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The Soviet web

When brilliant Soviet cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov designed a blueprint for a computerised planning system, the Soviet Union looked on track to become web pioneers. In the end, however, there was to be no digital network. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The Calvert Journal:

Visions of an advanced postcapitalist economy run by digital networks have long haunted the socialist imagination. Alexander Bogdanov’s 1909 Bolshevik sci-fi fantasy novel Red Star imagined the achievement of communist utopia on Mars, an abundance of wealth and leisure made possible by a sophisticated command economy planned and automated by prototype computers. Cerebral Martian engineers, their “delicate brains” connected to the machines through “subtle and invisible” threads, fine-tune economic inputs and outputs from a control room tracking production gluts and shortfalls.

Bogdanov’s thought experiment anticipated contemporary speculations about the possibilities digital networks open for new forms of economic exchange. One current best-seller, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, suggests that the ease with which information can be shared online, together with the advent of 3D printing technologies, is seeding a new economy in which goods and services can be exchanged for free. Another, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future, envisages an automated economy set in motion by the seamless interactions of millions of connected devices.

Read the full article on The Calvert Journal.

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Charlie Chaplin: hero of the Soviet avant-garde

Just as Marx praises capitalism in the most extravagant terms in The Communist Manifesto, the early Soviet avant-garde was entranced by the idea of America.

The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley explores the Soviet intelligentia’s fascination with the America of the early 20th century, a mythic land of technological wonders, vast mechanised industries, spectacular cityscapes and the startling new medium of cinema.

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The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect

If we can no longer recognise our surroundings as a shared home it becomes easier to contemplate their destruction.

The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect by Marwa al-Sabouni is a profound, understated meditation on architecture’s capacity both to civilise and destroy, written while the author witnessed first-hand the destruction of her native city of Homs.

Al-Sabouni argues that years of misguided and corrupt urban planning have ripped apart the delicate urban and social fabric of Syria’s ancient cities, facilitating the conditions for violence between segregated communities living as strangers in fractured landscapes they can no longer recognise as their own.

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Zaha Hadid’s radical geometries

Some time in the mid-1970s a student came to London from Iraq with a vision of how architecture could remake the world. Remarkably – and eventually – she succeeded.

Zaha Hadid’s untimely death deprives the profession of one its most belligerent, brilliant and fascinating talents at the height of her powers.

After decades of failing to get any of her radical designs built her practice now realises dozens of projects every year for corporations, governments and private individuals across the world.

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Cruyff and the poetics of space

Johan Cruyff, who died last week, was the most influential figure in the history of modern football. Nobody has had a comparable impact as both a player and manager.

During his long playing career from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s Cruyff was recognised as one of the all-time greats, in the elite company of Pelé, Maradona and (later) Messi, a midfielder combining outstanding technical skills with a supreme ability to read the game. Cruyff could change the course of a match in an instant through an acute pass, a sudden change of pace or a ghost-like shift in position. Rudolf Nureyev was among the many fascinated by Cruyff’s balletic atheleticism, his ability to wrongfoot opponents by lightning changes in direction executed with speed and perfect balance.

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