A look at the evolution of the Russian nation-state stack and its contradictory nature stemming from a specific encounter between computation and geopolitics.
Present-day geopolitical tensions shadow national races to infrastructural saturation within and beyond state territories. Thus, the integration of the planet’s neural system of information, communication, and sensing technologies is effectively compromised by particular interests and power relations. This conflict between the interconnectedness of computational networks and the consolidation of territorial sovereignty is reflected, for instance, by the incongruous process of the Russian digital transformation and the ongoing development of its internet infrastructure.
The pioneers of cybernetics
Today’s internet traces its origins to the US Department of Defense’s ARPANET program of the late 1960s. During this same period, Soviet scientists had been urging the development of computer networks connecting thousands of computers within the USSR.
The story of early Soviet networks is closely linked to that of Soviet cybernetics. Cybernetics was initially dismissed as an imperialist American pseudoscience, but following the reforms of the mid-1950s, cybernetics was allowed to redeem itself in the public view. And it was some of the pioneers of Soviet cybernetics, such Anatoly Kitov and Victor Glushkov, who wrote the early proposals for a Soviet internet.
Kitov, a military computer scientist, first proposed a computer network for managing “all of the information flows in the command economy” in 1958. This proposal carried over the Command and Control philosophy of military networks, but wary of allowing civilians into their computer networks, the military hierarchy rejected his proposal.
During the 1960s, the OGAS real-time remote access network was developed by Glushkov and debated by Communist Party leaders. The enormous cost of the project and competition between ministries were some of the reasons the idea was rejected.
The employees of Glushkov’s institute in Kiev, who developed remote access surveillance systems by day, created a virtual country at their after-hours club. This country, known as Cybertonia, was ruled by a saxophone playing robot and came up with its own constitution, currency, and puns whilst also examining the scientist’s relationship with the state. This moment in 1960s Kiev draws some comparison to the counterculture movement in the West during the same period.
Bruno Latour has said that technology is society made durable by the process of embedding the values and priorities of society into its technology. In the history of the Soviet networks, society is technology made temporary through the shifting priorities and values of the society. This is an important idea in examining the aims and policies governing today’s internet technologies.
Hemispherical Stacks as national enclosures of internet networks
Since the 1960s, the electromagnetic signals of the internet—transmitted through copper wires, fiber optic, micro, and radio waves—have spread across the world, beneath terra and ocean, into low-earth orbit, and beyond. Engine rooms of software code and silicone-based hardware enable planetary-scale computation and sensing that give rise to an accidental, multi-layered megastructure known as the Stack.
The rising political and economic importance of the internet has created competition for internet governance between nation-states. The subdividing of internet platforms into regional and national networks does not yet threaten the dominance of the internet protocol, but rather it reduces the potential impacts of a globally interconnected network.
This national securitization, territorialization of data and information, and efforts to deploy internet resources along national lines risk a multi-layer segmentation of the Stack due to diversifying hardware, software, and operating standards. That is how Hemispherical Stacks come into being.
In contemporary Russia, the internet is being reframed as a national asset fully confined to the country’s borders—such a strategy could be described as a motherland complex.
Paradoxical nature of the RuStack
Russia’s insistence on territorializing information flows is demonstrated in the April 2018 standoff between the Roskomnadzor federal agency and Telegram messenger over user data and decryption keys. The agency’s failed attempts at blocking Telegram’s servers triggered a cascade of events. Those included the blocking of IP addresses assigned to Google and other cloud providers whose infrastructure was used by Telegram, and compelling Apple to block updates to the Telegram app.
The essence of the conflict, then, doesn’t lie solely in the state’s claims to access private data encrypted by Telegram’s protocol, but also in the discordance between national regulatory ambitions and the interconnectedness of global infrastructures and markets.
On the political front, the national program “Digital Economy of the Russian Federation”, signed by Prime Minister Medvedev in July 2017, has as its stated goals the development of domestic technologies for data processing and storage, digitization of public administration, creation of a social credit system, and the development of a global ICT infrastructure. On the surface, the plan proposes to increase Russia’s market share of the global digital economy by aligning the internet with Russia’s national borders. A key component within the plan is RuNet, a sovereign segment of the internet that enables control over data flows. This strongly criticized initiative reveals the paradoxes within the national stack paradigm.
The actual priorities of the program become clear once we consider the details of its implementation. The success of initiatives focused on surveillance and filtering contrasts a lack of progress on other projects such as the Global Multi-Functional Info-communication Satellite System, a constellation of satellites delivering high-speed internet. This project was proposed by the state space agency Roscosmos upon criticism from the presidential office—at that point, however, competing platforms like OneWeb and Starlink had progressed far beyond Roscosmos’ ability to keep up.
By contrast, the program fails to account for accidental technological developments at the margins of direct state control, such as Gazprom’s plans for the expansion of the Yamal orbital platform, or a proposed public geoinformation system to monitor Siberian ice, designed at the Irkutsk National Research and Technical University.
Internet standards as a planetary commons
These examples show that the Digital Economy Program is deeply contradictory: they illustrate a mismatch between its stated ambitions and focus on creating a sovereign internet whilst ignoring accidental and contingent developments. As of now, there has not been an attempt at developing local internet standards, and legalization of an internet kill switch has been repeatedly thwarted by industry and activists. In fact, an opposite direction seems to be appropriate: internet technical standards should be approached and valued as a planetary commons, while the different ways of participating in these networks should be negotiable. The nature of technological infrastructures calls into question the very paradigm of national territories. What digital networks suggest and enable, on the other hand, is zoning based on populational recompositions on the level of the user, and biochemical flows on the level of the planet. Following the imaginary of Cybertonia, we should keep envisioning a Stack and a society that isn’t consigned to the whims of the nation-state.