Thursday Night Live
How does a country with a tradition of central planning cope with the decentral internet and powerful foreign cloud-platforms? With Svitlana Matvyienko and Ksenia Tatarchenko.
From Malevich to Telegram
Stedeijk Museum Amsterdam
During From Malevich to Telegram Vertical Atlas delved into the cultural, artistic, philosophical and technological traditions that shaped the current interface of the Russian stack. With contributions by Benjamin Bratton, Benjamin Peters, Ksenia Fedorova, Ksenia Tatarchenko, Metahaven and Anton Vidokle.
Infocosm.ru Lab Part 1
A lab devoted to collective research and the creation of a map of the current Russian geo-zone.
Infocosm.ru Lab Part 2
The research lab was facilitated by Benjamin Bratton, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer and Arthur Steiner.
Early Russian 'Internet'
The Russian 'Stack' is inseparable from how its technocratic planned economy was (and continues to be) a nation-building project fraught by geopolitical tensions. The story is much deeper than trolls and hacks. In fact, the Internet could have been Russian. In the Soviet Union, ideas and designs for a nationwide cybernetic network had already been developed in the late 1950s, inspired by a long tradition of artistic and philosophical speculation about the potential of technology. Cultural movements like Cosmism, Suprematism and Constructivism, and their experimentation with metaphysical models derived from mathematics and mysticism, informed these techno-scientific developments in unexpected ways.
Fired up by successes in space faring in the 1960s, the Communist Party began to reimagine the command economy as a reflexive system that could calibrate planning in real time, in response to new information. Their most ambitious plan was OGAS - the All-State Automated System. OGAS anticipated cloud computing by allowing input to and output from a central database to all users, and proposed that physical money would become redundant by processing electronic receipts. Its chief architect was Viktor Glushkov, a Cosmist who believed that, one day, ever more advanced networks would make it possible to upload personalities embedded in human neural circuits to a supercomputer.
But the OGAS fell apart in the 1970s. As the Global Internet was adopted in Russia, it brought new logics of networked interaction as well as a familiar tradition to Russian techno-cultural sensibilities. However, the political implications of information decentralization came to be seen as potentially dangerous and new policies to regain control were implemented.
Beyond State Control
Since the 2010s, powerful foreign tech-platforms have been forced to base part of their cloud data servers on Russian soil, behind state-controlled online gateways. Telegram, the popular Russian message service, was requested to share its encryption keys with the government (but refused), resulting in a boom in VPN service providers virtually locating Russian citizens and companies outside the country.
Such frictions between different models for state-scale platforms spur attempts at cross- and retrofitting that range from the clever to the clumsy, and they engender unpredicted geopolitical effects. As the dynamic between different ways of governing stacks becomes yet more contentious — state centralization, private decentralization, platform centralization, public decentralization, the remarkable aspirations and debacles of the Russian stack form an essential model to investigate.
In the conjoined public programme on 29 November and 2 December 2018 at Het Nieuwe Instituut and Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), four speakers addressed the techno-political and historical specificities of the Russian digital cosmos.
Infocosm.ru Talks, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Ksenia Tatarchenko outlined the cornerstones of Soviet cybernetic history, challenging the normalised American narrative and the rhetoric of failure around Russian computing. Closely examining the work of a Soviet computer scientist Andrey Ershov (1931-1988) a pioneer in systems programming and author of the universal computer language ‘ALGOL’, Tatarchenko brought attention to Ershov’s visit to RAND Corporation during the Cold War. Consequent US developments in cybernetics were principally inspired by his work on programming literacy. For Ershov, learning programming was about actualising abstract thinking to action, and reasoning through the algorithm. In line with the Gorbachev’s agenda, this visionary project was striving towards (socialist) human development, enhanced by a cybernetics of the mind. Just as book literacy (‘likbez’), introduced in the 1920s, was thought as a pathway to communism, computing would pave the road for another socialist revolution of the mind.
Ershov’s educational methods were widely introduced in schools, spawning a flourishing subculture of programmers largely unknown outside the USSR, using programmable calculators, since both personal and mainframe computers were out of reach. The legacy of Ershov’s algorithmic pedagogies can be followed all the way to today’s Akademgorodok in Novossibirsk, a technopark, generously subsidised for innovation in Putin’s Russia. A prominent institutional coding culture has remained present in post-collapse Russia, and shapes companies like Yandex up to present day.
Svitlana Matviyenko focused on the notion of cyberwar in the aftermath of Cold War and in the post-conflict space of globalised capitalism. Cyberwar in the age of cognitive and cybernetic capitalism is one of the recurrent technological revolutions by which capital periodically renews itself. It is the means of both production and destruction. Donbass, the disputed border of the Crimean peninsula, Dyn Botnet attack in 2016, Kerch Strait accident in November 2018 — cyberwar is unevenly distributed, simultaneously debordering and overbordering sovereign spaces, operating from outside and within.
Cyberwar is asymmetrical and omnipresent; it operates on the logic of speculation and hyper-personalisation, exploiting subjectivities, owning attention and rendering User a universal subject position under capitalism. Approaching User though Marxist and Lacanian definitions of subjectivity, as a divided subject unable to access the logic of one’s own desires, Matviyenko stressed the notion of the ‘used’ over that of ‘using’, in relation to the agency of the User. While cyberwar is a global phenomenon, fake news or massive infrastructural malware attacks do not always target individual Users within Russia or Ukraine, but rather remote publics, collective users and the Western mass-media organisations, leading to notorious Western claims that ‘the Internet is broken’. Software vulnerabilities are commonly perceived as weaknesses, exploited by ideological opponents, but in fact are an intrinsic part of the developer’s design, and a result of pressing economic demands. And if so, is the Internet really broken — or is it simply what it was always meant to be?
The act of writing history is an act of partial deconstruction and reconstruction. Chronology is not the only way history operates. Different synchronous histories may evolve in parallel to each other, based on differently perceived presents.
In Russia, the military-industrial complex and academia are closely connected. Decoupling the university from the military may be possible with small tactical and strategic steps, operating on the local level of responsibility. Small fights can be fought, but new institutions and institutional networks are needed.
From Malevich to Telegram, Stedelijk Museum
In the second part of the programme, Benjamin Peters and Ksenia Fedorova delved into the cultural, artistic, philosophical and technological traditions that have shaped the current interface of the Russian stack. The talks were followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with Benjamin Peters, Ksenia Fedorova, Ksenia Tatarchenko and Metahaven, and the screening of The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun (2015) by Anton Vidokle.
Benjamin Peters laid out an extensive picture of the Soviet cybernetic Stack, drawing on the method of ‘ostranenie’ (defamiliarization) by Viktor Shklovsky, and the metaphysical tradition of cosmism. Peters read each layer of the Stack through the prism of Soviet history. Earth: Cosmos, Sputnik and extraterrestrial Earth observation, solar radiation and energy, Russian exclusive territorial claims in the Antarctic, and the work of cosmist and father of Russian rocketry Tsiolkovsky. Cloud: cloud computing emerged from the development of emergency communication systems during Cold War, focused on monitoring the weather and levels of nuclear fall-out. City: Kiev, the capital of socialist republic of Ukraine. Address: the Institute of Cybernetics. Interface: a concept, interfacing Russian cosmism with soviet technological imagination; or, as coined by Victor Glushkov, a practical universal that works on both local and global scales.
Between 1959-1989, there were several attempts to develop a national computer network. In 1952, while working on a secret military project, Anatoliy Kitov discovered the work of Norbert Wiener, and began adapting cybernetic ideas and systems vocabulary to Russian rational marxism. By 1962, the gargantuan scale of economic planning and urgency to solve calculation problems in real time lead to the conception of the first All-State Automated System (OGAS) by Victor Glushkov. The computer mind was meant to achieve ‘the red plenty’: a form of affluent electronic socialism, deploying virtual currencies and eventually going moneyless. Distributed across the Eurasian network, the system would operate in a decentralised manner, although Moscow would be able to contact any User on the network without any authorisation. The project was denied funding and notoriously shut down in 1971 by the Ministry of Finance, as it was perceived to pose a threat to the bureaucratic authorities. Notably, Glushkov’s thinking was informed by Cosmist metaphysics, influenced by the ideas of technological singularity, informational immortality and possibilities of uploading human neural circuits into a supercomputer.
On today’s Internet, capitalists act like socialists, and socialists behave like capitalists. Soviet Internet history teaches us that Western-centric genealogy of the Stack is not a sufficient model, and other genealogies and alternative histories are needed and will prevail.
Ksenia Fedorova addressed Russian techno-imaginary in the arts ‘between vision and praxis’. Emerging in Vkhutemas/Vkhutein school in 1920s, the main features were worldbuilding aspirations, the presence of social mission, multisensory engagement and connectivity. From adaptable and dynamic Gesamtkunstwerke by Rodchenko and Lissitsky, to Alexey Gastev’s ‘Central Institute of Labour’ (1921) and Arseny Avraamov’s ‘Symphony of Sirens’ (1922), art turned its gaze to the factory with mechanical soundscapes and labour ergonomics. Yevgeny Murzin’s ‘ANS Synaesthetic Synthesizer’ marked the transition towards sensory augmentation, physiological and cognitive cybernetics and mind control, exemplified by the diagram by Pavel Gulyaev ‘Material Bases of Telepathy’ (1965).
The ‘Second wave’ of the non-conformist avantgarde in the 1960-70s, lead by Boris Groys and Ilya Kabakov, embraced collective actions, performative techniques and horizontal connections in the countryside. The ‘Movement Group’ (1962-1972) explored the arts of dynamic forms, focusing on perceptual experiments with optical and kinetic matter. The techno-imaginary permeated the cinema too: the 1986 Soviet-Russian-Georgian sci-fi dystopian tragicomedy film Kind-dza-dza! featured a set of speculative devices, including an intergalactic travel vehicle and a device to determine your social position.
The state of media art in the post-soviet period was defined by a set of unfortunate conditions: isolation from the international tradition, lack of educational infrastructure or stable financial support, and a suspicious attitude from the world of contemporary art (due to a lack of integration in the wider cultural system). Drawing on the heritage of the conceptualist art tradition, media art remained theory without practice for a while. In the early 2000s, Net Art and tactical media movements emerged (Alexey Isaev, Olia Lialina, Aleksey Shulgin), followed by the latest multidisciplinary science art (Dmitry Bulatov, Dmitry Morozov/vtol) in which artistic, scientific, poetic and technical traditions come together.
If the Western typology of capitalist globalisation is horizontal, verticality can be interpreted as a cosmic link, a metaphysical striving towards immortality and outer space. Socialism thus becomes compatible with profound religious thought, and is bridged with the older roots of Russian orthodox christianity. But besides outward expansion, cosmism provides an invitation to look deeply inside oneself, built on the idea of interiority, transcendence and inner thought.
The uneven politics of geopolitical development in the Soviet Union need to be addressed through post-colonial perspectives on cybernetics. For example, Uzbekistan was a renowned mecca for computing in the late 1970s, visited by Dutch scientists. Remembering and re-constructing the past is especially important in the context of the USSR, where the history of modernisation and computation is often treated in a universalistic manner.
The two public events provided outlines of the conceptual space as well as reflection on the content of Infocosm.ru Lab, which took place on 1 December 2018 in Amsterdam. The participants comprised of researchers, theorists, artists, architects, designers and technoloy experts. Several experts were asked in advance to prepare a research question and a short presentation, which were intensively discussed by the group. This was followed by a mapping exercise. A Russia-centric world map with six transparent layers of the Stack (with Russia in the center) was provided as a discussion aid, attempting to challenge the applicability of the cartographic model.
Invited participants: Katja Novitskova, Jasmijn Visser, Svitlana Matviyenko, Ksenia Tatarchenko, Benjamin Peters, Valia Fetisov, Ksenia Fedorova, Denis Leontiev, Alexander van Wijnen, Femke Herregraven, Sanne Stevens, Tin Geber. Facilitation: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Arthur Steiner & Leonardo Dellanoce. Report: Anastasia Kubrak.
More information on each participant can be found in the ‘People’ section of this web magazine. Short video interviews with the participants can be viewed here.
1. Cloud / Introduction
Introduced by Benjamin Bratton, the first session focused on coming to a definition of the Russian stack, and outlining the main issues with the concept of verticality. Divided into 11 time zones, Russian state governance is highly contested between the logic of hypercentralisation and decentralisation/localisation, while historical complexities lead to ambivalence towards cybernetic systems at play.
Could the Russian Stack be best understood through the notion of financial capital? The important facets of the Russian geopolitical project include production value (capital as a vehicle of power), resource control (gas as power), as well as mind control and state surveillance (information as power).
In the context of largely disproportionate distribution of power and capital between Moscow and ‘non-Moscow’ (periphery), it is important to stress the existence of multiple centers of cybernetic history. When several computational legacies get inscribed onto the present, to what extent does the Russian stack inherit soviet colonialism?
Just as the Russian language is saturated with verbs in subjunctive forms (e.g. хотел бы, ‘would have liked to’ instead of ‘would like to’), the history of the Russian stack is in itself subjunctive: the Russian past is never settled. The same applies to the cybernetic histories of the Russian sphere. Like all empires, the Soviet Union survives through its infrastructure, even if it is formally dead. One example is the still active domain extension for Soviet union (.su), used by the official website of Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) until 2017, and currently adopted by its Ministry of Justice. In such cases, symbolic and instrumental layers of Soviet legacy become closely intertwined.
Denil Leontiev, co-founder and CEO of Strelka KB and a practicing architect, introduced the second session with a brief historical overview of urbanisation since 1950. Currently Russia has 1112 cities, 80% of which are situated west of the Ural Mountains in the proximity of Europe. While parts of soviet infrastructure are still present across the world, one question continues to stir national debate around centralisation/decentralisation: should Russian cities become part of a global and European network of cities, or should they aim to stay independent and limited in their scale? Is further integration withiin Europe in terms of economic mobility and connectivity desirable, or should the urban investment target the satellite cities across the Urals, aiming at improving the quality of life and rethinking the existing infrastructure?
Following the collapse of the USSR, the basic infrastructure across Russia remained soviet. Communication networks, banking, administration, transportation, and even educational systems and institutions have been disrupted and quickly replaced by the new privatised ICT infrastructures and commercial networks (such as Yandex, Uber, Vkontakte and others).
In relation to power structures in the Russian digital sphere, it is remarkably complicated to address issues around data ownership in the Russian context. Ownership as a concept is not very well understood, and data policies and legal protections of privacy are practically absent. However data mining processes in the Russian financial systems are just as advanced as in the US context, while the data market and online advertising are largely monopolised by one company Yandex. This local tech giant also carries the legacy of the soviet science and coding traditions, as its coders have mostly been educated in USSR ‘tech spots’ and newer ‘Russian Silicon valleys’, from Novosibirsk to Magadan.
One can read the legacy of soviet infrastructure by looking at the network coverage of the main Russian telecoms. The question arises if they should extend their coverage over the post-soviet region, such as Georgia or Ukraine, and if so, on what terms.
Russia is very heterogeneous in distribution of social networks across the country (Moscow is mostly active on Facebook, satellite cities use Vkontakte, and even further away from Moscow - Odnoklassniki). This tendency extends over the post-soviet space. Will Facebook or Vkontakte dominate the social media market in countries like Uzbekistan? And if the entire Ukraine government is hosted on Russian servers, including the provision of Russian email addresses, what are the cultural and geopolitical implications of this legacy?
Soviet history of territorial migration has many particularities, one of them is that the majority of the Siberian population wasn’t born in Siberia, but was brought in to build infrastructures and still populates the region. In certain aspects and instances, the Soviet project contained ideas of anti-imperialism, and its colonial politics still allowed for many spaces for self-representation of other populations, ensuring formal or structural heterogeneity.
‘From Russia with Code’. The migration of Russian tech brains and start-ups outside the country is closely linked to their inability to remain independent from the Russian state; this contributes to the expansion of the large Russian-speaking diaspora in Silicon Valley. However, the Russian coding tradition cannot be merely placed within Californian techno-libertarian ideology, as its politics are mixed, fluid and historically incoherent in their agenda.
The last expert provocation was presented by Ksenia Fedorova on the concept of interface in contemporary Russia. Touching upon the notion of interface as the boundary condition in cybernetic theory and fluid dynamics, Fedorova addressed the crucial problematics of digital interfaces (human-to-human, human-to-machine, machine-to-machine): from levels and layers of code, questions of translation between form and content, semantics and algorithmic syntax, to different modes of sensing and finally the expectations and projections embedded in the interface. Fedorova stressed the importance of considering User as an embodied subject, with embodied perceptions. But what are the criteria and specificities of the Russian interface?
Russian interface is unreliable by default. A partial translation or mistranslation is a quality that can be attributed to the Russian interface, stemming from the long history of propaganda techniques and widespread scepticism towards the interface as an image. This intertwines with the aspects of Russian cultural mentality such as cynicism, absurdism and gritty realism. However it is necessary to extend the notion of propaganda beyond Russia, as unreliability of the interface is also a core feature of the US interface and financial capitalism in general: any advertising is already a blueprint for fake news.
It is important to consider to what extent interfaces are accidental (so that effects of interactions are not preconceived) or are intentional, designed, preconceived by humans. There is a difference between non-preconceived processes, which are not defined as interfaces, and preconceived frameworks, which are inevitably limited in their aesthetics and political qualities. How can we think about unintentional interfaces with Russian physical and institutional bodies? The Western narrative often portrays the troll farm as an intentional interface, however it it would be more useful to consider it as unintentional, and not particularly Russian.
The concept of bloatware is helpful in describing the processes of tacking new software functionality and interfaces on top of the old Soviet infrastructure. Bloatware is usually defined as software that has unnecessary features that use large amounts of memory and RAM, and whose usefulness is therefore reduced. DNA serves as an example of bloatware, massively meaningful, resilient and constantly overridden code.
Forms of Representation
The aim of Vertical Atlas is to develop a vertically oriented atlas, representing the powers and sovereignties of the global digital sphere, inspired by Benjamin Bratton’s model of the Stack. One recurring question in the Vertical Atlas labs is how to represent different types of information in a format other than a map.
To stimulate a discussion on different forms of para-cartographic representation, Jasmijn Visser introduced her research on the Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov and his fascination with the idea of the interval, as opposed to traditional calendar. Fascinated by conflict mathematics, war predictions and calculations, and largely inspired by cosmism and its interval counting culture, Khlebnikov created diagrams and fictional timelines. For him it was a way to reclaim ownership over time, and over the traumatic event of the massive Kalmykian deportation to Siberia in 1943, representative of the imperialist practices of the Soviet Union. This example provides inspiration as different time representations can allow to reclaim political narratives.
Following the discussion, participants split into groups and undertook an attempt at mapping the Russian stack in detail.
Group 1 (Arthur Steiner, Leonardo Dellanoce, Femke Herregraven, Anastasia Kubrak) searched for practical manifestations of accidental and preconceived interfaces (the ‘known unknowns’), and infrastructural retrofitting. The accidental interface can be witnessed in the frequent disruption of geolocative systems of Uber, Strava or Google Maps in the center of Moscow (caused by the GPS-spoofing devices installed around Kremlin), while preconceived spaces for error are recognised in Diomede Islands in Arctic Russia (virtually divided by two time zones), Google Maps border dispute over of the Crimean peninsula, and Page 404, a classic error placeholder. An example of physical retrofitting as a practice of making things work can be found in one the Russian football stadiums, where forgotten cables were laid retroactively through ‘human’ doors, rendering the accident visible.
Group 2 (Benjamin Peters, Sanne Stevens, Tin Geber) expanded on the idea of bloatware poetry, referring to redundancy of code that has survived too many edits and became too complex and indecipherable. Focusing on the poetics of the Stack and the notion of resilience and cultural contingency, the group used ‘RGB’ color coding and axis to map out the instances of truly Russian cultural DNA.
R (Red) — Absurdism. Things that can’t be true, but are.
G (Green) — Realism. Cables, infrastructure, migration flows.
B (Blue) — Cynicism. Things that don’t work, and never will.
Group 3 (Katja Novitskova, Svitlana Matviyenko) posed a provocative claim: there is no such thing as the Russian Stack. If the Stack is an axiomatic model based on the fixed order of layers, then mapping the regional stacks is impossible. It may be helpful to understand the Stack as a changing and more fluid typology, as certain layers demonstrate more stability than others, and every transmission reconfigures them in an entirely new order, in which brokenness is a crucial part of the performance. There are also different speeds at play between the ‘local’ layers and the planetary layers, which leads to a question: is there a specific Russian pattern within the global Stack?
Group 4 (Jasmijn Visser, Ksenia Fedorova, Denis Leontiev) discussed the interfacial possibilities of ‘going deeper into the trough’, and focused on Soviet mythologies revolving around mining, excavation and dreams of fruitlessly trying to reach the center of the Earth. These fantasies were triggered by the proximity to Kola Superdeep Borehole in Murmansk and manifested in the work of writer Pavel Bazhov. Participants also made a comment on the inseparability of the national Russian Stack from the rest of the post-soviet block, and stressed the importance of including other non-Russian citizens in the discussion.
Group 5 (Valia Fetisov, Ksenia Tatarchenko, Alexander van Wijnen) turned to machine learning techniques as aids in the illustration and composition of Vertical Atlas. They proposed the use of unsupervised machine learning that understand the surrounding context of words, and assisting in making semantic connections between concepts. Undertaking a phenomenological approach, the group also discussed the notions of magical thinking and the animistic worldview, that today transcend into IoT objects and questions of machine consciousness. Another speculative idea was to install a VPN server on the Trans-Siberian express, and design a 7-day experience, moving along the railway of the Russian Internet.
In this second Vertical Atlas Lab, many questions and approaches were articulated that will return in the forthcoming Vertical Atlas sessions. At the same time, each consequent lab may discover perspectives and grounds that will suggest a reconsidering of the assessments of the previous conversations. The text of this very report, as well as its method of documentation, is fluid and subject to change, and will serve as a working draft for future participants. A consistent approach to documentation — as well as an actual Vertical Atlas — will be established at the completion of the entire series.