How the Computer Got Its Revenge on the Soviet Union

tags: Soviet Union, USSR, Computer

Slava Gerovitch is a lecturer on the history of mathematics and director of research programs in the Mathematics Department at MIT. An expert on the history of Russian science and technology, he is the author of "From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics," and two books about the Soviet space exploration.

In 1950, with the Cold War in full swing, Soviet journalists were looking desperately for something to help them fill their anti-American propaganda quota. In January of that year, a Time Magazine cover appeared that seemed to provide just the thing. It showed an early electromechanical computer called the Harvard Mark III, and boasted the cover line, “Can Man Build a Superman?”

Here 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. Of course, Agapov did not actually read Wiener’s famous book on the topic, called Cybernetics; the content of his article makes clear that all he knew about cybernetics was borrowed from the January 23 issue of Time, and possibly largely from its cover image.

In the paranoia-filled environment of the Soviet media, Agapov’s article was perceived as a signal from above. The psychologist Mikhail Iaroshevskii took the hint and published two scathing attacks on cybernetics, one in the Literary Gazette and another in a 1951 collection of papers titled Against the Philosophizing Henchmen of American and English Imperialism. He accused Wiener of reducing human thought to formal operations with signs, and labeled cybernetics a “modish pseudo-theory” fabricated by “philosophizing ignoramuses” and “utterly hostile to the people and to science.” He went on to cite Wiener’s well-known remark that the computer revolution was “bound to devalue the human brain” in the same way that the industrial revolution had devalued the human arm. While Wiener meant his comment to be a liberal critique of capitalism, and called on having “a society based on human values other than buying and selling,” Iaroshevskii apparently interpreted it as a misanthropic escapade. “From this fantastic idea,” he wrote, “semanticists-cannibals derive the conclusion that a larger part of humanity must be exterminated.” Like Agapov, Iaroshevskii hadn’t bothered to read any of Wiener’s writing. Actually, it wouldn’t have been easy: Wiener’s Cyberneticswas withdrawn from Soviet libraries after Agapov’s attack. Instead, Iaroshevskii drew his arguments for his critique largely from Agapov’s earlier article.

As one critic echoed another, repeating older accusations and making up new ones, an anti-cybernetics campaign coalesced. Critics didn’t let their ignorance of the actual content of cybernetics stop them—in fact, it helped to unleash their imagination. Skillfully manipulating a handful of quotations of Wiener taken out of context, they stretched the clothing of cybernetics over an ideological straw man. Wiener’s passing remark that “information is information, not matter or energy” was exaggerated to become the claim that information had “nothing to do with matter or consciousness,” and the critics concluded that cybernetics was marching along a “straight road toward open idealism and religion” (both were, of course, pejorative terms in the Soviet Union).

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. ...

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