AI and Communism: Narratives of AI Behind the Iron Curtain

A fascinating community of scholars, thinkers, and creators working at the intersections of technology, automation, and futures emerged in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. On the one hand, there were those studying technology as a means of streamlining production and automation in a centralised economy, and enhancing citizen surveillance. On the other, there were the dissenting voices that relied on fictional accounts of technological futures to criticise the authoritarian regimes.

The final workshop on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe took place on 7 May 2021 and focused on the histories of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and cybernetics in the Communist Bloc, with an emphasis on Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The workshop opened with a tribute to the late Ivan Havel (1938-2021), a world-renowned cyberneticist and AI researcher who passed away shortly before the workshop, at which he would have delivered the opening presentation. Titled ‘The Problems that Communist Ideology had with Cybernetics and AI in Czechoslovakia,’ his paper focused on the communist regime’s fickle relationship with cybernetics, initially approaching it as suspicious, dangerously Western, before eventually celebrating the field’s potential for advancing a centralised economy. More information about Havel and his work can be found on his personal website here

Lukáš Likavčan, a philosopher  of technology and political ecology at the Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU (Prague), introduced the concept of ‘cybernetic communism’ in a presentation titled ‘Intelligence and emancipation: Six decades of cybernetic communism in Czechoslovakia.’ Likavčan traced the fragility of political infrastructures and how these unfolded alongside the dichotomy of humanist and techno-optimist endeavours. Indeed, following the adoption of the 1960 Czechoslovak constitution, which declared that the process of building a socialist society had been successfully concluded, Czechoslovak politicians and leading intellectuals were left stymied – the extent of their confusion best summarised by the question, What is politics after the end of class struggle? The challenge of redefining politics was further compounded by the denunciation of Stalinist practices in Czechoslovakia – and the rise of cybernetics and automation, both of which were to aid the creation of a society freed from the hard manual labour regimes instilled during the Stalinst era. This sparked interest in new fields of science, including artificial intelligence, cognitive sciences, and information technologies, which sought to understand the world in a ‘post-work society.’ Likavčan posited that the apparent struggle to reinvent politics in this time serves as an illustration of what he calls ‘poetic engineering’ – wherein technology is revelatory of a new kind of politics beyond class struggle. 

Bogna Konior, a scholar based at NYU Shanghai, spoke about the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical treatise Summa Technologiae (1964) and its contextual significance in communist Poland. Located at the nexus of philosophy and scientific discovery, Lem’s oeuvre frequently grapples with the powerlessness of the individual in a social system. Konior’s exploration of Summa argued for its disruptive political force in fashioning new ways of thinking about the political environment in Poland during the Cold War. Her talk paid homage to Lem’s ability to reconfigure a political conception of the world through pushing cybernetics beyond its utilitarian means and bourgeois ideology into a more utopian path for moving beyond contemporary politics. Konior identified the ways in which Lem’s work reframes the dominant ideology of Communism and its contradictions, pushing back against the status quo. Referring to the technosocial as well as the theological in this pursuit of better systems and the place of the individual within them, she identified Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics as inspiring Lem’s writing from this era. Summa provides a guide for alternative political expression and dissent through imagination and Lem’s work remains at the centre of the  debate on the future of artificial life and artificial intelligence today – in his home country and beyond.

Jędrzej Niklas, a research associate at the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University, concluded the workshop with a presentation on the role of data-driven technologies in communist Poland and their perceived utopian potential to govern the state. In particular, he focused on the integration of different aspects of social and economic life under the banner of the National Information System (NIS) in the 1970s. Niklas’ talk, based on archival research, shed light on how the relationship between the state and society was being computerized and centralized with the help of technology and streams of data. The process was accompanied by narratives of modernization, territorial and organizational unification and, since computers added a new dimension to the power struggle against the capitalist blocs, ideological polarization. New opportunities offered by technological advances, accompanied by shifts in the political climate and discourse, paved the way for new mechanisms of social control. Niklas identified these as prototypes feeding a conviction which still persists today: that the intellectual potential of the state can be fulfilled by machines. He also highlighted that “informatic euphoria”, the fascination with computers and even their “fetishization” in the media, press and across society at large, peaked in the 1970s. 

Ultimately, the techno-optimist vision of what the socialist state could achieve through cybernetic enhancement was an attempt to restore order out of chaos. Niklas admitted that this visionary project failed to achieve its utopian ambition, and hopes for greater prosperity did not materialize. Evidence suggests, for example, that as much money was invested in computers as in building social housing. These dilemmas and this sense of optimism marked a distinct historical experience, even though they are in many ways similar to how digital identity and digital statehood are framed today, far beyond Poland. The ideological spirit, the socialist agenda and the idea of centralized control, which underlied technological optimism in the 1970s, were not inherited as such in contemporary Poland. However, legacies from this project, such as the population register PESEL, exist to this day. 

The workshop on AI and Communism is the final event in a series of workshops dedicated to the histories, philosophies, and portrayals of artificial intelligence in Central and Eastern Europe. You can read more about the series and previous workshops here.

Blog post by the Periculum and GAIN teams, with the assistance of Liv Dorak and Jess Poon

Image courtesy of Jędrzej Niklas

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Tomasz Hollanek