Friday, October 27, 2006

The fairytale of Soviet Cybernetics

For those who, like me, grew up within the
sphere of cultural influence of the Soviet
Union, while at the same time being geographically
far from the actual workings of Soviet society,
it is still, to this day, difficult to understand
what was going on behind the scenes of that mixture
of science and ideology we fed upon in our youth.
In particular, in my childhood days "Cybernetics"
was a fantastic mythological creature: the wonderful
all encompassing science that would bend the boundaries
between human and intelligent machine, explain biological
systems on the basis of mathematical principles, deliver
perfect five-years-plannings for the ideal socialist
society, and much more. I loved Cybernetics and I dreamt
of becoming the "cybernetist" of the radiant future.
Surprisingly, at the time when I actually became a
scientist a few years later, cybernetics had all but
disappeared from the scene. What happened? I never
knew, not until I read the beautiful book by Slava
Gerovitch a couple of days ago, while stuck for many
hours on the tarmac of a major international airport,
inside a plane in need of repairing (a faulty feedback
of a cybernetic control system?)
The book "From Newspeak to Cyberspeak" is a marvel:
to me it came as a wonderful revelation of all the
fascinating history of the alternating fate of
cybernetics in the context of the Soviet scientific
community and its interaction with the political
establishment. From the very difficult early start
near the end of the Stalin era, when it was branded
a "pseudo-science" ideologically corrupt by idealism
and incompatible with the true philosophy of
dialectic materialism (termed newspeak by the author
after Orwell's 1984 vision) to the very end of its
parabola of success, when it became part of the official
language of the establishment (cyberspeak) in the 1970s.
The most intriguing part of the book is certainly the
analysis of the intermediate period of emergence,
around the beginning of the Kruschev period, when the
science of cybernetic, pioneered and promoted by
towering figures such as Sobolev, Liapunov, Kolmogorov,
was finally accepted as a major innovative and
modernizing force in Soviet science and became the
refuge of all the previously suppressed movements in
the other sciences, from structural linguistics to
genetics in Lysenko dominated biology. The major role
that the miliary establishment and the scientists
involved in the nuclear program played in bringing
about the legitimation and later canonization of
cybernetics is also a very interesting and (at least
for me) unexpected side of the story, which is very
carefully and beautifully analyzed in the book.
In conclusion, my childhod dream of the infinite
promise of the cybernetic future was in fact a distant
echo of the late '60s and early '70s propaganda
associated to the final stage of ideologization of
cybernetics, so well described in the book. I feel
nonetheless that it was a beautiful dream. A good
deal of Soviet propaganda was capable of generating
beautiful dreams (people in space, infinite progress,
radiant future, planning of societies). Those of us
who did not have to face in their everyday life the
all too obvious gap between the ideals described by
ideological propaganda and the realities of Soviet
society were at least allowed the luxury of enjoying
the dream, as I did for a great deal of time. It was
nice to grow up with dreams. It is nicer still to
find out the details of the real history behind the
dream, especially from such a skillfull and well
researched narrator as Slava Gerovitch. Great job!
Thank you!