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An Alternative Universe

Within the past decade, the cell phone has spread around the world. The iPod is a permanent appendage to teen-agers, while the Blackberry plays the same role for "grown-ups." All these, of course, are based on the microprocessor, whose architecture in turn is based on computer designs that go back at least to the 1960s. The almost universal adoption of this architecture makes it dificult, if not impossible, to imagine that computer architecture could have evolved any other way. (Maybe that's why we have science fiction writers.)

A recent book, edited by Anne Firtzpatrick, on the history of computing in the Soviet Union may help in this regard. Pioneers of Soviet Computing is a very personal account of that history, told from the perspective of Professor Boris Malinovsky, a first-hand witness to what happened behind the Iron Curtain.

 The book is full of wonderful stories, and for me the best show how technology can, indeed, follow alternate trajectories when the conditions allow.  American computing technology was not directly transferred to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, as it was to other countries in Europe and Asia.  Yet the Soviets developed computers, based on designs they conceived of and executed themselves. And these computers worked--often very well. Malinovsky argues that the U.S.S.R. made a tragic mistake when it chose to reverse-engineer the architecure of the IBM System/360. That gave the Soviets access (mainly through espionage) to a vast library of software, but it also closed off the creativity and ingenuity of that country's own scientists and engineers. This topic obviously resonates with current issues, and whether Malinovsky is correct or not ought to be the focus of further historical research.  The book has several other examples like this one of the "alternative universe" that existed in the Soviet Union at the time.

Anne welcomes comments and discussion about this topic, so feel free to contact her at <[email protected]> if you like. This will no doubt be a theme I will come back to again in this blog as well.

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