medina, the process of planning itself, which was a kind of an experiment, pointed to a few important issues. Currently, the electronics market is based on a short usability period (the average duration of use of a smartphone is now, depending on the analysis, approximately two years) that is part of the designing and production process of the device. CyberSyn, a project of cybernatization of a whole country was created on the basis of… one computer, the one the project team was provided with. Obtaining a bigger amount of equipment produced in the United States was difficult due to, e.g. the Invisible Blockade of the Nixon’s administration, whose aim was believed to be a destabilization of Chilean economy and prevention of the creation of so-called red sandwich consisting of two socialist countries – Chile and Cuba. Constraints in obtaining the access to the new technology led to CyberSyn being adjusted to and based on the equipment available in the country – telex machines. The consequences of such a strategy do not escape Eden Medina, who notices that Chilean web used fewer technological resources with lower costs, and still turned out highly functional10. The older technologies were creatively recycled and combined with other forms of organizational and social innovation, which, especially from today’s perspective of fetishized and forced updating of both software and hardware, is momentous and touching to me. The designed social change carried out in the spirit of a technological zero waste sounds like the fulfilment of Barah Noorizadeh’s dream/postulate of liberation from the yoke of digital tech giants and of the activation of the whole emancipatory potential of the web: science fiction about the unfinished past.

Aleksandra Skowrońska – PhD student at the Department of Theatre and Media Art (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań), member of the HAT Research Center (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań). Currently working on the dissertation about media infrastructures. She cooperates with the University of Fine Arts in Poznań, where she teaches a course concerning the new media issues; she coordinates communication and supports the programme department (especially the discourse programme and the Open Pawilon) in the Pawilon (Municipal Gallery Arsenał in Poznań)

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