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Author: Joselle L. Merritt-Dennis
Title: Slava Gerovitch's From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2005

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Source: Slava Gerovitch's From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics
Joselle L. Merritt-Dennis

vol. 8, no. 2, September 2005
Article Type: Book Review

From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics

Joselle L. Merritt-Dennis, MLIS

Marylhurst University

Gerovitch, Slava. From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 2002.  xiv + 369 p.  ISBN 0-262-07232-7.  $42.00

This book is a comprehensive history of cybernetics in the Soviet Union from its inception as an ideologically unacceptable pseudo-science to its eventual acceptance as the status quo.  It follows the trend in Soviet politics of using newspeak, defined as political words that are devoid of meaning in and of themselves, as a way to allow discussion of many topics without actually giving concrete meanings to those words.  In newspeak, words can have any meaning that the speaker chooses to attach to them, enabling the speaker to be politically correct while still continuing to have discussions about research in any field.  In the case of Gerovitch’s work, cyberspeak is the newspeak of cybernetics.  According to the author, “Cybernetics unifies diverse mathematical models, explanatory frameworks, and appealing metaphors form various disciplines by means of a common language.”  Gerovitch has limited his book to cyberspeak in Soviet science.  Fluency in cyberspeak was a must in order to survive.

The focus of From Newspeak to Cyberspeak is the history of how Soviet ideological language and the language of cybernetics are intertwined.  Each one comes to define the other in an almost tautological manner.  As each adjusts to the other, both become less meaningful.

This history relates, through the history of Cybernetics, the Soviet concept that the West must both be overtaken and surpassed in its science and yet the goal was to “criticize and destroy” Western scholarship in order to prove that Soviet scholarship was ideologically superior.  Where the expectation in the west is that science is neutral and it is the use to which it is put which may create ideological issues; in the Soviet Union ideology took precedence over all else, even to the point of expecting all scientific theories to be accepted a priori regardless of Western proofs to the contrary.

There is a good sense of the parallels between the Soviet Union and the West as Gerovitch relates scholarship in both parts of the world, overlapping each other in time and often in the people that have relationships in both worlds.  Originally cybernetics was confined to military use in both the Soviet Union and the West but as the ideologies in the Soviet Union solidified into a more active opposition to the West, the West found more commercial uses of cybernetics making the “overtake and surpass” issues of the East far more difficult.  By the 1950’s, however, the military in the Soviet Union was reading the Western texts and exploring cybernetics ever more quietly as they tried to catch up to the Western world in terms of military power.

By 1955, texts in the Soviet Union were recognizing that cybernetics could be applied to many areas including the social sciences and the scramble to invoke Marxist authority began.  By 1960 it was obvious that cyberspeak had become politicized and by 1961 the main task of Soviet cybernetics was to be a tool to be used to ensure government control of Soviet economics and individual technological processes. After October of 1964, when Brezhnev came to power, Soviet cybernetics was no longer a vehicle of change but had become status quo. By 1967, Aksel’ Berg, a leading Soviet proponent of cybernetics, was even stating that there would be no need of doctors or universities.  All information would come from computers that would be as available to Soviet citizens as the water and lights in their homes. Cybernetic projects mushroomed, as did institutions and agencies that dealt with computing.  This, of course, did not happen.

In conclusion, Gerovitch asks a very interesting question.  He asks if the story of Soviet cybernetics is unique.  He suggests that the discussions of cybernetics on both sides of the Iron Curtain served similar purposes.  Soviets shifted the boundaries between knowledge and ideology back and forth while the Americans manipulated the definitions of “basic” and “applied” science in much the same way.  In the Soviet Union competition was fierce to beat Western science but in the West the slogan became “Catch up with the Russians.”

He concludes that although newspeak is no longer in fashion now that the Soviet Union is gone; both parts of the world used, and still use, cyberspeak and its fluid meanings to control the way we look at the world around us.  We have come to identify so completely with computers that we cannot help but speak cybernetics and its sister language cyberspeak.  Cybernetics is the language of the computer and cyberspeak is the language we use to talk about that computer.  He suggests that if we can take both computers and ourselves less seriously then maybe cybernetics can shed cyberspeak and become a language of intellectual freedom once more.