Monday, December 6, 2010

Wikileaks Exposes Thinking that Brought Down Soviet Union

Taking a step back, Wikileaks raises a very interesting similarity between today's western political/corporate hierarchy and the state of affairs in the Soviet Union in the '60s.

The Soviet powers that be in the '50s had excellent technical know-how and could have theoretically built up a highly computerized infrastructure in the '60s to the '80s, as was the case in the west.

However, one of the major stumbling blocks to computerization for the Soviets appeared when they saw how general accessibility of computers would bring down the walls of secrecy and duplicity that were embedded in all aspects of Soviet society.

It may not be established that specific decisions were made to severely limit the role of computers in society, but it is obvious that managers, directors and leaders in all sectors of Soviet society would have run into the same problems as they contemplated computerization. The conflict between "expediting" information and "controlling" information was just too strong to overcome.

This dichotomy is well illustrated in the following table, showing the "ideal" goals of the Soviet economy and how those goals actually broke down in reality:

Idealized Ministry Goals                  

1. maximize and optimize production 
2. optimal, minimal levels of inventory
3. release labour
4. realistically evaluate capacity
5. maximize plan flexiblity
6. evaluate performance realistically
7. use computer to audit, control, etc.
8. improve data processing

Actual Manager Goals

1. fulfill the plan so next years' targets can be met
2. acquire as many supplies as possible
3. hoard labour
4. understate capacity
5. minimize changes in plan targets
6. overstate performance if necessary
7. avoid dangerous revelations to superiors, find out as much as possible about subordinates
8. improve data processing
 Chart by William McHenry and Seymour Goodman, borrowed from Left Behind: Computing in the USSR.
The difficulties of accommodating computerization in this system where maintaining the status quo was to the advantage of all the power brokers is obvious.
Therein the major reason for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The leaders simply couldn't face up to all the lies that would be exposed - thereby authoring their own demise, as other nations began to implement computers and operate much more efficiently.

Now, back to 2010 and a political / corporate hierarchy suddenly being confronted with flat out transparency where no such thing was expected. Bring back memories of Brezhnev and the great stagnation? And what will be the end result?

Of course there is the "lash out" response we are currently seeing, led by such simplistic organizations as Paypal and Amazon. In fact, we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era here of accountability and transparency.

Ultimately, increased transparency and accountability should result in a more level playing field for all individuals to work, play and compete in.

Perhaps accepting this new level of accountability will be key in moving society to another level?

The question is: who plays the role of the USSR in this modern day scenario?


The Mound of Sound said...

The computer issue was probably a contributing factor but it's beyond hyperbole to hold it out as "the major factor" in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The proximate cause of the Soviet demise was the collapse of world oil prices at the same time the state was caught up in an arms race with Reagan's America. Many are surprised to discover that the Soviet Union's major source of foreign capital came from fossil fuel exports.

Offroad Artist said...

Many reason for the downfall. Most but not all can be traced back to poorly developed computerization.

The arms race a key issue as you mention, but the inability to compete on SDI a direct result of US computing superiority

The Mound of Sound said...

'US computing superiority" never made SDI a reality. It never worked.

Daniel Mick said...

I like your comparison of the manager's (individual's) goals as opposed to the design of society. That contradiction is closer to the real reasons for everything--choices, and why we make them. Reality is made from these choices, including technology choices. The computer is a hell of an advantage.

Marxism was a naive idea from a naive mind that saw people in an idealized way. It is unworkable given the truth of human nature/habit. It is a "perfect" system meant only for perfect people.

Daniel Mick said...

Are we ready for transparency? Is our system fair and honest enough to allow for more fairness and honesty?