Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

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Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby mr friendly guy » 2016-08-09 02:44pm

From my knowledge they were developing their own chips and computers, albeit one behind the US. It was also not standardised, ie various Soviet researchers would do their own thing. Then eventually the powers that be decided to just clone IBM and original research was canned in favour of diverting resources to cloning IBM. So this begs the questions

1. Why were they behind the US? From what I understood, their computer technology was more advance than what Europe was producing. Heck even today, the top European supercomputers are created by Cray, an American company using Intel chips, and Europeans don't appear to have done what Japan and now China have done in making their own components. So its not like the Soviets were sitting still prior to when they decided to just clone IBM.

2. Why did they decide to just make IBM clones instead of further researching? Was its money?

3. Given that back then, Western hardware wasn't exactly standardised either, why did the Soviets chose not to standardise their own gear in favour of cloning IBM? Surely they must have realised how precarious their position would become in the sense they would be reliant on US gear if they adopted a cloning strategy?
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Elheru Aran » 2016-08-09 02:57pm

I suspect it was because they felt the Americans were far enough ahead of them as far as computer science was concerned that they needed to catch up more than they needed to be original, hence cloning IBM's. Like... if you and your neighbor are both making cars from scratch, and your neighbor starts turning them out while you're still putting together a chassis... it's easier to just pick up one of your neighbor's cars and use it rather than having to go through all the trouble and labor of finishing your own car. You know?

I don't know enough about the technological side of recent history to really speak in depth regarding something like this, though, so I'll leave my half-assed guess where it is and see what other people say...
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby mr friendly guy » 2016-08-09 03:03pm

That sounds plausible, although one should consider other countries have not chosen to go down this route, at least with computers. For example Chinese computing tech would have arguable be more behind the US at the turn of the century compared to what the USSR was in the 70s and 80s. They chose to develop their own components because of fear that if the US embargoed them, they would be up shit creek without a paddle.

Now I am sure they aren't above looking at US gear and getting an idea or two, and they did have the advantage of various other non intel microarchitecture available to them, if not at open source deals, at least at cheap rates. I am not sure if the Soviets had option 2 available to them, but option one, studying US tech and getting an idea or two from them was clearly available to them since they cloned entire IBM computers.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Sea Skimmer » 2016-08-09 11:34pm

Because communism fails is why. The Soviet system did not reward the things that were absolutely vital to developing better semi conductor technology, high quality more or less, and locked its self into narrow cycles of development. That ensured they'd lag when they'd already started in a weaker position, and when the system couldn't show results the IBM 360 cloning was the political decision made. It wasn't good, but it's exactly the kind of thing politicians do with things they don't understand. That's one of the basic problems with every real example of communism, too much power is vested into too few people who cannot possibly be expert enough know what to do. Computer technology goes in much faster cycles then say, steel or even airplanes. Central planning was never going to deal with this well.

Meanwhile the USSR poured huge amounts of R&D into redundant research centers that existed primarily as jobs programs and often had no requirement to show results, and certainly no ability to freely seek customers. So they fucked themselves on both ends.

The US meanwhile had a big government market of demand for high end products, while the civilian economy had a demand for low cost machines that in the early years nobody actually saw coming. Turns out markets work and let not just a few but a large number of companies thrive. Then they began eating each other to gather the capital to make further improvements, something communism doesn't do worth a damn.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 01:24am

Basically, it would be very difficult for a bunch of classically trained economists and industrial planners to predict and organize the computer revolution in advance. It played out in a very different way than the rise of previous industries- railroads, steel production, automobiles, oil refineries, and the like.

In all those cases, research and production were very separate operations, the applications for which the product would be desired were predictable, and it was immediately obvious when the product was not being used properly or effectively. None of those are true when working with computer hardware, and they're even less true when working with software.

Nowadays, a bunch of central planners might be able to look back on how it actually worked the first time and reverse-engineer a process for guiding their own country through the computer revolution. But it wasn't going to be foreseeable in advance.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby K. A. Pital » 2016-08-10 09:52am

Actually the idea behind cloning was to save resources and then further develop the clone (which was done with the B-29 bomber quite efficiently and allowed in a short term to create a strategic airforce, something that takes ages if you do it all on your own from the start).

However, in the final stages of USSR's existence the copying process was no longer useful - with the shuttle and IBM copying there was no further development and improvement over the original product. The fast development cycles in the field mentioned above were also a reason.

Not everything could be predicted - especially if it goes against the development concept initially laid out. Personal computing was an individualistic application of technology and thus against the very concept of communism, much like personal automobilization - personal cars were likewise not a priority for the system, because there was no collective use for them.

Personally I'm wondering if the USSR kept working independentlt on the supercomputing front in the 1980s, what it could produce. But sadly, the decentralization that occured in the 1970s put too much power into the hands of enterprises and thus a computer system that would dominate economic planning on a global level became infeasible. Personally I think it could've been interesting to observe such a system in action.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 01:08pm

K. A. Pital wrote:Not everything could be predicted - especially if it goes against the development concept initially laid out. Personal computing was an individualistic application of technology and thus against the very concept of communism, much like personal automobilization - personal cars were likewise not a priority for the system, because there was no collective use for them.
The catch is that while public transportation can replace most of the useful functions of private transportation, public computation cannot replace private computation.

Personal computers provide a venue for individuals to learn, to communicate, and to self-actualize. Aside from their numerous recreational uses, which are legitimate even if a central planner might pooh-pooh them, they allow people to participate in a shared intellectual life far more actively than they could do in the past. There is the potential for a great positive transformation in the way people live in such a society. This potential is lost if computers are designed so that they are only useful for the specific, pre-approved uses authorized by men of limited imagination.

Personally I'm wondering if the USSR kept working independentlt on the supercomputing front in the 1980s, what it could produce. But sadly, the decentralization that occured in the 1970s put too much power into the hands of enterprises and thus a computer system that would dominate economic planning on a global level became infeasible. Personally I think it could've been interesting to observe such a system in action.
The problem is that most people would have wound up NOT enjoying most of the benefits and conveniences they historically have gotten out of the computer revolution. And while a supercomputer-managed economy might hypothetically work better than having a bunch of bureaucrats in a musty office in Moscow doing it, it might also hypothetically not work so well depending on the consequences of bugs and bad modeling.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby K. A. Pital » 2016-08-10 01:26pm

Of course - public and private computing is fundamentally different. I just said why the system failed (in my opinion), and that I would be interesting to see a system where only centralized non-private computing would exist. I did not mean to say it would've granted people the very same things a personal computer revolution would.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 01:34pm

Honestly I think we'd be worse off in a lot of ways- not that we'd have much concept of what we had missed.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Khaat » 2016-08-10 01:45pm

Simon_Jester wrote:And while a supercomputer-managed economy might hypothetically work better than having a bunch of bureaucrats in a musty office in Moscow doing it, it might also hypothetically not work so well depending on the consequences of bugs and bad modeling.

There was a Chilean attempt at just that ('71-'73): Project Cybersyn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn.
wiki wrote:Project Cybersyn was based on viable system model theory and a neural network approach to organizational design, and featured innovative technology for its time: it included a network of telex machines (Cybernet) in state-run enterprises that would transmit and receive information with the government in Santiago. Information from the field would be fed into statistical modeling software (Cyberstride) that would monitor production indicators (such as raw material supplies or high rates of worker absenteeism) in real time, and alert the workers in the first case, and in abnormal situations also the central government, if those parameters fell outside acceptable ranges. The information would also be input into economic simulation software (CHECO, for CHilean ECOnomic simulator) that the government could use to forecast the possible outcome of economic decisions. Finally, a sophisticated operations room (Opsroom) would provide a space where managers could see relevant economic data, formulate responses to emergencies, and transmit advice and directives to enterprises and factories in alarm situations by using the telex network.

I don't know if any of this was a factor in the Soviet computer efforts, though.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 01:53pm

I was aware of the project.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby SpottedKitty » 2016-08-10 02:03pm

Simon_Jester wrote:Basically, it would be very difficult for a bunch of classically trained economists and industrial planners to predict and organize the computer revolution in advance. It played out in a very different way than the rise of previous industries- railroads, steel production, automobiles, oil refineries, and the like.

Am I right in thinking that's like the Soviet planners not being able to get past the possibly apocryphal statement of some early US computer scientist: "Computers are incredibly useful, I can foresee a time when every big city will have one!" — although I'm pretty sure I mangled that quote pretty badly.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 03:59pm

I wouldn't say that for certain, but something like that is in play whever you talk about centralized computing as opposed to decentralized. When computers were relatively primitive, they were so large and difficult to operate that the only way to get any use out of them was to park them in a centralized location and have people bring the problem to the computer, like it was some kind of oracle.

Read any Isaac Asimov story with the word 'multivac' in it to get a taste of how this would work. 'Multivac' was Asimov's idea of a 1950s computer extrapolated to futuristic levels of capability: a massive singular installation that people would communicate with remotely or bring data and questions to independently, operated by specialists, and fundamentally unique. He even envisioned that such a system might evolve through many iterations of computer technology, without seeing any real lasting need for computing to become decentralized (though he does acknowledge that it might become so). This is outlined in his famous story The Last Question. In which the One Big Computer becomes more and more abstract, mysterious, and outside of human reach, until it essentially evolves into God.

This model worked fairly well for computing up through the 1960s. It really broke down for the Apollo program because the lunar lander needed a flight computer, and the time delay for communications with Earth was too long for it to be safe to rely on a groundside computer, even if it were possible to transmit all the necessary data from the lander's sensors back to Earth, and receive the instructions from Earth aboard the lander. So they had to build a functioning "minicomputer," one that was physically small enough to fit into the lander. By modern standards it was extremely crude, but it was one of the first times anyone had been required to build a flexible, programmable computer where "make it the size of my living room" was simply not an acceptable answer.

Technology continued to evolve along those lines (the Apollo program was not solely responsible for the change). And frankly, I suspect that computer technology would be far more primitive and less capable today if not for the drive to miniaturize so that it could be used in smaller packages by small groups and individuals. Because as with, say, engine technology, there is a virtuous cycle at work: having people who want better tools drives us to invent better tools, and the availability of better tools makes it easier for people to conceive of new applications.

It can be hard for a centrally planned system to replicate this process in full.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby BabelHuber » 2016-08-10 04:24pm

mr friendly guy wrote:1. Why were they behind the US?


Because a capitalist society has a huge advantage: Individuals have more freedom and hence can start their own companies and pursue their own visions. In a communist society, you may have engineers who are similarly qualified and have similar visions, but due to the centralist nature of their society they cannot pursue them as well.

Just look at Fairchild Semiconductors, which formed the nucleus for today's silicon valley.

At first, they manufactured transistors which were mostly bought by the US military. They were used e.g. in intercontinental rockets and computers which were needed for heavy number crunching (like for atomic research).

As transistors became cheaper, they could also be used for other purposes, like the transistor radio. In a capitalist society, you'll have entrepreneurs who see opportunities and found companies, while in a communistic society you don't.

Hence the capitalist society will soon outproduce the communistic one, thereby prices get lower due to economies of scale. This enables the usage in cheaper and different devices, which is a virtuous circle.
In theory, the communist society could keep up if the government sees the possibilities and takes according action, while in a capitalistic society this is some sort of a "natural development" (the government may not have a clue, but this does not even matter).

Then the integrated circuit (IC) was invented (by Fairchild and Texas Instruments). Computers got smaller, more powerful and cheaper. This enabled new use cases - obvious ones like using this power for weather forecasts or to do number crunching for fundamental research in universities.

Again, here a communistic society still can keep up in theory.

But in a capitalistic society, you have big, rich corporations with a huge interest in such capabilities, like banks and insurances. They will start buying computers, which means production will rise and costs will fall further.

As the market grows, more companies will start producing such technology. They will search for customers and try to create opportunities. They will try to out-compete the competition, to make ICs smaller and more powerful. Soon you will also have competing companies which write software.

The huge computers of old will evolve into minicomputers. At this point I'd say the communist society has already lost, this development can hardly be controlled by a government. You would need the wisest and most forward-looking people there, and even then they most probably couldn't keep up with an army of independent entrepreneurs.

In the case of Fairchild Semiconductors, you also had people like Gordon Moore who left Fairchild to found Intel. Or jerry Sanders, who founded AMD. Silicon valley was born.

Soon the first real CPUs were invented, and in the 70ies we had the first microcomputers (Apple 2, Commodore PET). Software-wise, the spreadsheet was invented.

People started to use such relatively cheap microcomputers in small businesses, because they were vastly superior to typewriters. Nerds liked them for the sake of it. The rest is history.

mr friendly guy wrote:From what I understood, their computer technology was more advance than what Europe was producing. Heck even today, the top European supercomputers are created by Cray, an American company using Intel chips, and Europeans don't appear to have done what Japan and now China have done in making their own components.


Fun fact: The vast majority of CPUs today are ARM-compatible (you find them e.g. in your WIFI router and your smartphone). You need a license to produce an ARM-compatible chip, and ARM is located in Great Britain :D
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 04:44pm

I wouldn't say it's about "freedom" as such; that's a buzzword in this context.

What it comes down to is that a centrally planned society is good at pursuing whatever visions are shared by the people with decision-making power.

Whereas a capitalist economy is good at pursuing whatever visions you can make a pile of money by pursuing.

If you want a world where the average citizen has easy access to a massively networked computer infrastructure that lets them study, entertain themselves, communicate with friends and loved ones, organize their lives, share the products of their labor with the people who desire it most...

THAT is a vision you can make money pursuing. There are a lot of little parts of that vision where you can become rich by making them happen.. And a capitalist economy will predictably succeed in bringing this vision into reality.

Whereas, as always, a centrally planned economy will only succeed at doing this if they knew they needed to ahead of time...

And this basically will not work unless your central planners are moonlighting as science fiction writers, because only science fiction writers tend to see stuff like this coming.

For that matter, having science fiction writers planning your economy probably won't work out too well either.
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Thing is, if you want a world without global warming, that is a vision you can't make money pursuing, and a capitalist economy fails at it. Whereas a centrally planned economy will succeed- if it occurs to them to try. If you want a world where the average citizen only has to work 25 hours a week, and that's okay, central planning might be able to make that happen, but capitalism almost certainly won't. If you want a world where good home cooking is the norm, capitalism won't make that happen- but a centrally planned economy could, if you were willing to pay the price.

Capitalism is good at achieving a certain highly specific type of goals. Central planning is good at achieving a much more diverse array of goals, but only if the goal can be specified in advance so that a logical plan can be constructed to make it happen.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby BabelHuber » 2016-08-10 05:08pm

Simon_Jester wrote:I wouldn't say it's about "freedom" as such; that's a buzzword in this context.


I don't think so: In both capitalistic and communist societies, an engineer can think "hey, with these transistors, I can also build a small and powerful radio!"

But only in a capitalist society such an engineer can found a company producing them. In a communist society, he can build a prototype and demo it to his superiors, hoping that they don't say "small, portable radios are not what we need at the moment, sorry".

Simon_Jester wrote:What it comes down to is that a centrally planned society is good at pursuing whatever visions are shared by the people with decision-making power.


I completely agree.

Simon_Jester wrote:Thing is, if you want a world without global warming, that is a vision you can't make money pursuing, and a capitalist economy fails at it


Not necessarily. If a significant part of a society wants to use "green" technology (for whatever reason, even if it only makes them "feel better"), this creates a demand where money can be made of.

Cars, TVs, washing machines, food and whatnot are currently sold with "green marketing". People are willing to pay extra for environment-friendly products - or they'll at least buy the more environment-friendly product if everything else is the same.

For example I know people who get a company car where the company pays for the fuel (even for private trips), but still they want a car which is environment-friendly. They just would feel bad driving a gas-guzzler.

But of course you are right that a capitalistic and democratic society cannot force this upon their citizens, the citizens have to actually want it before this can happen. If the majority of the population doesn't care, there is nothing the government can do - if it wants to be re-elected

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Elheru Aran » 2016-08-10 05:16pm

....triple-post, and you deleted all three of them. You're killin' me Smalls.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Simon_Jester » 2016-08-10 06:05pm

The more fundamental issue is that a capitalist society is helpless not only in the face of mass opposition to a desired change, but also in the face of mass indifference, or mass acceptance of an undesirable status quo.

And since indifference and acceptance of flaws in the system can be created by a variety of deeply toxic processes, it's not as simple as "people in a capitalist society are more free to accomplish things."

Think about people to "choose" to work sixty-plus hour weeks in Japan, at lower productivity per man-hour than elsewhere in the developed world. I'm pretty sure that if you actually stopped to ask real Japanese people, they wouldn't say this is actively a better way to do things. It's not that there are any significant number of actual Japanese people who prefer that over working forty-hour weeks with more efficient labor practices and actually getting roughly the same amount of work done.

It is, in short, not freedom that drives people to consent to this 'choice' that puts them in an undesirable position. It's a combination of market failures, inefficiencies built into the system, and the tendency of humans everywhere to resign themselves to the status quo.

...

I'm not opposed to people pointing out that a capitalist system is more effective at accomplishing certain things (the computer revolution being one of them). I was pointing that out before BabelHuber even arrived in the thread.

But I do think we should be intellectually honest about why capitalism accomplishes what it accomplishes, and what the advantages and disadvantages of the system are. And "achieve more because FREEDOM" is not an intellectually honest statement along those lines. It's an attempt to use buzz-words to bypass the thinking process.

In this case, it's "achieve more because PROFITABLE," not "because FREEDOM." Because that's what capitalism is in fact very efficient at optimizing for- profit, as measurable in cash. In the absence of profit opportunities measurable in cash, capitalism doesn't get very much traction and it is much harder to change things in a useful way.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Adam Reynolds » 2016-08-10 09:14pm

Though it actually is the freedom to innovate and reap the profits of that innovation that drives most industries in general and the computer industry in particular.

Though I don't disagree about the general flaws with capitalism and overworking, I wonder if the Soviets would have cared about climate change.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Zor » 2016-08-10 09:57pm

A lot of computer development in the US and UK was spearheaded by government initiatives as well. If it was not for WWII pressing the field of electronic computation on to crack codes, plot trajectories and help build A-Bombs computer development and then postwar development projects we would probably be decades behind both in design and theory in general as trails were not blazed and companies did not have proofs of concept that showed that yes, these things could be built, worked and they could be put to profitable economic ends.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Sea Skimmer » 2016-08-10 10:36pm

No we wouldn't be. The US advantage in computing machines began well before WW2, and was a direct result of the large diverse, economy creating both large demand that justified large scale investment in myriad approaches to accounting, and a supply of capital for investment which could expect results. Government money did help push this along at times, but the industry was never totally dependent on this, certainly not to the tune of decades. Government money mattered because a serious industry already existed to fund, the industry was not created by the government.

Certainly the government took advantage of it by the 1930s though, which is why the US entered WW2 with the best gunfire control systems in the world for its warships and AA systems, even though interwar funding for the military had been very low. Anyway capitalism does not require zero government intervention, while every real communist state has ended up attempting to completely destroy the free market. But capitalism had already won by WW2 anyway, capitalism won the world militarily centuries ago, as a direct result of its ability to create huge amounts of wealth which could be be rechannelled by a government for good or evil as desired.

Communism means stagnation. Maybe you can come up with a communist system that works, in terms of meeting the basic needs of people, which the USSR clearly failed to do, but it will be the slower path, and it will certainly need computers in charge. But then someone has to program the computer to predict the future, and that's a far harder processes then simply building the hardware. And of course a similar computer system could simply be used to regulate the excesses of capitalism, without squashing the entire concept, simply by applying progressive taxes to excessively stupid behavior.

Communism meanwhile didn't provide a way to measure the comparative costs of items in a way that could replace hard currency, and without that everything else instantly becomes far more difficult in planning terms. How do you convert coal into cars into baskets into food? With real money and real market based pricing you have a mechanism that can do that, and do it at a glance, not after a supercomputer studies it. Just by adjustment of a price you get a uniform response to problems throughout the entire supply chain. A computer would help, but a computer still can only respond to the data given, and in the USSR plenty of economic statistics were just lies thanks to oppressive politics. Communist leadership understood this problem at times, but every attempt at reform was either aborted or undermined into oblivion. Because that's what communism was going to do, too many producers and customers had too little choice and since its own money was not convertible it could never compare its internal prices to external sources of supply as a check against its own numbers.

For simple primary production of raw materials this had limited importance, and so the USSR could spam out raw materials as long as it had fuel, but as complexity rises the problems just get worse and worse until 100% raw materials are being allocated, but the supply chain for major end items is completely screwed. Computers needed the best of everything, that's why the look the worst. That's why after 1991 everything that wasn't making raw materials in the USSR imploded.

Meanwhile in the horrors of capitalism, down the road from where I am, people called the Amish are still able to make a living with freaking horse drawn plows. Under Soviet communism they would have had all their land seized and probably starved to death in the 1930s. Either way that way of simple life would be extinct. Thank god everyone on the planet except apparently Venezuela has now figured out this shit is stupid. Venezuela is actively entering mass starvation. I do wonder if they will last out the year without having to remove the bus driver with a massive riot. Hopefully not because as everyone in the country knows, many will die doing so, but that's why you need governments capable of change in the first place.
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby K. A. Pital » 2016-08-11 02:46am

Regulating the excesses of capitalism with a computer? Gotta be the most funny thing I heard today. This techno-optimism is even more delusional than just "fuck ya got my cash" capitalism.

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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby SpottedKitty » 2016-08-11 10:16am

Adam Reynolds wrote:Though I don't disagree about the general flaws with capitalism and overworking, I wonder if the Soviets would have cared about climate change.

Looked at the Aral Sea lately? The fourth largest lake in the world 50 years ago is now about 90% desert, with pollution problems causing severe health issues. The local economy and ecosystems have been almost completely destroyed. It was apparently deliberate, as part of a series of five-year plans starting after WW2 to irrigate desert areas of Uzbekistan to produce cotton. Note that many of these Soviet planners called the Aral Sea a "mistake of nature".
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby Kingmaker » 2016-08-11 11:28am

K. A. Pital wrote:This techno-optimism is even more delusional than just "fuck ya got my cash" capitalism.


a computer system that would dominate economic planning on a global level became infeasible. Personally I think it could've been interesting to observe such a system in action.


I don't think Sea Skimmer is the techno-optimist here.
In the event that the content of the above post is factually or logically flawed, I was Trolling All Along.

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K. A. Pital
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Re: Why did the Soviet fail to develop a computer industry

Postby K. A. Pital » 2016-08-11 11:51am

I am no longer the optimist I once was regarding technology. It could be a multitude of things. I said it is merely interesting as an alternative development, not that god from the machine would save you or something.
I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door, I must have it painted black


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