When the managers of the electrical manufacturing plant in Minsk turned on their computer in 1973, it seemed like the dawn of a brave new era.
There it stood, the "Minsk 32," costly and rare, with its typewriter console and calculating devices, its dials, switches and displays, one machine for printouts and another to feed instructions.
Computers are still relatively rare in the civilian sector of the Soviet economy -- the abacus is standard calculating equipment in most offices, even at the Soviet Bank for Foreign Trade, which handles complex currency exchanges here.
So the Minsk factory was in rarified company and the managers were justifiably proud of their purchase. They had bought it to improve the efficiency of the plant, which makes equipment for the Ministry of Power and Electrification.
Their pride enabled them to look past a tiny cloud that darkened the horizon: an institute in Novosibirsk hired to draw up the program to run the machine was slightly in arrears on its contract.
It had been asked to work out 31 assignments for the system, but had on its own reduced that to 26, according to Pravda. The powerful official Communist newspaper recently retrieved this shaggy dog tale from the cybernetic crypt for its readers. It is retold here for the benefit of the faint of heart who fear computers with the same fervor as did the 19th century luddites the mechanized loom. system," reported Pravda, it turned
When time came to launch the out the institute could present only eight assignments. There were no objections against this, though it is clear that an insufficiently used system does not justify itself economically."
Pravda indelicately went further: "The managers of the factory and of the main central state construction organization wanted to claim as soon as possible that the system has been launched. They meant to say that progress is not alien to them."
Never mind, nothing's perfect in this workers' paradise. As they say, we pretent to work and they pretend to pay us. Full steam ahead.
Right into a stone wall.
First the computer spewed out a list of workers who were goldbricking on the job. That was to be expected. But when the list grew longer, the shop men conterattacked by feeding the unwitting computer technicians phony reports for machine.
The computer scanned production schedules and began to pinpoint places where production lagged. The men on the line had the answer -- they stuffed it with more false figures.
"Two months of experimental calculation . . . and undermined information about fulfillment," said the managers, adding: "It is necessary to pay serious attention to a timely sending of information to the department of automated system of management."
"That order hung in the air," reports Pravda.
WHEN THE COMPUTER demanded accurate information on completion of electrical assembiles for much-needed power plants, production manager E. Voronyetsky told his superiors: "Construction of electric stations is such a complicated thing that it is completely impossible to keep a record of material value."
Pretty soon, the workers had completed their sabotage of the Minsk 32.
"They kept records for themselves manually and another set of reports was sent to the computer. The manpower section had double records as well," says Pravda.
Then the 27 computer technicians were sent to Coventry, says the paper. "The section was psychologically separated from the collective with the silent agreement of the managers of the department."
According to Pravda, chief engineer Vladimir Vibrobov, who had dreamed up the notion of using a computer, mused on the disaster overtaking the plant.
"Why do we need a computerized management system? If the central department doesn't want to take our system and demands that the documents be done manually, even they don't want to use the work of our computer."
Comments Pravda: "the department doesn't cope with the plan and the last thing they need is the computer system which makes their shortcomings so vivid. No responsible persons in the department wanted to play in progress any longer."
Vibrobov knew what had to be done.
"Byelo Russian State Power Construction Department sells computer," reads the for-sale notice in the Evening Minsk.
"we decided to pick up with fashion," confessed Vladimir Vibrobov, chief engineer. "We thought that if it was a thinking machine, it would think for us. And it only brought us trouble."