Archive for the ‘history’ Category

So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.

In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.

In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.

On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.

In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.

You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.

Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.

What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.

For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?

Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.

So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.

Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.

Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.

And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.

A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.

Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.

Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.

That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.

So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.

Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.

However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.

So, there’s the how. Now for the why.

Well, here’s a contribution to the debate over the riots. The Thin Blue Trots’…sorry…Police Federation report has been leaked.

Among the failings highlighted by the federation, which represents 136,000 officers, were chronic problems, particularly in London with the hi-tech digital Airwave radio network. Its failings were one reason why officers were “always approximately half an hour behind the rioters”. This partly explained, it said, why officers kept arriving at areas from where the disorder had moved on.

The Airwave network was supposed to improve the way emergency services in London responded to a crisis after damning criticism for communication failures following the 7 July bombings in 2005.

It is being relied upon to ensure that police officers will be able to communicate with each other from anywhere in Britain when the Olympics come to London next summer. The federation wants a review into why the multibillion-pound system collapsed, leaving officers to rely on their own phones.

“Officers on the ground and in command resorted, in the majority, to the use of personal mobile phones to co-ordinate a response,” says the report.

It sounds like BB Messenger over UMTS beats shouting into a TETRA voice radio, as it should being about 10 years more recent. Not *this* crap again!

There’s surely an interesting story about how the UK managed to fail to procure a decent tactical radio for either its army or its civilian emergency services in the 1990s and 2000s. Both the big projects – the civilian (mostly) one that ended up as Airwave and the military one that became BOWMAN – were hideously troubled, enormously overbudget, and very, very late. Neither product has been a great success in service. And it was a bad time for slow procurement as the rapid technological progress (from 9.6Kbps circuit-switched data on GSM in 1998 to 7.2Mbps HSPA in 2008, from Ericsson T61s in 2000 to iPhones in 2008) meant that a few years would leave you far behind the curve.

And it’s the UK, for fuck’s sake. We do radio. At the same time, Vodafone and a host of M4-corridor spin-offs were radio-planning the world. Logica’s telecoms division, now Acision, did its messaging centres. ARM and CSR and Cambridge Wireless were designing the chips. Vodafone itself, of course, was a spinoff from Racal, the company that sold army radios for export because the official ones were ones nobody would import in a fit. BBC Research’s experience in making sure odd places in Yorkshire got Match of the Day all right went into it more than you might think.

Presumably that says something about our social priorities in the Major/Blair era? That at least industrially, for once we were concentrating on peaceful purposes (but also having wars all over the place)? Or that we weren’t concentrating on anything much industrially, and instead exporting services and software? Or that something went catastrophically wrong with the civil service’s procurement capability in the 1990s?

It’s the kind of story Erik Lund would spin into something convincing.

Eh, Charlie Stross’s blog is a machine for destroying time. Anyway. This post is going to be so wonkish it’s to not come back from.

An occasional theme on this blog has been the intersection between the Bush wars and the mobile phone industry. In fact, looking back, that’s not been so much an occasional theme as more of an obsession, and I’d have written more if I hadn’t been subject to non-compete clauses.

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows that Afghanistan got GSM coverage very quickly after 2001, with Roshan and the Afghan Wireless Communications Company or AWCC in the lead. Things went so fast that for a while there were four operators with licenses and a good half-dozen pirate networks. The explanation of this is pretty simple – in the early 2000s the mobile industry had developed a whole package of technology, business models, methods, and personnel that made it possible to unfurl a GSM network pretty much anywhere and make an absolute killing.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s career is a case in point – who knows how a Royal Thai Police colonel raised the money to come up as the holder of a GSM licence, but he did, and there were consulting engineers and contractors who would build the network and equipment vendors who would supply the parts with 100% vendor finance. Once it was up, it rained money and he was off to the races.

Of course Thailand is nothing like Afghanistan – a solid middle-income, industrialising economy with the kind of institutions that function by corruption rather than failing because of it. By 2001 there weren’t so many plums like that one to pluck and the buccaneers who were first in were beginning to think about cashing out.

On the other hand, the gear kept getting cheaper and the success-stories made it easier and easier to borrow from the World Bank or other friendly local multilateral financial institution, as at this point it looked like about the only development success in 40 years or so. Thanks to people like Mo Ibrahim and the rest at Mobile Systems International, the level of average revenue per user that made it viable to build a GSM network was driven down until now we’re operating below $5/month and there is no country that doesn’t have at least a little bubble of coverage around the capital city.

So that’s why it happened. There was a reliably deployable package of technology and economics and legalities, with a global workforce of Sven-units with frequent flyer points on every-damn-thing, and a set of reliable sources of capital. As well as the Aircom or Ericsson Professional Services guys who would design the network, and the contractors who would recruit the people who dug the foundations on the knolls and warps in the landscape that the radio planners made obscurely significant, there were others who would write the formal licence proposal to fit through the newly established bureaucracy of “regulators” and public procurement systems redesigned to please the IMF and other princes of the Washington consensus. No doubt there were people who specialised in operating the other, informal procurement systems. If you know what I mean. There was a product that sold and that, once sold, became one of the markers of modernity and status. The wheel of capital intensification kept turning, recapitulating the development of the Grand Banks fishery in the 1500s. Or something like what Erik Lund would say.

Of course, there were some problems with the package. Most of all, it structurally favours creating a new operator over extending an existing one’s network, which is why Uganda has six mobile phone networks (and two WiMAX DSL-substitute not-officially-mobile networks) when a lot of people who ought to know think the UK only needs three. The turn-key vendor contract is meant to give you all the bits you need to call yourself an operator; the MFI funding is released when the licence application is accepted; the money starts flowing when the 15% or so of the cells that carry 50% of the traffic are on line. Increasing population coverage is mostly cost, which is why a coverage requirement is typically laid down in the licence.

And that’s why supposedly (and that should be a big “supposedly”) Kabul has better mobile service than Rory Stewart’s constituency. Rory may need to consider what kind of mobile service places that stand in the same relation to Kabul as Penrith does to London get, and we’re going to discuss this (and some other stuff) in the next post.

I have been reading Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’état this weekend. It’s a fascinating document – the basic argument is that the October Revolution represented an exportable, universally applicable technology for taking control of the state, quite independent of ideological motivation or broader strategic situation. It was already fairly well-known at the time that Russia in 1917 really wasn’t the environment Marxists imagined would lead to a revolution and that Lenin had essentially retconned the whole thing to provide for giving history a little push. Malaparte’s unique contribution was to argue that it was more fundamental than that – the Bolshevik seizure of power could in reality have been carried out almost anywhere, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a strategic or ideological question, but one of operational art and tactics.

So, what’s this open-source putsch kit consist of? Basically you need a small force of determined rebels. Small is important – you want quality not quantity as secrecy, unanimity, and common understanding good enough to permit independent action are required. You want as much chaos as possible in advance of the coup, although not so much that everything’s shut. And then you occupy key infrastructures and command-and-control targets. Don’t, whatever you do, go after ministries or similar grand institutional buildings – get the stuff that would really cause trouble if it blew up.

Ideally, you do this by just floaking in through the front door as if you were in the railway station to catch a train rather than to seize the signalling centre. You’ll probably need, once you’ve got control of the real instruments of power, to stage some sort of symbolic overthrow of the government, but this is really only in order to get the message across to everybody else. Then, induce whatever authority is meant to be in charge after the head of government has been incapacitated to legitimise your action after the fact. It doesn’t matter much what state it’s in – a pro tip is to keep the parliament but get rid of enough opposition members to rig the vote.

Bada bing, bada boom, you are now the dictator.

From the other side, Malaparte argues that the worst thing that can go wrong is a general strike. There’s no point occupying key points if you can’t make the machine work yourself, as you’ll just be master of a lot of dark, cold buildings. The second worst thing that can go wrong is that you start to fall behind schedule. The whole trick relies on missing out as many people as possible, and the longer it takes, the more people have time to recover their orientation and get angry.

Interestingly, he comes up with something very like the 70s “historic compromise” concept in relation to this.

So you need either to get the support or at least the neutrality of the unions, or else render them unable to act in advance, which will mean fighting a civil war before you get to bring off the coup. And once you start, you’ve got to move quickly and keep moving.

Interestingly, he doesn’t say much about how you’re going to keep power once you’ve got it, if you can’t rely on calling everyone out on strike. After all, two can play at this game. This is a weakness in the whole concept, and quite an illuminating one.

Malaparte was a deeply odd character, a border-nationalist of German origins, an Italian first world war hero, later a diplomat and journalist and a fascist of the first hour who went on to fall out with fascism and get locked up. This is probably why he is read at all now. Having been released, he reported the Eastern Front of 1941 for the Italian papers until he fell out with the Germans, covered the Finnish sector until something similar happened, ended up back in Italy in time to take part in his second Italian coup (he had already managed to invade Russia twice, once as an attaché with the Poles in 1920 and again with the Germans as a journo in 1941, and live to tell the tale), served in the pro-Allied Italian army, and claimed to have become a communist.

He was also an almost joyously unreliable source, a self-mythologising war junkie who made Hemingway look sensible, and to be frank, if he fell out with the fascists it wasn’t because he was going soft or anything. I’ve read his dispatches from the Eastern Front (The Volga Rises in Europe) and found it hard to make out what the Germans objected to – obviously my standards aren't those of a Wehrmacht press officer, but there's a lot of hardboiled combat reporting, quite a bit of gratuitous fine writing, and nothing much critical of the war or Germany.

He also had an Ernst Röhm gay-fascist streak you could have landed a fleet of Savoia-Marchetti flying boats on, across it. Or at least his style did. The Volga… is just full of dashing blond Finnish officers and casually hunky, rough-trade Nazi recovery mechanics track-bashing in the Ukrainian sun, although there are a fair few fair country girls whose hearts and minds don’t seem to need much winning in there as well. (By the time it all got stuck in a ditch outside Rostov-on-Don he’d long since been ghosted by the German spin doctors.)

Anyway, a fascinating, utterly mad, and often deeply creepy writer. Back to the steps of the telephone exchange.

I think his coup technique is quite telling. Fascism always had an odd central contradiction in that it insisted it believed in hardcore political realism but also in romantic activism. Power, and specifically either firepower or horsepower, was all that mattered, but with enough will it would always be possible to change the power realities. Marxists offered inevitability; fascists opportunity. Rapid shock action directed at the key installations will give us the state, and that will give us everything else. Speed, style, ruthlessness, and cheek are everything. It’s the hope of audacity – get the right people together and a list of oil refineries, and everything is possible.

This may not sound very convincing, but it’s certainly true that many, many coups have been carried out following this rough plan.

Malaparte makes a complex distinction between the seizure of power in a parliamentary state and just using the parliamentary institutions to go legit later. He’s agin the first. I’m not so sure – two of the most successful coups of the 20th century were carried out in France, Petain’s parliamentary coup and de Gaulle’s rather less parliamentary one in 1958.

I think what’s happening here is that his residual fascist is showing.

Another thing that runs through the book is the idea, very common in extreme politics since 1918, that the military tactics of the late first world war – infiltration, independent action, surprise attack – can just be ported straight into politics. Malaparte actually goes so far as to make this explicit. It’s a great historical irony that the world experts of decentralised command were the Prussians, of course.

As always, though, it all makes for great tactics but lousy strategy.

Pulling together various resources, I’m beginning to get a picture of what happened with the cut-off and restoration of the Internet in Egypt. First up, at least in some senses, it may be valid to say that the Internet played a role – Arbor Networks observed that traffic to and from Egyptian networks (and between them, in so far as any of them are customers of Arbor’s) had spiked dramatically, almost vertically, in the two hours before the cut-off and that the whole week up to the 28th of January had been one of unusually heavy traffic.

When the cut-off went into effect, at 5.20pm local time on the 27th, it was implemented by forcing all the networks that peer at the Telecom Egypt-controlled Internet exchange to drop their BGP peering sessions with the exception of AS20928, Noor Data Networks. Famously, this is the operator that serves the Central Bank and its payments settlement system. Essentially immediately, 2,576 networks announced by 26 Autonomous Systems became unreachable. The surviving 26 ASNs including, as well as the Central Bank, the Alexandria Library, and the national research & education network, which if it is at all like most NRENs has a lot of its own infrastructure.

On the 31st of January, there was a further wave of cut-offs which removed another 14 ASNs and 134 networks. The list of the last survivors is here – notably, someone had clearly realised that not cutting off the students, of all people, was a missed opportunity, as the NREN isn’t in there. However, one of the mobile operators (UAE incumbent Etisalat’s national opco) stayed online although they had been ordered to cut off the mobile service itself. Perhaps they provide service to the government’s mobile devices?

Interestingly, however, according to posts to NANOG, several of the .eg root DNS servers remained online (not surprisingly, as at least one is outside Egypt). Even more interestingly, even after the BGP sessions with the IX were pulled down, the lower layer equipment stayed active – Egyptian ISPs noticed that there was still link light on the fibre optic lines between their locations, and theoretically it would have been possible to cobble together static routing between their systems.

Similarly, the internal voice network remained operational and so did the international SS7 gateways that link it to other phone systems. As a result, some people found that they could still reach their ISP, whether by dial-up over the voice circuit or even sometimes on DSL. The question, though, was whether there were any routes beyond the ISP’s nearest point of presence. Several foreign ISPs offered free dial-up connectivity over international phone service (notably this French one).

And, it seems, Egyptian ISPs also tried to re-establish internal connectivity after the cut-off, when they noticed that the fibres were still lit up. However, the problem was more subtle than just pointing static routes at each other. Communicating with people outside Egypt wasn’t, after all, the primary need, and anyway, it required passing through the government-controlled exchange.

But the problem with Facebook, Twitter, Gmail or what have you is that unless they have data centres in your country, they’re international traffic. Depending on their internal architecture, even if they do, they might be dependent on international routes. An Egyptian engineer who posted to NANOG during the revolution made the interesting point that, although Egyptian ISPs are relatively well-interconnected among themselves, not that much traffic flows over the interdomain links as so much stuff goes out to the global Internet. It’s analogous to the old problem that the topological centre of the African Internet was 36 Tooley Street, London SE1 (the LINX headquarters), or 111 8th Avenue, New York, depending on whose version of the story you like better, although less pernicious as the infrastructure is there to solve it.

Sometimes this is useful – it’s harder to censor stuff hosted in another jurisdiction. But it’s also a problematic dependency. Back in the Egyptian NOC the New York Times was hosted on, they were struggling to find copies of key software packages to distribute, for example clients for Internet Relay Chat messaging, and also critical data files such as cached DNS zones, lists of domain names and their corresponding addresses. Some ISP engineers are now working on preparing emergency packages of software and data for use in an extreme emergency – for example, regular dumps of the root and local DNS zones, similar snapshots of the local routing table, not to mention PGP signing keys and contacts for as many other engineers as possible.

After all this, what were the government’s aims? The initial cut-off was probably motivated by a combination of wanting to black out sources of independent information and hoping that it would hinder the protestors’ organising. Some of its particular details – for example, leaving 20928 up and not trying to shut down interdomain links within Egypt – may have been an effort to keep some “normal service” going, as well as not preventing VIPs from transferring their money out of the country. It’s also possible that cutting off link light between all Egyptian ISPs without physically grubbing up the fibres was harder than it looked.

So then, why did they bring it back on the Tuesday of camels and thugs? One interpretation is that they were hoping people would go home and update their Facebook statuses, which would have been incredibly patronising. But the Egyptian elite patronised the hell out of the public every time it went on TV, so it can’t be ruled out. Another one is that they hoped to project an impression of returning normality, which didn’t really fit with thugs on horseback swinging knives, but then their response wasn’t characterised by coherence.

Another still is that they hoped it would help to get the government’s propaganda out there. This argument – Gamal Mubarak flipping through his copy of The Net Delusion in a curtained backroom of the palace – has the advantage that when the Internet and the mobile networks were reactivated, there was a rash of reports of loyalist trolls, and one of the first things that happened was that the government forced the mobile operators to send out threatening bulk SMS messages – spam as a weapon. But this was surely incredibly optimistic.

In fact, what did happen was that people started doing precisely what they had only been doing to a limited extent the week before. Twitter feeds from Egypt filled up with what the NANOG crew would term operational content – requests for more medical supplies, reports of a lost child, calls for more protestors to mass at a specific gate into Tahrir Square. This was the real thing – a tactical radio network for the mob – and ironically it was mostly running over SMS and going out to servers elsewhere in the world. And, of course, its major carrier was the much reviled Vodafone Egypt, unwilling deliverer of Central Security’s spam blitz.

a lot or a little

A question. So the DfT spent £2.7m developing a games site to promote road safety. How much did the TV ads of the 70s and 80s (which got progressively more high-concept, flashy, and shocking over time) typically cost? I have the impression that TV ad production is a pretty profitable and expensive business, and of course the air time itself doesn’t come cheap – they often aired in the middle of prime time ITV series, in the days when literally everybody watched them.

This is a problem with government spending data, by the way; how do you answer “is this a lot or a little?”, especially when historical comparisons are involved.

the frontier

Am I right in thinking this is a form of “superempowerment”, of the NATO forces on the border, the Taliban, and the Pakistani Frontier Corps on the other side?

Pakistani authorities say that the checkpoint guards tried to alert the US helicopters that they had strayed into Pakistani territory by firing in the air, but the US pilots mistook this action for a hostile attack and blew away the checkpoint.

Any one of them can trigger a violent response from the other, which rapidly flips the whole situation into a higher energy state, with consequences at least up to the operational level. Of course, the FATA are only sovereign territory in a very special and restricted sense of the word “sovereign” – but arguably, optional sovereignty is a useful political tool, permitting the Pakistani state to a) tolerate the jihadis in some parts of the country when that is useful, b) tolerate the Americans in the same places when useful, and also c) assert sovereignty to push back on the Americans when useful, in the light of this.

This is actually roughly what Gallagher and Robinson meant with the “crumbling frontier” 50 odd years ago – zones of ambiguous sovereignty were important because they provided reasons for imperial expansion, reasons against it, and a way for peripheral political actors to use the empire for their own ends.

iterative post mortem

Theo Farrell has published a new paper on the British Army in Helmand, which makes some more progress in explaining just how it went so wrong.

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.





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