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Cybernetics in the service of the plan: The OGAS proposal for the computerization of Soviet economic planning

Mota Iria David José, University of Siena

In the 1960’s, in the Soviet Union, a project for the creation of a nationwide economic management system (OGAS) was proposed by Viktor Glushkov. This project envisaged the construction of a three-tier computer network with the aim of collecting primary information from production units and deliver it to a central organization controlling the entire network. The OGAS aimed at simplifying the process of information gathering for economic planning, by speeding up the process and substantially decreasing the amount of reports to be submitted. However, the feasibility of such a project also implied a higher degree of decentralization of economic decisions than what soviet bureaucrats would be willing to accept. Since the mid-1950’s, given a more open political environment and the acknowledgment of the need to reform the economic system, mathematical economists started to challenge political economists and propose the use of computers and mathematical methods for the purpose of economic planning. Inspired by cybernetic concepts of control, developed in the military context, these scientists sought an automation of the processes of production and management of the economy. By the 60’s their agenda had reached the Party’s Central Committee and several institutions were created to study the process of automation of the economy. However, the reformist ideas of the cyberneticians soon came to be opposed by government bureaucrats. Automation and decentralization meant that the role and sphere of power of the bureaucrat would be diminished. Thus, the original proposals for economic reform came to be downscaled as they faced more and more obstacles from the establishment. In the end, the application of the OGAS nationwide system for economic management was limited to a local implementation of computers for management purposes. Cyberneticians aspirations for comprehensive economic reform were stalled and the establishment was able to use the new innovations to strengthen its control and decision making, by limiting the access to certain computation centers to top party members. In this article we will explore how the methods and concepts of cybernetics were applied to economic problems and how cyberneticians, being mostly engineers and mathematicians, conceptualized the economy departing from other sciences. A particular focus will be given to the role of computers and how its capacities and limitations framed the reform proposals. The irony that a project aimed at decentralizing economic management in the end served a bigger centralization of power will also allow us to discuss the tensions between technocratic and bureaucratic management of the planned economy – present in many other economies at the time. Finally, alternative narratives on the legacy of the OGAS project will also be considered.

Area: Eshet Conference

Keywords: Soviet Economic History, Economic Planning, Computerization of Economics

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