NOT LONG AGO, I was browsing in one of the largest and best book stores in Moscow, one that contains sections devoted to each of the areas of academic knowledge. Behind a sign that said "Cybernetics and Computers" I saw shelf after shelf of books on the theory of computer design and programming, all published in the Russian language, but written by authors from a variety of countries, including the United States.
The display was impressive, and even more striking was the eagerness of the customers as they jostled for position in front of the counter. Joining the crowd, I chose several books by Soviet authors, one claiming that the Soviet Union was rapidly catching up with Western countries in computer design, others describing how computers were thoroughly modernizing and transforming the Soviet economic system on the basis of the "Scientific-Technical Revolution."
Many trips to the Soviet Union had accustomed me to the awkward "kassa" (cashier) system of waiting in at least two lines by which one does business in Soviet stores, and I was soon standing in front of the cashier. In order to add up my bill she reached for a worn abacus, and her fingers were soon rapidly flipping the wooden counters on their metal rods. How striking, I thought, that in order to learn about the latest Soviet computers I have to be serviced with a computing device that is at least 2,000 years old. And how typical, I mused, that the gap between the theoretical rhetoric and the practical reality should be so large.
The Soviets certainly understand the significance of computers -- they've acknowledged it for the last 25 years. But the Soviet Union has not been able to adapt the computer to everyday life, and the country is now many years behind advanced western societies in the practical exploitation of computer power.
Being behind should not be confused with being indifferent. For years the Soviet Union has been swept with computer fever, mostly based on theoretical analyses. In the more popular articles and books the full utilization of cybernetics, a word invented by M.I.T. mathematician Norbert Weiner to describe the science of control processes, has been equated with the advent of communism and the fulfillment of the revolution.
One of the early Soviet apostles of cybernetics, academician A. I. Berg, edited books with titles like "Cybernetics in the Service of Communism" in which he argued that no country would be able to utilize computers as effectively as the Soviet Union. He called on Soviet students to major in cybernetics, and many universities established curricula emphasizing information theory.
The Academy of Pedagogical Sciences created boarding schools in which children were to be prepared from an early age for careers in cybernetic programming. Soviet science fiction was filled with descriptions of "cybernetic brain-modeling." During one visit to the Soviet Union about 10 years ago I was shown maps illustrating how the whole country was being interconnected by a gigantic computer network that would control the economy. My hosts assured me that a centrally planned socialist economy like the Soviet Union's could take much better advantage of modern computers than capitalist economies like America's, where economic activity was chaotic and uncoordinated.
Today, however, Soviet attitudes toward computers are changing rapidly. In fact, rather than computers being a type of technology to which the Soviet state is uniquely adapted, it is becoming increasingly clear that these machines and their associated culture are challenging some of the basic principles of the Soviet state -- state control over information and secrecy about vital data.
It appears that George Orwell was simply wrong in his famed book "1984" when he indicated that modern technology would allow the state to become a "Big Brother" checking every activity of its citizens. The new computers demand voluminous, accurate data and the decentralized utilization of that information in ways that mean that citizens will be following "Big Brother," not the other way around.
How can millions of Soviet citizens own computers, use them for all sorts of applications, have access to enormous amounts of reliable data -- political, sociological, economic, demographic -- required for their work, and communicate with each other through computer "bulletin boards," without undermining state control and state secrecy? No, Soviet citizens cannot be permitted to do these things to the degree that Western citizens already are without changing the Soviet state.
The question then arises: Will the Soviet Union find a way to use computers without losing control over them? And if they do manage to control this new technology, what will be the effects of the controls on their own ability to compete with the West?
We have already learned that the Soviet system and agriculture don't go very well together. We may be about to learn that the Soviet system is not designed for the information age, either. If that is the case, it is going to be increasingly difficult for the U.S.S.R. to maintain its pretensions as the world's second superpower in the decades ahead. In economic strength, Japan is currently pushing the Soviets into third place. Only military power gives them rank with the United States.
Soviet writings about computers today are definitely less enthusiastic than those of a decade or two ago. The practical period has now arrived, the intoxication of early theorizing is rapidly dissipating, and second thoughts are arising. "Cybernetics" remains a popular term, but no longer is it the magic elixir that it once was. Despite attempts to employ computers in planning the economy, the problems of economic coordination have remained intractable, and economic growth has slowed to a walk, if not a crawl.
Soviet machines still lag far behind Western models. One of their most acclaimed computers, the Elbrus, has been plagued with problems and is only a partial success. More and more the Soviet government and military have been forced to use Western computers, if they can get them, or to try to build Soviet copies if they cannot.
Several Western analysts have spoken of the "addictive dependency" of Soviet computer designers on Western operating systems and programming languages. Soviet software programs are often literal copies of Western programs, even to the point of the use of Latin letters instead of native Cyrillic. Some Soviet-manufactured computers are so faithfully copied from IBM models that they will run the same programs without modification. In several instances the Soviets have copied even the errors, or "bugs" in the American operating systems.
The Soviets problems have been aggravated by the evolution of the international computer industry. The early phase of computer development was one in which the major emphasis was on large computers (mainframes and mini-computers) which were, by necessity, institutionally controlled and best adapted to centralized functions. These computers were attractive in terms of Soviet ideology, centralized planning, and traditional Soviet tendencies toward "gigantomania."
Recently, however, micro-computers and personal computers are being developed with so much power that they are beginning to rival in capacity their larger ancestors of not many years ago. Today one can buy in any street-side computer store in the United States an Apple computer or an IBM PC with internal memory capacities which only a decade or so ago would have been a respectable memory for a large mainframe computer. Furthermore, the versatility of these small desk-top computers can be vastly increased by connecting them, when the need arises, to larger mainframe computers.
As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that the most efficient use of computers for a great range "Biof applications is based on decentralized systems in which, at the local level, micro-computers can be used either alone (for simpler tasks) or in connection with a larger coherent system (for assignments demanding greater capacity or access to centralized data banks).
The Soviet social and political system is having difficulty adapting to the new trend toward personal computers controlled by private individuals. For example, every microcomputer or word processor which is connected to a printer is a potential printing press. In the Soviet Union private possession of printing presses and even photocopy machines is prohibited; yet a microcomputer will print as many copies of a given document as you want, if you let it print all night.
Anyone who remembers how Soviet dissidents of the '60s spent days painfully typing documents on typewriters stuffed with five or six carbon copies will understand the significance of the new technology. A sign of the future can be seen in the Polish Solidarity movement, some of whose suporters turned out political documents on computers in government offices.
Yet these computers were old-fashioned ones using tapes instead of soft or hard disks, and centrally controlled, not located in private homes. Can the Soviet authorities permit its citizens to acquire personal computers or word processors without risking the repetition of such events on a much broader scale?
Of course, the Soviets have several possible answers to this challenge: all computers, like all photocopiers, could be housed in institutions, and controlled by institutional officials. Or, if microcomputers are permitted in homes or under decentralized control, they will not be accompanied by printers; the person wanting to print out a disk will have to take it to a central institutional office where it can be both printed and politically checked. Or, finally, all microcomputers will be connected to central computers that will record all manuscripts and files as they are created; if the local computer is unplugged from the central network, it will not work. Thus, security officials would have records on everything that Soviet citizens did with computers. Big Brother would triumph after all.
Soviet authorities certainly have the power and the technical capabilities to try to enforce such rules, and, in fact, they are doing so already. So far the pattern seems to be to require that all computers be institutionally housed and controlled.
But what Soviet authorities may not have realized is that they will pay a stiff price for these regulations by severely limiting the rapidity of the growth of the computer culture, by hampering the spread of computer literacy among their young people, by losing the advantages of economies of scale that mass- production of computers are bringing, by failing to take advantage of the efficiencies in financial transactions -- including personal ones -- that computers can bring, and by watching the West become a true "information society" that they will be doomed to follow enviously.
Furthermore, the Soviet authorities can never be sure that some smart kid will not defeat their controls; if American authorities worry about the teenagers who manage to break into central data banks without authorization, the Soviet authorities have the opposite worry about a smart undergraduate in a Soviet technological institute who manages to break out of the central computer surveying his activities. For if he succeeds, by definition he does not leave traces.
What are the characteristics of a culture that make it receptive to the new computers and which cause them to spread rapidly? A great many factors influence this receptivity, and in all of them the United States seems to have the edge over the Soviet Union. They include:
* A tradition that successful technology should be privately owned and controlled if it is advantageous to do so.
* A tradition of free access to information.
* A tradition of creating large amounts of reliable and accurate data about the economy and about society.
* A financial system offering a diversity of business and consumer services.
* Widespread education in business and technological skills, including typing and programming.
* Excellent telephone lines that can by used for remote access to data bases.
* Close relationships between sellers and buyers of technology which include consulting services, maintenance, and spare parts when needed.
* A tradition of entrepreneurship and innovation under which a person who develops a successsful product -- whether hardware or software -- can legally make an attempt to sell it.
The Soviet Union has major problems in every one of these areas. It has a tradition of prohibiting individual control over communication technologies. It controls information zealously and is the most secretive industrialized power in the world. It has a financial system under which private checking accounts are almost unheard of and individual credit arrangements extremely cumbersome. Its telephone system is of such low quality that the attempts made so far in the Soviet Union to establish "modem" communications hooking computers to telephone lines have had to rely either on special lines or on a "search" system by which only one out of 20 or 30 possible circuits is deemed good enough for high- speed communication.
The Soviet Union does not have an educational system that emphasizes business or "hands-on" technological skills, and typing is not widely taught in Soviet high schools. A "hacker culture" does not exist in Soviet universities, and Soviet young people are simply missing out on the experiences now available to millions of American kids -- usually the children of wealthier families, to be sure -- to master computer skills on their own personal computers.
The technical consultation, maintenance and spare-parts services that good computer dealers provide in the West are notoriously poor in the Soviet Union; yet computers are so complex that without helpful dealers, start-up and maintenance problems can become insurmountable difficulties. Business entrepreneurship is prohibited in the Soviet Union.
The most vigorous aspect of the computer business in the United States is the production of software. Software programming seems to be an activity similar to a cottage industry, but there are no legal cottage industries in the Soviet Union. Rather than allow a cottage software industry to develop, Soviet authorities have turned software production over to enormous institutes and production facilities, places where several thousand researchers work. Yet in the United States even giant companies like IBM often buy their software from individuals or small firms.
While the popular picture in the United States of the reclusive genius who descends from his mountain-top log cabin twice a year with a new brilliant piece of software may be somewhat exaggerated, it is nonetheless true that enormous organizations have not produced the most innovative software.
A wide-open, chaotic, competitive marketplace with a staggering variety of contenders seems to be the best environment for producing ingenious computer programs. In the Silicon Valley about 100 new high-technology firms have been established in the last 12 months. The Soviet Union could not duplicate this environment without contradicting its most cherished economic principle, the elimination of private enterprise.
One of the principles known to every computer specialist is "garbage-in, garbage-out." In other words, no computer can produce a good product if the information that is fed into that computer is inferior or incomplete. Some economists doubt that centralized planning of an economy is theoretically possible, but even those who defend it admit that it must be based on accurate data.
Yet much of the economic, demographic, and sociological information available in the Soviet Union is inferior and incomplete. Some of the information necessary for social planning would be embarrassing, even if available. Infant mortalitythe eco rates, necessary for good health planning, have not been published in the Soviet Union since 1975, soon after a sharp increase in this vital death indicator. Grain production in the U.S.S.R. has been a state secret since 1981. By Western standards, the Soviet Union has a measurable unemployment rate, another fundamental statistic, yet no figures on unemployment are available.
Other economic data that is available is of questionable value. Local managers may not even want the information to be more accurate, since it could reveal corruption or managerial ineptitude. Rewards exist in the Soviet system for incomplete or false reporting, just as they do in the United States (for example, to IRS), but in the Soviet Union the tradition of secrecy and the absence of investigative reporting aid the person trying to cover his tracks.
Computers increase the velocity of local decision-making, and the faster the planner operates, the more important it is that the accuracy of his data be high and that he have the authority to make a quick decision if he wishes to do so. The centralized Soviet system relying on data of questionable accuracy does not seem well suited for this new business era.
All the above arguments suggest that the Soviet Union will have unusual difficulties in adjusting to the computer revolution. But do these same arguments mean that computers will undermine or destroy the Soviet system? Not at all. The leaders of the Soviet Union are very experienced in maintaining their control, and they will find ways of containing the implicit threat to their authority which the new computers pose. Complete computer systems and access to international telecommunication networks will not be placed in the hands of individual Soviet citizens. Institutions will control access to the computers.
The result, however, of the imposition of these controls will be that in the long run the Soviet Union will not be able to keep up with the pace of development of computers and the widening of information access now occurring in the West. Soviet authorities often say that "history is on their side." In the computer revolution, time is on the side of the West. Therefore, if we can gain time by controlling the military technology that can so easily destroy us all, the civilian computer technology that is now penetrating to the lowest level of society -- the individual -- will give a real advantage to societies that do not try to control information.
Whether the Soviets can maintain their international status atop an already backward economy that falls increasingly behind a computer-dominated world must be a profoundly troubling question for the rulers in Moscow.