An Experiment in Computer-Mediated Cooperation
Between Nations in Conflict (1994)
A Report of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, UCSD
Table of Contents
Section 1: Learning to Cooperate
Chapter 1: Before the Beginning: A Pre-History of the Project
Chapter 2: Organizing to do the Work
Chapter 3: Creating a Common Project
Chapter 4: The Transformation of VelHam: 1987-1988
Chapter 5: From Planning and Theory to Theory and Practice
Section 2: A Focus on Institutions
Chapter 6: Going Public: Introducing Open Access E-Mail to the Academy of Sciences
Chapter 7: The Institutionalization of the Project
Chapter 8: Reflections on a Decade of Living on Two Continents Simultaneously
On October 31, 1985, two psychologists, one from the University of California at San Diego, the other from the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, sent an electronic mail message from the Institute of Automated Systems in Central Moscow to San Diego. Technically there was nothing remarkable about this event. The computer equipment they used was readily available in the United States and Western Europe. The message traveled through a leased line to Helsinki, where it was automatically uploaded onto a facility called the Source on Telenet, a satellite-based communication facility with a downlink in Virginia. From there it was forwarded to San Diego, where it was read by researchers at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at the University of California. Nor was the content of the message remarkable. It simply announced that the connection had been made, and that everyone in Moscow was doing fine.
One indication that this was not a routine event was evident at the entrance of the Institute of Automated Systems. There was an armed soldier standing at the door. Inside, the visitors had to present a document from the Vice President of the Academy of Sciences requesting that they be allowed to send a message. They had to be given special passes in order to proceed beyond the foyer. Vladimir Serdiuk, the Institute representative who greeted the visitors was polite but tense.
However all went smoothly. A precedent had been set, however tenuously established; It was possible for an American and a Soviet researcher to use international telecommunications as a medium for organizing joint research. The hard work lay ahead—to use this tiny opening as the foundation for a substantial program of joint research and then, ultimately, to make such possibilities open to the scientific community as a whole.
As I sit down to describe the project that ensued (which we refer to as the VelHam project, for reasons that will become clear presently), it is almost precisely a decade since Alexandra (Sasha) Belyaeva and I sent that first message. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Computer-mediated communication is now a daily practice for many thousands of Russian scholars as it is for their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere.
It would be absurd to think that the project we conducted was responsible for these vast changes. It was, rather, a symptom of the historical changes of which it was a part. But the VelHam project was the first successful effort to link scholars in the US and USSR for purposes of joint research and for many years it was at the center of the gradual disintegration of 70 years of closed communication routes between the USSR and the rest of the world. Because its conduct required the explicit permission and support of the highest levels of the Soviet government for the first several years of its existence, the project provides a unique window on the changes that occurred in the USSR and Russia in the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s. It also provides a number of significant lessons about the potentials and pitfalls of using telecommunications as a medium of interaction among scholars in countries characterized by hostile relationships with one another.
My narrative is divided into a number of parts corresponding to more or less clear cut phases in the development of the project itself. I begin with a description of the historical context of the project without which the particular course that it took would be difficult to interpret. Many years of preparation went into that first, trivial message and the overall strategy of the research.
The history of the project itself is conveniently divisible into two broad stages, within which several substages are discernible. Stage 1 was focused on creating new forms of educational activity for school-aged children using computers and computer networks as the principle medium of their activity. This work required not only direct involvement with children, but a great deal of effort at building the social, financial, and technical infrastructure to allow the interaction of both children and researchers in Russia and the U.S. Joint research focused on children lasted for five years, until the winter of 1990.
Stage 2 shifted focus away from children and toward the broad involvement of Russian social science and humanities scholars in the use of electronic mail as a medium of intra-national and inter-national scholarly activity. Several months after we shifted our efforts to the involvement of scholars from many institutes of the Academy of Sciences, the course of history, and therefore our project, was dramatically altered by the fall of the USSR. From a small, highly constrained effort to introduce e-mail into a few selected institutes and to track its development, the scope of the project grew rapidly as it became part of a much larger flood of new ties between Russia and the rest of the world.
At present the VelHam project lives on in the work of Sasha Belyaeva and her colleagues at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow and the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) which served as the official administrative structure for the project from its inception. However, it has now ceased to be an object of explicit joint research activity so I will restrict my narrative to the period from the winter of 1990 to the summer of 1994, when the research phase of the project came to an end.
The accounts I provide in the following pages represent my own interpretation of the events described. While my narrative is based on thousands of electronic mail messages and extensive first hand involvement, it is nonetheless the view of an American with distinctly limited expertise in the study of international affairs and telecommunications. To complicate matters, a good many of the events recounted here occurred in Moscow so that I know about them indirectly through the accounts provided by others.
In setting these words to the page, I am reminded of a film jointly produced by Soviet and Italian film makers that appeared while I was engaged in this project. It was titled “Dark Eyes.” Its central character is a romantic and naive Italian whose adventures lead him to Russia. In scenes taken from “The Inspector General,” the people of the town mistake the foreign visitor for a rich (and therefore powerful) man whose good opinion is essential to their well being. They treat him royally and go to great lengths to give him a fine impression of the town and the people in it. A hint that reality may not be as it appears comes when the protagonist is walking along a street and a fence spontaneously falls over, leaving a glimpse of the real town exposed to view.
Like the film’s hero, I have never been more than a visitor to Russia whose experiences were shaped by those responsible for my visits. Because I, unlike the film’s hero, visited Moscow over the course of 35 years, I have had more opportunities to see life with “fallen fences.” But my experience has been sufficient to make me aware that I could never be sure of the other realities associated with the aspects of Russian life it was being arranged for me to see. All I can be sure of is that there are many other interpretations for the events recounted here.
As will become clear in the pages that follow, this project would have been impossible without the active support of many individuals and organizations over a period of almost three decades.
My first debt of gratitude is to the International Research and Exchange Board, which provided the administrative and financial support for interactions between American and Soviet scholars through the difficult period from the early 1960s until the demise of the USSR and which continues to provide support for American academics and others interested in research and collaborative interaction with colleagues in the former Soviet Union. Wesley Fischer and Dan Matuszewski made efforts well beyond the call of duty on my behalf.
Without the interest, patient understanding, and generous support of the Carnegie Corporation, and its President, David Hamburg, this project would not even have been undertaken. Equally, without the active participation and assistance of Fritz Mosher in all aspects of the work, it is very likely we would have achieved even the modest levels of success that I report on below. Deana Arsenian provided expert council on many occasions, and David Speedie, who became responsible for the project in its later phases, has patiently helped to smooth out bureaucratic problems that inevitably arise from the interaction of the many organizations necessary to realize the project. As will become clear, a great many people labored to make the project possible, both in the US and the USSR. I have listed their names separately as a small, and clearly inadequate, recognition of their efforts.
Finally, I wish to thank those who took time out of their busy lives to read and criticize the initial draft document I prepared as a final report of this work to the Carnegie Corporation. Although I have been interested and involved with Russian Psychology for more than a quarter century, I am by no means a “Russian Expert” nor an expert on telecommunications. Even had I more expertise in areas relevant to this work, in a project of this scope and complexity, no single person could hope to have a comprehensive view of “the truth.” The present account benefited enormously from the corrective feedback provided by Deana Arsenian, Harley Balzer, Alexandra Belyaeva, Thomas Benson, Jonathan Cobb, Robert Horwitz, Wesley Fisher, Dan Matuszewski, Laura Martin, Fritz Mosher, and David Speedie. Errors of fact and interpretation that remain are entirely my own responsibility.
Section 1: Learning to Cooperate
In this section I recount the narrative of the project to coordinate groups of social scientists in the US and the USSR for purposes of joint research using electronic mail as its medium. Today this kind of project, although it would face a variety of difficulties, is not only feasible, it is a common occurrence. But in the mid-1980s when it began, there were a great many difficulties. It was the height of the Cold War and international computer-mediated communication was only a trend on the horizon. This stage of the work was completed in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. I begin my narrative in Chapter 1 with a brief and selective history of U.S.-Soviet scientific exchange, and the general situation that confronted my colleague and me in the Fall of 1985. Chapter 2 describes the events surrounding the initial organization of the project. Chapters 3-5 recount major phases in the organization of
joint research focused on children, computers and education, describe
the content of the work, and summarize some of its accomplishments.
Before the Beginning: A Pre-History
For most of this century, direct interaction between scholars in the United States and the Soviet Union has been rare. Interaction consisted primarily of infrequent brief visits to seminars or international congresses, even rarer lengthy research visits, and selective publication of scholarly articles and monographs. While these restrictions did not totally obliterate the exchange of ideas across national disciplinary traditions, they made ongoing, joint research virtually impossible. This situation, characteristic of scholarly interaction as a whole, was true of psychology as well. The project to be described here grew out of interactions among psychologists, so it is the history of interactions among psychologists that is most relevant to my narrative.
Despite the disadvantages of slow transportation, there were several important interactions between Soviet and American psychologists in the 1920s. From the American side the most significant contributor was Horsley Gantt who returned from a research stint at Pavlov’s laboratory near St. Petersburg, to translate a monograph on conditioned reflexes. This work played a direct and significant role in the development of behaviorism as the dominant school of American psychology for several decades. Gantt later translated Alexander Luria’s
Nature of Human Conflicts, making it the first monograph bringing the influence of Russian cultural-historical psychology to America. Luria served for a period on the editorial board of the American Journal of Genetic Psychology, where he promoted publications by several prominent Russian psychologists. For several years the journal carried abstracts in Russian, signaling their internationalist intentions.
With the advent of Stalinism and Fascism in the 1930s contacts dwindled to a trickle. Receiving mail from abroad became hazardous and in 1936 Russian psychology was disassembled by the State. For the following two decades Americans depended upon the few psychologists who read Russian to write aperiodic reviews (Bauer, 1949; Razran, 1942/1958). Visits and mail did not start to flow until Psychology was rehabilitated to the point of having its own journal, and control over a modest number of institutional centers in universities and research institutes following Stalin’s death.
In the late 1950s there were several important exchanges of visiting delegations of psychologists (Bauer, 1962) and a doctoral/ postdoctoral academic exchange opened. The Russians chose not to send psychologists on the exchange, but the Americans did.
In the autumn of 1962 my wife, Sheila, and I arrived in Moscow as participants on the recently-initiated academic exchange program set up between Soviet and American Universities. I had just completed a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and she was a recent college graduate with an interest in journalism. Spending a year in Moscow was our way of emulating our friends who had taken off a year to see the world before settling down to serious careers.
The Fall of 1962 was not a particularly auspicious time for Soviet-American relations, and by October, when Khrushchev and Kennedy started rattling rockets at each other during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had some pretty severe doubts about our choice of exotic settings for a year abroad. There was also a well-publicized spy case that winter that received a lot of publicity. Ordinary Russians’ reluctance to interact with foreigners, which brought severe reprisals from the security apparatus unless it was sanctioned or reported, was understandably intense.
Nevertheless, in many respects the year spent in Moscow was a stimulating one and it had a profound influence on my academic career. Moscow State University is the elite institution of higher learning in the country and the breeding ground for future leaders, much as Harvard and Yale play a similar role in the United States. Discussions about the reform movement begun by Khrushchev were a constant feature of student life. Despite the fact that Khrushchev himself had changed directions and the reforms launched several years earlier had almost run out of steam, the University was still a place where the great issues of the day were debated and daily life had a sense of urgency about it.
Perhaps the most lasting and important consequence of that post-doctoral year resulted from my work with Alexander Luria who had survived the purges of the 1930s and the war to become an internationally recognized psychologist. Luria, a remarkable man in many ways, insisted that the researchers and students in his laboratory treat me as a normal person, despite my American passport and imperfect language skills, incorporating me into their work to as full an extent as I desired.
I will have more to say about the substance of Luria’s ideas at several later points in this narrative. My emphasis here is on the style of interaction that Luria promoted. He fostered the assumption that it was both natural and proper for Russian and American psychologists to pool their ideas drawing upon their respective national traditions. Science, in his view, was an international enterprise, in which ideological issues and national concerns should not play a significant role. He saw to it that the results of the joint research my colleagues and I conducted appeared in the leading Soviet psychology journal (Cole, Korzh, & Keller, 1965; Cole & Korzh, 1966), an unheard of practice in the USSR at the time.
From 1962 until his death in 1977 I remained in contact with Luria owing to a common interest in cross-cultural research on human thought processes. He involved me in several publishing ventures, including a book about his own cross-cultural research carried out in the early 1930s but unpublished owning to the political difficulties it caused him, difficulties that could reappear all too easily in post-Khrushchev Russia.
Over the subsequent two decades Luria’s example provided the model for my involvement with Soviet-American exchanges in the area of psychology. When an exchange among social scientists and humanities scholars was agreed to by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1973, I became the junior “commissioner” for psychology (William Estes was the senior member). When Commission matters became routinized, Estes left the commission and I took over in the mid-1970s, continuing in that post until the dissolution of the agreement in 1991.
My major goal as a member of the ACLS commission was to arrange for others the kind of deep experience of joint research that Luria had provided in the early 1960s. Although the exchange program had by then been in place for almost two decades, exchanges primarily took the form of one week visits by selected groups of 5-6 “experts” who gave seminars, exchanged ideas, and then went home never again to contact their interlocutors. Such exchanges were nice sight-seeing tours, but they insured an always-superficial state of Soviet-American dialogue.
My Soviet counterpart on the bi-national commission was Boris Lomov, a man who made his mark as an engineering psychologist at Leningrad University. In 1968, when Psychology was promoted to the status of a discipline within the Academy of Sciences, Lomov was appointed Director of the Academy’s new Institute of Psychology. This position made him titular head of Soviet Psychology and gave him a good deal of power in deciding which Soviet psychologists could participate in the exchange process.
My interactions with Lomov were complicated by the fact that he represented and promoted a school of psychology associated with the psychologist-philosopher S. L. Rubenshtein that was engaged in an unpleasant rivalry with the cultural-historical school represented by Luria. Lomov used his position of power to prevent students of Luria and his school from interacting with Americans by leaving them off of delegations to international meetings and even, on occasion, barring them from meeting visiting Americans. However, Lomov and I shared a common professional interest in the psychology of communication. Consequently, even while I fought his attempts to restrict access to my intellectual cousins, I worked to create a model of a new kind of interaction based upon visits of longer duration and the building of ongoing joint research projects.
The theme I hit upon was the area of communication and cognition. This was a topic that was well developed in Russian psychology and encompassed the ideas of Luria and others that I cared about. It also fit with Lomov’s current interests. For several years the topic of communication had been one of the scientific themes of the social psychology group at his institute and he had begun to write theoretically on the topic. In response to my initiative, Lomov removed the theme of communication from the social psychology group and set up a new Communication Group devoted to the study of dialogue speech communication with the explicit task of arranging for joint experiments with American researchers. Sasha Belyaeva and Alexander Kharitonov (who later became an important contributor to the institutional work required by the VelHam project) were made members of this group. It provided the institutional home for growing collaboration.
In the late 1970s early 1980s arrangements were made for a number of extended visits on the general topic of communication and cognition. I made two or more trips to Moscow or met with Russian delegations in the US each year. In 1982 one of Lomov’s senior researchers spent several months in my laboratory where she was an active participant in our research program. Later that year, Sarah Michaels, a graduate student at Harvard, went to work in the Communication Laboratory at Lomov’s institute where she engaged in joint research with Sasha Belyaeva on children’s language development.
I had met and talked with Sasha on previous visits. In the late 1970s I had arranged for Herbert Clark to participate in one of the regular seminar visits in Moscow. Clark is a developmental psycholinguist, the same field in which Sasha had completed her graduate education in Novosibirsk. Although various efforts at collaboration were undertaken, they had not worked out well, and I was hopeful that she would have more success working with Sarah.
Sasha was assigned by Lomov to be the person to watch after Sarah. This obligation required her not only to find ways to help in the conduct of research, but to deal with her needs as a foreign visitor more generally. She proved herself very competent in dealing with the bureaucracy and took an active interest in the work. She and Sarah became friends as well as colleagues. Sarah’s visit, and a visit from Laura Martin, a developmental psychologist who was permitted to work in another institute, gave hope that things were progressing normally.
This was the state of exchange activities in the summer of 1983. At this point, a set of unexpected events changed the course of my efforts at promoting Soviet-American cooperation in psychological research. I found myself caught up in a really unusual experiment in inter-cultural communication. Together with my wife, Sheila, and colleagues in Moscow and at UCSD, I produced what came to be called a spacebridge. This experience provided the opportunity to try out ideas that became central to our efforts when we began the VelHam project two years later.
Moscow, Summer 1983
In June, 1983, as part of my role as subcommissioner in psychology, I attended an IREX-sponsored Soviet-American seminar on questions of human development led by Urie Bronfenbrenner, one of the few American psychologists who spoke fluent Russian and had deep knowledge of Russian psychology. On this trip, for the first time in many years, Sheila accompanied me to Moscow. Her presence turned out to be crucial to the events that followed.
Our reasons for making the trip together were largely sentimental. It was the 20th anniversary of our first visit and we were curious about how the lives of the friends and acquaintances of our youth were faring as they, like we, were approaching middle age, watching their children growing up. I had been developing a number of ideas based on the teaching of Luria and other Soviet psychologists of the prior generation, and I was interested in seeing what kind of reaction my ideas would elicit. Participating in the seminar also allowed me to meet with Lomov, Sasha, Sarah Michaels, and various Soviet colleagues to see if we could organize more extended forms of joint research. I even brought a specific, if apparently hopelessly unrealistic, project proposal with me. During the previous year, members of my laboratory had started to experiment with computer-mediated communication as a new form of educational activity to promote schoolchildren’s literacy, numeracy, and general academic development (LCHC, 1982a; LCHC 1982b; Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1984). One such experiment had involved children in Alaska and San Diego. Mindful of the technological feasibility of such work between Moscow and San Diego (the year before a group of Soviet computer scientists had hacked the Lawrence Livermore Atomic Energy Labs), I brought along a diskette with a computer game that I thought might plausibly be used as an object of common interest to children in Moscow and San Diego. Overall, the visit to Moscow seemed like a fine way for me to mix business and pleasure.
Sheila also wanted to mix business and pleasure. While she looked forward to seeing friends, she did not fancy wandering around town by herself while I was occupied in seminars and our friends were at work. She knew that engaging in joint work was among the most interesting ways to get a good feel for what was happening in people’s lives and she was determined to use her time to write something interesting about contemporary Russian life.
So many events have transpired in the interim that it is only with difficulty that it is possible to reconstruct the ambiance of Moscow in 1983. The mood was definitely not upbeat. Yuri Andropov, previously head of the KGB, was the Soviet leader. Over the 20 years since our student days there had been a good deal of building and in general the material conditions of people seemed somewhat improved. But it was also a tense time. The Cold War was in full swing and Ronald Reagan was denouncing the USSR as an evil empire.
The day after our arrival we went to the home of Vladimir and Katya Pozner. We had first met Volodya during our initial visit to Moscow in 1962-63 and had kept up the friendship through my visits over the years. Both Volodya and Katya, his new wife, were journalists and it was to them that Sheila turned for help in making contacts with people who could be interviewed about child rearing and family life. They had given some thought to the problem before our arrival and they arranged for Sheila to meet Joseph Goldin, who, they said, was full of interesting ideas and had lots of good contacts.
Late in the evening of that first visit to the Posners, Joseph arrived. He was a short, round, enthusiastic man who spoke a heavily accented but colorful English who was certainly full of interesting ideas! His first proposal was for Sheila to fly down to the Black Sea to observe women giving birth to babies underwater with dolphins. When Sheila demurred on the safe grounds that it would take too long and she needed to get home in a week or so, Joseph came up with what turned out to be a more appealing idea—to spend time with the members of a new social movement which had formed “family clubs.”
In the ensuing days Sheila met a number of family club members and spent time in their homes. The overall motivation for these clubs, it turned out, was to create a way of raising their children that would blunt the impact of the daily grind in the authoritarian bureaucracies of school, office, and shop floor and provide more humane forms of interaction.
Family club members displayed many of the features associated with the human potential movement in the US. They were interested in alternative, holistic medicines and the possibilities of realizing hidden psychological reserves. Most were representatives of the technological elite, people who worked all day in large bureaucratic structures in smoggy cities in crowded conditions. It was no accident that Joseph both suggested that she observe babies being born underwater with dolphins and introduced her to the members of Moscow’s family clubs. They were representatives of the same, distinctive, social formation.
During the next few days Sheila and I pursued our respective work projects. In addition to attending the pre-arranged seminars, I pursued the possibility of some joint work around computer games designed to promote children’s cognitive development. I was particularly interested in the idea of using computer networks to get Russian and American kids interacting which could serve as a pretext for getting Russian and American psychologists to engage in joint research.
To my surprise, Sasha Belyaeva, while recognizing the current impracticability of such an undertaking, did not dismiss the idea out of hand when I explained to her what I had in mind. Instead, she organized a meeting for me with Andrei Ershov, a computer scientist whom she had known in Novasibirsk. The large academic complex at Novosibirsk played an active role in developing ideas about the reform of the USSR that became important in Gorbachev’s thinking, and it also provided Moscow with many of its best physical scientists and computer specialists. Ershov was in Moscow where he had been given responsibility for organizing computer literacy curricula for Soviet high schools. We met and I explained my idea to him. We agreed, using Sasha as a mediator, to pursue the possibility of a joint project. I left the diskette containing a computer game that illustrated the kinds of materials kids could interact around. For the time being, that was the end of my oddball initiative and I attended to more mundane professional matters, acting as translator/guide for my American seminar colleagues.
Meantime, Sheila was fascinated with the people to whom she had been introduced by Joseph. After a few days, when we met at the Pozners, we naturally fell into a discussion about family clubs. Shortly before midnight Joseph appeared. With him was a man named Raz Ingrasci, who introduced himself as the Director of the international program of Werner Erhard, Associates (referred to as EST, Erhard Seminar Training). Here was my first introduction to the human potential movement as vehicle of a new kind of diplomacy.
Ingrasci, we learned, was seeking to export Erhard’s method of transforming group consciousness to the Soviet Union. Why was the USSR interested? Because his training techniques were focused on expanded productivity in the workplace, improved health, and increased feelings of personal well-being. Earlier that year Soviet authorities had made a series of highly publicized raids on Moscow stores in search of delinquent workers; anyone who could not excuse their absence from work was fined. In February, General Secretary Yuri Andropov had attacked people who had “half-hearted attitudes toward work” and were “sponges on society.” Poor productivity was a large and increasingly severe national problem. At the same time, the health of the Soviet population was undergoing a marked decline. It did not require a psychologist to realize that people’s sense of well-being was in crisis, but at least some psychologists in each country were saying that they could do something about the problem through group training. Although imported from the US, Erhard’s methods were coercive enough to be easily recognizable by Soviet authorities. Ingraci told us that his organization had already conducted some workshops for the Soviet Armed Forces, and he was excited about plans for introducing EST workshops in many walks of Soviet life.
We subsequently learned that Joseph himself was deeply involved in efforts to transform human consciousness through group processes, but he was more given to seeking individual transformation through the organization of peak experiences and life-celebrating collective rituals. As a graduate student at the Institute of Biophysics in the 1960s Joseph had become fascinated with the idea of “hidden human reserves” that could be made use of in properly organized circumstances. He came in contact with staff from Esalen at a 1979 meeting on the unconscious in Tbilisi. Michael Murphy, Director of Esalen, had an abiding interest in similar techniques for promoting peak experiences, interpersonal harmony, and the ability to exploit untapped human powers (through, for example, extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, shamanism, and so on). That year Esalen had created a special Soviet-American exchange program as a means for promoting harmonious Soviet-American relations while pursuing their common interest.
They sought to achieve greater international harmony through a variety of special projects focused on physical fitness, disease prevention, and holistic approaches to personal physical and psychological well-being. Moreover, Esalen, took an interest in problems of administration and management in large modern organizations; maintaining creativity and initiative in large, hierarchically organized command and control systems was causing difficulties in large American corporations, as well as the Soviet bureaucracy.
Through a study of their catalogue materials, Sheila found that their center in the Big Sur region of California ran special workshops for managers to complement workshops aimed at increasing life satisfaction through self actualization. One 1982 workshop for managers sought to deal with such issues as “rapid rate of change, motivation and worker needs, conflict resolution, participative management, communication, leadership, team building, and stress management.” Participants were told that they would “discover how problems can be used as opportunities and how sudden shocks and surprises can be used to improve performance.” They would leave the workshop possessing “the tools and opportunities to learn how to handle these problems in order to increase productivity and creativity in their relationships with clients and colleagues.” She reports that one of the workshops on love and work (“Work is love made visible”- K. Gibran) was designed for those “discontented with their work lives.” There was, as Sheila discovered, a remarkable symmetry between Soviet and American interests in the topic of human potential, and a remarkable similarity of cultural forms.
In addition to a strong emphasis on having Russians and Americans travel to each other’s countries for face-to-face interactions, the Esalen program emphasized the potential of modern telecommunications technologies to make possible new forms of peaceful international interactions. While talking with Volodya and Joseph we learned that a few weeks before we had arrived there had been a two-way, simultaneous video exchange between a Moscow television studio and a large rock concert in Southern California. It was the second such happening Joseph had helped to arrange and Volodya had been the moderator. They were excited about the possibilities this new media form opened up. They called it a spacebridge.
We learned later that Esalen’s Soviet-American Exchange program had played a big part in creating those early spacebridges which nicely embodied the human potential movement’s basic communicative strategy. Their first spacebridge, in the Fall of 1982, was devoted entirely to a joint “jam session” between rock groups in the US and USSR. Bands and audiences saw each other, made music together, and danced to each others’ music. The second spacebridge which had occurred just before our arrival began with joint music playing and dancing and large numbers of people. But the second part moved on to a discussion of mutual social concerns, fear of nuclear war being at the head of the list.
The U.S. moderator, Sam Keene, a clinical psychologist prominent in the human potential movement, articulated the underlying communicative intuition behind the impulse to start with music (aside from its relative political neutrality, which he did not mention):
There are those who fear contact, but our technological creativity has made it inevitable. Our media now place us in one global nervous system. We’re just face-to-face or better.
Today what we’re going to do is talk to each other person to person. We’re going to explore some of the questions that we have, maybe we’ll argue a little. We’re gonna talk, and we’re gonna listen, and above all, we’re gonna dance to each other’s music and be moved by the same rhythms.
Whatever the coordination during the dancing, the conversation that followed began very stiffly. There were formal greetings from each side and introductions of various dignitaries who made statements about how important it was to communicate and get to know each other, statements that were followed by polite applause. It was not compelling either as dialogue or as theater.
Then Evgenii Velikhov received the microphone. At the time Velikhov was a vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, as well as a special advisor to Gorbachev and a respected atomic physicist. His remarks transformed the event:
I’d just like to say that we are not only talking about the fact that we can talk to one another, we’re actually doing it [audience laughter and applause]. We conquered a very terrible enemy [a reference to World War II] and at the same time another enemy arose who unfortunately is still here with us—nuclear weapons. Sometimes it seems to us that these weapons are muscles. Actually they are not muscles, they are really a cancer and we have to perform an operation as quickly as possible to liberate ourselves from this cancer.
What followed was clearly unanticipated. At first there was polite applause. Then someone near the front of the American audience stood up to applaud. Then more people stood up. The Soviet participants, seeing the American reaction, started to applaud more forcefully, and like a tidal wave, joint applause enveloped the two audiences. It was a powerful moment even in re-viewing and it must have been especially powerful for those in attendance. Velikhov looked stunned by the reaction his words evoked. He was clearly impressed with the power of the medium and the energy released by the raw nerve he had touched.
It was this reaction on Velikhov’s part that Volodya and Joseph seemed to be counting on to win his support to make possible future, more ambitious, spacebridges.
It was not long before Sheila and I confronted a much more intimate relationship to spacebridging and the human potential movement. The next time we visited the Pozner’s apartment, Joseph again turned up. He had a new spacebridge project to propose, one that, he confidently told us,
we would carry out. Three weeks hence the annual Moscow Film Festival would take place. As part of the overall festival there would be a section specifically devoted to children. Following the model of the US Festival “Spacebridge” that had proved successful earlier, Goldin proposed that we use this occasion to create a spacebridge on the theme of children and film. He guaranteed to get the support of the Festival’s organizers and assured us that he would provide the contacts in the United States needed to provide the American end of the bridge.
Sheila and I met this idea with both interest and skepticism. As a writer of children’s books Sheila had a natural interest in the topic and as a former journalist she had some good contacts among media people in New York. The idea appealed to me for a variety of reasons: it would be an opportunity to carry out a project with Volodya after decades of talking about such possibilities; it would be a coup for the newly-formed Communication Department I was helping to build at UCSD; it was an unusual opportunity to try out some theoretical ideas about joint, mediated activity that was not likely to arise again soon. Finally, of course, it seemed an opportunity to do something positive in an international atmosphere that was being poisoned by fear and radioactivity. I had gone to Moscow bearing the message that productive interaction through telecommunications was a technical possibility. Perhaps my ideas about computer networking would someday bear fruit, but here was an opportunity to put them into practice immediately in the medium of interactive television.
On the day before we left Moscow Sheila and I met with Joseph. By this time, Joseph had prepared a one-page document, in English, in which he claimed that all the necessary resources had already been gathered on both the American and Russian sides to conduct a spacebridge in connection with the Children’s Film Festival. Sheila and I were flabbergasted, knowing it was certainly pie in the sky with regard to the American side, and suspecting strongly that the same was true on the Soviet side. All we had succeeded in accomplishing was a rough strategy for how such a program might be structured. Sheila then spent the day learning all she could about the technical arrangements that had to be made. We were worried about costs and reciprocity. Our concerns were lessened by an agreement in principle from Joseph, that the Soviet side would pay for production costs on their side and pick up 50% of the satellite costs. With this flimsy bit of planning in hand, we headed for New York to see what we could arrange in a very short time.
Enter the Carnegie Corporation
Just as there is a prehistory to the VelHam project that reaches back into my involvement with Soviet psychology there is a prehistory that reaches back into my involvement with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. For many years, Carnegie had supported my research on cultural variations in cognitive development and the training of scholars to engage in cross-cultural, interdisciplinary research. In the winter of 1982-83 David A. Hamburg became president of the Corporation. Hamburg came to Carnegie from Harvard where he had directed a program on health policy. A physician by training, Hamburg had a long-standing interest in children’s health and development. He was also a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and had a special concern to do something to reduce the threat of nuclear war. One of his major goals in assuming leadership of Carnegie was to initiate a special program called “Avoiding Nuclear War” as a way of addressing this concern.
Fritz Mosher, trained as a developmental psychologist, had long been at Carnegie as a program officer. He had been in charge of my area of research and I had worked closely with him in that capacity. He had been observing our attempts at exploiting the potential of computer networking for educational purposes and he had seen our success in using an e-mail conference to produce a special report for the National Research Council that Carnegie helped to support. Fritz was named the program chair for the Avoiding Nuclear War program.
When Sheila and I stopped in New York to sound out interest in conducting a two-way television broadcast connected to the Children’s Film Festival, I went to the Carnegie offices both to report to Fritz on my meeting with Russian development psychologists and educators, and to see if the Corporation might be interested in the potential of interactive television as a means of promoting peaceful interaction between Soviets and Americans. They were. They immediately grasped the potential of this new medium. They indicated that if I were able to organize the proposed spacebridge over the next two weeks, and they liked the way it looked, they would provide a modest grant from discretionary funds to cover the estimated expenses on the American side. In an important sense, that effort was the first step in creating the VelHam project, although we had no way of knowing it at the time.
Doing a Spacebridge: Some Lessons Learned
I will not dwell here on the events of the next few weeks which have been described in detail elsewhere (Keyssar & Cole, 1984; Keyssar & Pozner, 1990). A spacebridge did in fact take place with support not only from Carnegie, but also the Lounsbury Foundation and an enormous outpouring of volunteer effort in both San Diego and Moscow. The total cost for an hour-long program was an exceedingly modest $25,000.
The basic structure of the event followed a sequence that Sheila and I sketched out with Joseph before we left Moscow, knowing that we would have precious little opportunity to communicate before going on the air. After an introductory segment in which the moderators on the two sides (Cole in San Diego, Pozner in Moscow) greeted one another, each side presented a short segment of film that provided the context for the two audiences. Then, three pairs of prominent directors, one member of each pair from each country, introduced themselves and showed fragments of their films for children. The films included a pair based on comedy, a pair based on drama, and a pair of brief, animated films. The children in the auditoria in the two countries jointly and simultaneously viewed the films, following which they discussed their reactions with each other and the directors. After the three pairs of film fragments had been shown and discussed, the children sang and danced together.
It was a very simple structure, but it worked. Although there were some awkward transitions, as befit so loosely scripted an interchange, the audiences got quickly into the rhythm of the event, and audiences on both sides found the experience exciting and thought-provoking. Public response in the press in both countries was generally quite favorable. A one-hour version of the program was shown nationally on Soviet Television. A half-hour version was shown on PBS in the United States.
In light of events to follow, several lessons stood out from this experiment. We learned, at the simplest level, that relatively inexpensive communication technologies could enable new forms of Soviet-American communication based, more or less, on direct contact between citizens. Moreover, it was possible to do this in ways that were acceptable to officials in both countries.
This experiment also yielded some interesting evidence about how the perception of cultural differences between the two audiences depended critically upon the specific context set up by a combination of the script and the film fragments, and the precise moment of interaction in question. Perceptions that “they are totally different from us” and “they are just like us” mixed in a way that was at first somewhat disorienting, but ultimately very thought provoking.
The rhythm set up by alternating joint viewing of film fragments followed by discussion provided a surprisingly effective way to make salient both the strong sense of cultural difference and cultural similarity. When the children were raptly watching the same scenes at the same moments, the auditoria went still and the cameramen in each studio, unbidden by us, but following conventions of the medium, zoomed in to provide closeups of individual children’s faces. At those moments, when, for example, Christopher Reeves as the Prince first sees Sleeping Beauty, it was impossible for a viewer to know whether the child was Russian or American. What one saw was children enchanted into totally absorbed stillness. But when the camera panned back to reveal clothing and hair styles, and especially when the children began to speak, cultural differences dominated the audience’s perceptions.
Not all the lessons were welcome ones. First of all we encountered marked asymmetries that complicated cooperative interaction. One such asymmetry concerned the ground rules for initiating interaction. Russian tradition dictated that the paper trail for the project had to indicate that the interaction came at the initiative of the American side. This was clearly contrary to fact, but nothing started to happen until Volodya received a telegram from the American side asking the Soviet side to engage in the project with us. We were pretending that we had thought it up ourselves. Presumably the fact that the Soviet partner was asked to engage in the international contacts made it easier politically to proceed. By the same token, it misrepresented the true nature of the relationship.
A second important asymmetry concerned size and resources. While the American directors who participated in the program were all major film figures, the facilities and organization of the small UCSD Communication Department could not match those of the Soviet Radio and Television system and Joseph’s incredible ability to mobilize large groups of people for a party. We coped pretty well with the fact that the 1000 or more Soviet children bussed in from their pioneer camps were met by less than a 100 U.S. children and perhaps 100 adults who sat in the audience to observe the event. Our semi-scripted procedures worked nicely to balance the interactions among the participants. But while Gostelradio had the resources to guarantee a rebroadcast of the event all over the USSR, the most we could hope for was a half-hour on PBS. That imbalance we could not correct, and when it became possible for Volodya to make arrangements with big-time television personalities to conduct spacebridges, he most reasonably did so.
Perhaps the most complex asymmetry we encountered was embodied in the rhetorical styles of the children in the two countries and the way in which that style was interpreted on the American side. By and large the Soviet children offered comments using an abstract, well hedged, recitation style, as if they were answering questions in school (“I have not seen the whole film, but from the fragment I have seen, and comparing that to. …”). With a couple of exceptions, the American children responded in a highly personal, and subjective manner (“I feel that….”). When I have shown the tape to audiences of college students and older adults, I have often encountered remarks about the Russian kids showing up the American kids. This kind of unselfconscious ascription makes it important to keep in mind that the meaning of interactions doesn’t depend just on what is said, but also how those interactions are interpreted by the two sides, including the two societies that sanction the interaction.
A final asymmetry concerns the way in which political and technological conditions for international interaction intertwined to impede or afford ongoing collaborative efforts using telecommunication. Two-way video technologies were just then coming into common use on news broadcasts and it remained difficult and expensive to arrange a stable two-way signal to allow genuine joint activity. But access to phone lines was even more difficult to arrange. I had pushed for the inclusion of children playing a common game on computers at the two sites as a way of dramatically demonstrating the technical possibility of computer-mediated joint activity, but the Soviets could not arrange matters on their end. More basically and importantly, we had terrible difficulties getting phone calls through to Moscow while our Soviet counterparts found it almost impossible to call out. The spacebridge program almost foundered because a crucial call needed to align satellite signals came through only a few minutes before the actual channel opened.
Evidence of political barriers were no less important. Despite the fact that the Soviet side went ahead with preparations, final permission from “above” did not arrive until that final phone call made it clear that our project would in fact be allowed by Soviet authorities. On the American side we didn’t need to ask anyone for permission. We had to find sponsors. Our major sponsor was David Hamburg at the Carnegie Corporation. The Soviet authority who obtained the needed permission? Evgenii Velikhov.
From Spacebridging to VelHam
My involvement with spacebridging might have burgeoned into a major commitment. At the request of our Soviet partners, we designed a blockbuster spacebridge, “The Earth in Word and Image,” replete with Astronauts in outer space, scientists at the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab, and various cultural/intellectual stars. But history intervened in August, 1983 when zealous Soviet fighter pilots shot down a Korean airliner. Afraid of an international incident during the spacebridge, the Soviets backed out. Helene Keyssar, the colleague from the UCSD Communication Department who had acted as the director of the children-and-film program and Volodya Pozner resumed active involvement with spacebridges once Soviet-American relations began to thaw, but I returned to my initial interest—computer networking for purposes of collaborative research. It is that later thread of history that played the leading role in the development of the VelHam project, although in the beginning at least, the potential of spacebridging and the mixing of on-line and off-line interaction involving video and computers continued to be an attractive possibility.
During 1984 and early 1985 I continued to explore the potential of computer network, which was still a new phenomenon. In those early (pre-internet) days the store-and-forward e-mail systems in existence, with the exception of those created and maintained by the military, were not well connected with each other. Still, by patching together various pathways that mixed the store-and-forward e-mail systems based on university mainframes with private satellite facilities, we were able to demonstrate two potentials of the new medium that were to become the core of VelHam.
First, we combined networking with a little face-to-face meeting to create a special report for the National Research Council on the problem of increasing the participation of minorities and women in math, science, and technology education. Because of the networking, we were especially successful in creating a diverse group of contributors strongly representative of the “problem groups” to which the project was oriented (Cole & Griffin, 1987). Second, we ran a very successful summer camp for preteens in a Latino area of San Diego and in Pistoia, Italy, where the kids engaged in various kinds of computer game activities about which they wrote to each other. While labor intensive, this effort demonstrated the motivating power of cooperation at a distance and the way that generally disadvantaged children can get deeply immersed in issues of language, culture, geography, and history through the activities we organized.
Encouraged by these results, I approached IREX to propose the formation of a new subcommission as a part of the Soviet-American exchange devoted to the topic of Communication. While the impetus for this initiative was the rapid development of the new technologies of communication such as spacebridging and computer networking, I was also mindful of the fact that American scholars from many disciplines would welcome closer contacts with well known Soviet scholars whose work focused on communication. With active support from Wesley Fisher at IREX, I brought together a group of Communication scholars with a wide profile of expertise in March, 1985. Out of this meeting came a proposal for a subcommission to study such varied topics as:
- Computer networking
- Interactive video and radio
- Comparative studies of media content and effects
- Theories of production
- Problems of translation
- Theories of semiotic mediation
In May, 1985, John Ward, then president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the umbrella organization under which IREX operated the exchange program, formally proposed the creation of a new subcommission in Communication to Georgy Arbatov, his counterpart in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Simultaneously with these local efforts, of course, the Soviet Union had undergone a startling political shift because Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and promulgated his policy of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring). These changes clearly provided a more auspicious foundation for a communication commission.
Especially critical to the development of the VelHam project was the fact, unknown to me at the time, that in March of 1985 David Hamburg was in Moscow as a member of a binational Committee on International Security and Arms control set up by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington and the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
The chairman of the Soviet counterpart committee was Evgenii Velikhov. In a private conversation with Velikhov, Hamburg inquired about the kinds of problems that were likely to interest the new generation of Soviet leaders and ways in which leaders in the US and USSR might take advantage of the new situation to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. Velikhov identified the need of all advanced industrialized countries to deal with the accelerating scientific and technological changes that were then occurring as a common problem and specifically emphasized the need to introduce knowledge about computers into the schools as a topic of special concern. The two men agreed to pursue this theme by an exchange of relevant scholars, beginning with a visit from a U.S. delegation to see what the Russians were doing in this field. The basic conditions for the development of the VelHam project had come into being.
Organizing to do the Work
In the Fall of 1985, David Hamburg sent a delegation to meet with Velikhov and his colleagues to work out a concrete project. The delegates included Fritz Mosher, from Carnegie, Marc Tucker, a former official at the National Institute of Education interested in computers and education, Fred Hechinger, well known education reporter for theNew York Times and a member of Carnegie’s board, and myself.
Official Moscow was a beehive of activity. There was a real sense of urgency. Gorbachev’s efforts to create and implement a policy of glasnost and perestroika was on everyone’s lips. To some extent, both openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika) were evident. People spoke about a “period of stagnation” during the early 1980s. Gorbachev was making the “transformation of the material and technical basis of production” the center plank in his program of reform (Pravda, April 12, 1985). Particularly relevant to our own plans, there was growing awareness of the critical need to bring the USSR into the computer age.
Soviet Presuppositions on the Eve of our Visit
The first Soviet PC, the Agat, was introduced at the trade fair in Moscow in July of 1983, virtually at the same time that we put together our spacebridge program. During the ensuing period, more and more stories about the importance of computers appeared in the Soviet media. A new jargon, borrowed in large measure from American computer terminology, had become widespread. Instead of referring to computers by the official Russian name ( “electronic computing machines”) people began to talk about “komputeri” and “mini-komputeri.” The popular image of computer became one of students sitting before a “displei,” and running “programmi” stored on “disketti.”
Despite high expectations, reality changed very slowly. The home-grown computers, clones of the popular American “Apple II,” were slower and less reliable than the machines they copied (Bores, 1984). Moreover, it was not at all clear that the Soviet Union had the capacity to build reliable machines on a mass basis. At the very least, a crash effort involving many sectors of Soviet science, work training, and industry would have to be initiated if such an effort were to have any chance of success. The situation appeared desperate to many commentators, both Soviet and American.
Evgenii Velikhov was in the middle of the effort to change Soviet consciousness and to build the infrastructure for the widespread production and appropriation of computer technology. In the summer of 1984 he had published an article in theBulletin of the Academy of Sciences alerting readers to the great importance of personal computers. He did not restrict his comments to professional science, arguing that such computers would have to be produced in vast numbers to be placed in schools and institutes around the country. At the same time, he noted that the kinds of computers he was talking about were being produced in woefully inadequate numbers in the USSR.
Until this time, the manufacture and use of computers was a highly secret enterprise that was carried on in establishments controlled by the military and unrepresented in the Academy of Sciences. In his capacity as a vice president of the Academy, Velikhov had initiated a Division of Computerization that, for the first time, brought together scholars and engineers from inside and outside the Academy into a single structure that included not only the design and production of computers, but the widespread introduction of computers into schools and the training of school children that he had been advocating. At the time we arrived in Moscow, these efforts were largely directed at students in the last two years of high school, with special emphasis on instructional programs that trained young people who were going to enter the labor force rather than go on to higher education; without such trained workers, aspirations for an adequate, homegrown workforce to implement the computer revolution were doomed to failure.
It is in this context that Velikhov viewed the visit of our delegation. He urgently needed to start delivering on the promise of the PC that he had been writing about. He had poor resources to accomplish this task. It was his hope that a cooperative project with Carnegie would provide much needed help in expertise and equipment.
American Presuppositions on the Eve of our Visit
We, of course, entered into the ensuing discussions from a different perspective. Despite the fact that the Reagan administration had somewhat eased the ban on exporting low level computers of Apple II variety, there was widespread antipathy toward any actions that might help the Soviet Union overcome their economic difficulties. Deliberate technology transfer was not only barred by specific legislation, it was considered akin to treason. Moreover, while American commentators were also predicting great things for PCs, including their power to transform American education, we did not share the Soviet problem of producing reliable and relatively cheap machines for mass consumption. More than a million PCs were already in U.S. schools and their number was increasing at a rapid pace even as successive generations of improvements were increasing the sophistication of the activities they could support.
However, we had our own concerns with the ways in which the introduction of computers were affecting school children. Despite demonstrations that existing computer hardware and software could be used to support creative and exciting educational activities (Levin et al., 1984; Papert, 1980, etc.), computers were still used largely as teacher replacements and drill and practice devices. When more sophisticated uses were implemented, they were, by and large, implemented in schools for the economically and socially privileged (Cole & Griffin, 1987). Both of these shortcomings spoke directly to Carnegie’s concern with the improvement of U.S. education and the development of programs to increase the involvement of America’s under-represented groups in high-technology areas of the economy and social life. Issues of equity were important to both Carnegie and LCHC.
Another difference concerned the ages of the children on which we thought it worthwhile to concentrate. By far the most interesting software for educational uses had been written for elementary school children, not for high schoolers. Moreover, there was widespread and justified belief that a critical juncture in the educational process where the future educational “haves” were separated from the future “have nots” occurred in the middle years of elementary school, roughly in the transition from the 3rd to the 4th grade. This is a time in American schools when students are expected to start making the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” and from simple arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, simple multiplication) to complex operations including long division and fractions. A number of studies suggested that failure to make this transition was associated with social class and ethnicity, marking it as a point where special intervention appeared necessary to halt the production of social inequalities along class and ethnic lines (Cole & Griffin, 1987; Griffin & Cole, 1987).
These concerns came together to shape the nature of the proposal that we arrived in Moscow prepared to make. First, we were determined that we would not get involved in technology transfer or one-way transfer of resources in general. To avoid even the appearance of asymmetrical advantage, the project needed to be predicated on full reciprocity, like the spacebridge project we had put together two years earlier. Second, we needed to focus on younger children in order to use non-embargoed technology and to focus on an area of genuine concern to American educators for which we had good research evidence and hunches about productive new lines of inquiry.
We also placed a strong emphasis on the ways in which American educators and developmentalists could benefit from interacting with their Soviet colleagues. One area of promised benefits was access to the ideas of internationally respected developmental/pedagogical theorists who were exciting interest in American psychologists and educationalists. A second benefit was the experience to be gained from seeing how Soviet educationalists dealt with the shortcomings of computerization that our nation had encountered. We hoped to learn a good deal more about the process of educational reform and computerization at the same time—lessons that we could then apply to our own circumstances.
Organizing to Come up With a Plan
These different orientations, in addition to vastly different historical experiences and world positions more generally, provided the framework for the discussions that transpired during our visit. The challenge was to come up with an agreement that satisfied both Soviet and American goals and constraints.
One Institute within the Academy’s Division of Computerization appeared especially promising, the Institute of Informatics headed by Boris Naumov. Naumov was one of those who came into the Academy from an applied, previously classified, institute of electronic machine production. He had brought with him a young computer hotshot, Alexander Giglavi, who, among his other duties, worked with a group of children at a newly organized computer training center which was located next door to the Institute. Velikhov assumed that however the project with Carnegie developed, the division of the Academy devoted to computerization and the Institute of Informatics within it would serve as its institutional home.
Despite this perfectly reasonable starting assumption, the question of a venue for what was to become the VelHam project was by no means settled. Officially the delegation’s visit was conducted under the auspices of, and with the support of, the Academy of Sciences. We were lodged, for example, in the Academy of Sciences hotel and our expenses while in Moscow were paid for, according to standard practice, by the host country. This arrangement might seem perfectly reasonable—after all, we were there to put together a project with a vice president of the Academy. But from its very inception, the VelHam project crossed bureaucratic boundaries and this border crossing was perplexing to the staff of the Foreign Office of the Academy that held official responsibility for our visit.
At the start of our visit, I was asked to go to the Foreign Office of the Academy to explain the purposes of our visit to its Director, Nikolai Belousov. Belousov greeted me as “Meester Cole,” a form of greeting that is perfectly polite in English, but we were speaking Russian. In the Soviet Union of 1985 “Meester” was a term that carried with it a shade of disrespect of the kind reserved for capitalists of doubtful moral stature. I responded by introducing myself as Mikhail Lesterovich. Belousov accepted the correction, and we had a somewhat contentious, though friendly discussion. He wanted to know what this delegation was all about and what it had to do with the Academy (other than the fact that Velikhov had arranged for it). My presence was unexceptional. I was a psychologist they knew about. It was expected that I would be supervised by the Institute of Psychology, an assignment confirmed by the fact that I was accompanied by Belyaeva and Kharitonov. But what did it mean to be arranging for me to visit and lecture at the Institute of Informatics, let alone spending time at a computer literacy training center?
The other members of the delegation were even more difficult to fathom. Hechinger? A journalist: What was his role in this visit? Tucker, from the National Institute of Education? Why wasn’t he spending time at the Ministry of Education and why was the Academy of Sciences responsible for him? And Mosher? Representing a philanthropic foundation? What did American philanthropy have to do with the Soviet Academy of Sciences? There was no precedent for such goings-on and they caused a good deal of confusion. The only sure element to the situation was that a very powerful person wanted to make sure that the guests were well cared for.
I did the best I could to explain the logic of our visit to Belousov. I noted the long precedent in the Soviet Academy for the formation of special, inter-institutional committees to address questions that could not be handled within existing scientific frameworks. I reminded him of the American initiative to form a new, interdisciplinary joint commission on communication, which would certainly involve several Soviet institutions. I doubt if he could make much of what I said, but at least I could offer a rationale in Soviet terms for the unusual delegation that had appeared on his doorstep.
Crucial to smoothing these bureaucratic waters were the efforts of Sasha and her colleague, Alexander Kharitonov. Each had special qualifications for mediating this unprecedented venture. Alexander had previously worked in the Academy Foreign Office and knew the ropes intimately, which meant that he knew how to twist them when the circumstances were propitious. Velikhov’s sponsorship of this venture made the circumstance propitious—risky, because it was unorthodox, but propitious. Whereas the bureaucrats in the Foreign Office of the Academy could not make heads or tails of the apparently incoherent nature of our delegation, Sasha could, owing to our long history of interaction. Consequently, she was able to provide the rationale for a totally new division of labor within the Soviet academic hierarchy. Also essential was the fact that Sasha’s husband, Spartak Belyaev, an atomic physicist and member of the Academy of Sciences well known for his honesty and intelligence, worked closely with Velikhov at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Physics. She could, when necessary, pick up the phone and call Velikhov at home a few blocks away—an incalculably valuable resource in the Soviet system of administration. For his part, Alexander was intimately familiar with the workings of the Academy’s Foreign Office. It was a great team. Collectively, they navigated the dangerous waters of the Academy bureaucracy on behalf of the project as we felt our way toward a concrete activity. Belousov may not have been pleased with my explanation of what we were up to, but he politely agreed to do what he could to facilitate our mission.
The delegation went about its business. We visited with Naumov and talked in generalities about the current state of computerization in American and Russian schools. We learned that the push toward introducing computers into Soviet schools was focused on secondary schools. The current courses were, by contrast with similar American courses, heavily focused on mathematics, algorithms, and programming, in keeping with the conception of a computer as, literally, a device for making computations. Owing to the virtual absence of computers in schools, these courses were almost entirely theoretical. However, efforts were also under way to create model curricula with a significant hands-on component.
The following day we visited the new computer training center connected to the Institute where about 25 Yamaha computers of the kind then competing for the educational market in various parts of the world were networked through a server. The teacher had total control of all communication and could assess the progress of individual students through pre-scripted exercises with the push of a button. We met and chatted with several teenage boys who were writing various kinds of mathematics drill-and-practice exercises for younger children as a way of learning to program the computers. It seemed clear that our Soviet hosts considered this center one plausible site for a joint project.
Later in the visit I gave a talk at Naumov’s Institute to explain our approach to involving children with computers for educational purposes which relied heavily on inexpensive computers in wide distribution. The auditorium was more packed than the content of my talk could possibly have evoked in the United States. It seems that people understood that something unusual was taking place, unusual enough for Velikhov to be present and unusual enough for someone to go to heroic efforts to obtain an Apple II+ so that we could demonstrate a few elementary programs for children developed in our laboratory. Finding even such an elementary computer somewhere in Moscow was a non-trivial feat, since exports of such machines were strictly forbidden by the U.S. government. (Attempts to run our programs on clones produced in Bulgaria had been unsuccessful).
My first sight of Velikhov occurred at this meeting. It made a big impression, but not because he is an imposing looking man. Rather, it was the demeanor of the men who surrounded him, in the neighboring seats in the auditorium. The ensemble reminded me strongly of 19th Century Russian paintings in which some important man is attended by his lieutenants all of whom incline toward him in a packed group, a collective gesture that is part an effort to hear what he is saying and to speak confidentially and part obeisance to power. The overall impression hints at something constantly conspiratorial in their interactions. Certainly, although he was sitting in a seat well away from the stage of the auditorium, Velikhov was the center of attention of everyone there.
I did not frame my talk in terms of a potential joint project for that audience. It would have been premature. Instead, I attempted to summarize the approach to creating computer-mediated activities developed in my laboratory. Our approach emphasized children working in small groups and computers as media that could enrich the content of instruction both through implementation of theoretically-driven microworlds and through the use of telecommunications to link classrooms to the world at large. I also emphasized that we generally eschewed reliance on expensive, high-powered computers in favor of small, inexpensive, portable machines because of the evidence that computers were going into wealthy schools and exacerbating already-severe problems of educational inequality in the US. Finally, I tried to make clear the way in which our approach represented a synthesis of ideas from American cognitive psychology and Russian cultural-historical psychology to problems of computers and education so that, in principle, it ought to be possible for Soviets and Americans to collaborate using our overall strategy. I have no idea what the members of the audience took away from this presentation, other than the fact that somehow Velikhov had gotten mixed up with a strange American who spoke Russian, knew a fair amount about psychology in Russia, and who seemed to believe that collaborative research on computer-mediated learning and development was a practical possibility.
Following the more or less ritual visits to potential institutions that could serve as the basis for a project, we met at Naumov’s institute where Mosher (for Hamburg) and Naumov (for Velikhov and the Academy) signed a protocol indicating their intention of pursuing an exchange of experts with the goal of creating a joint project. The wording was left vague intentionally. It was still not clear how such an intention could be implemented. The rest of the delegation returned to the United States and I began the task of figuring out concrete next stages in the project.
Sasha, knowing that I was adamant about the need to make ongoing telecommunication contact a central tool of the project as a practical precondition for attaining real ongoing collaboration, had already made contact with Vladimir Serdiuk at the Institute of Automated Systems (IAS), the only possible provider of telecommunications contacts. At her invitation, Serdiuk had come to my talk so that he had some idea of what we were planning. We requested permission to provide Sasha (as Velikhov’s surrogate) use of a satellite-based telecommunication facility to which IAS, the Institute charged with developing telecommunications in the USSR, had access through a leased line to Helsinki. This was not a trivial request. So far as we knew, no private person had been given permission. Communication through a computer network across the Soviet border and use of telecommunications within the country were largely restricted to military and secret scientific purposes. While we waited for permission, I used my extra time to pursue the goal of creating a new subcommission in communication by visiting Directors and prominent scholars from several institutions that would plausibly play a role in such an undertaking from the Soviet side. Although none of those we visited had ever encountered such a proposition, they all expressed their interest should we prove capable of bringing it off.
To my surprise, Velikhov asked that I pay him a visit at his Academy office. He had not been present at the signing of the protocol and it was not clear to me when, if at all, I would have a chance to talk with him. He had arranged for a small group to meet at his office late in the afternoon.
When Sasha and I arrived we found Velikhov and his colleagues gathered around a micro-computer with a color screen. One purpose of the visit was obviously to demonstrate this machine. I was properly impressed. It had a number of features that seemed in advance of the microcomputers then in wide use in U.S. schools. More importantly, Velikhov believed that it would soon be in mass production and on the market at a very low price. One element in the infrastructure needed to push through a crash program in computerization of education appeared to be in place. This was important because the source the computers for Soviet children participating in a joint project was looming as a significant problem. Although I was convinced by the demonstration, this machine never did go into mass production, and provision of machines on the Soviet side proved a significant problem. The Soviet Union never managed to mass produce computers for its schools.
Another purpose of the visit was to get a clearer idea of how, concretely, to carry out a joint project. It seemed that Velikhov had discussed matters with Naumov. The protocol we had signed with Naumov was focused on young school-aged children, not 9th and 10th graders and thus fell outside the Institute of Informatics profile of plausible projects. He told us that it seemed unlikely that Naumov could spare Alexander Giglavi for a new project since his work was essential to that Institute’s ongoing program. The people he invited to the meeting indicated his first attempt to adjust his plans to meet our constraints. He said that he would seek to identify some younger scholars who would benefit from additional training in the US and could be spared for the necessary amounts of time. The colleagues he had invited suggested various routes to collaboration, including the involvement of a kind of popular science society that ran afterschool computer clubs and the possible participation of a group located near Moscow that had created a computer literacy program for young school children.
I outlined for them the project that I envisioned, based on the prior experience of my laboratory in organizing joint activity among children and researchers via telecommunications: we would organize several groups of schoolchildren in the US in different locations. The Soviets would do the same. These groups would share experimental software and engage in activities specially designed to promote the development of basic academic skills in math, science, computer programming, ecology, and other subject matters for which promising software might be written. Researchers would collaborate with each other in the design, implementation, and evaluation of these activities and children would interact with each other on the model of prior experience at the LCHC.
The conversation then turned to the venue for continued interaction. Velikhov’s first question sought to determine the scope of American interest in exchanges around computers and education. Before our visit, Fritz Mosher had talked with the future US ambassador, Jack Matlock, then working at the National Security Council in Washington, about our visit. Matlock indicated that our initiative fit with the new line of the Reagan administration that was looking for areas of cooperation, education being one of them. How, Velikhov wanted to know, would the Carnegie initiative be implemented bureaucratically from the American side?
I suggested that one route would be to include the project within the program of the American National Academy of Education (of which I am a member). I had already discussed this possibility with its President, Patricia Graham, who was in the process of organizing a new Education subcommission under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies and IREX. Would this mean abandoning work with Carnegie, Velikhov wanted to know? I explained that the two were closely linked; one provided the bureaucratic apparatus, the other financial support.
What scholars and research centers might we involve on the American side, Velikhov then asked? I answered that which institutions were involved depended on which individual scholars became involved. I mentioned people I knew who were actively involved with children and computers in several locales. Velikhov showed special interest in involving Seymour Papert, whose book, Mindstorms, had made a big impression on him (as it had on many). He also mentioned that he had made contact with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak ( the pioneers who started Apple). He went on to urge that we should undertake two large and innovative projects that involved the most important players in the US. One project would combine a psychological pedagogical approach, the use of computer games, and a focus on younger school children—the project I had outlined. The other would involve an exchange of delegations, including children in a special summer school. It would include an Olympiad and result in parallel publications. “Two giant projects,” he concluded.
I really didn’t know what to make of all this. But I was there to try to find a common path to the future and so I simply allowed the conversation to continue, realizing that it would be a big deal just to get the project to the stage of identifying the actual people who would be willing to undertake it. Velikhov had agreed to focus on younger school children, which was a step in the right direction He seemed to have someone in mind who actually worked with younger children, and he had a computer that could plausibly be used as the material foundation on the Soviet side. That was enough work for one day.
The following day we received permission to go to the Institute of Automated Systems (IAS) and to use their facilities. This permission came from Velikhov, or rather, the order to IAS to give us access came from him as part of the new project. I had two main goals: First, I wanted to show Sasha (and through her, Velikhov) that it was possible to access my e-mail account on The Source, a commercial information utility, from Moscow. The core technical infrastructure already existed. Second, I wanted to obtain permission for Sasha to use a specially provided account so that we could follow through on project arrangements.
The experience was one that is not easily forgotten. The Institute was located in the center of Moscow in a relatively new building with an armed guard at the door. After our documents were carefully checked, we were escorted to a room full of imported computer terminals and a screen projector that allowed us to work jointly. Following some preliminary fumbling to get the sequence of sign-on numbers correctly, we logged onto my computer account and I was able to demonstrate the necessary routine to Sasha and Vlad Serdiuk. We sent a message back to my laboratory indicating that we had made the connection. We also tried an account on EIES, a conferencing utility that had been used for communication with people at IAS for a few months prior to our visit.
I discussed the possibility of IAS becoming a member of a subcommission on communication as part of the ACLS-USSR Academy exchange, an idea that Serdiuk accepted. We agreed that IAS would help get this activity going from the Soviet side by providing access to international computer networking for Sasha’s laboratory at the Institute of Psychology. He would send and receive messages for her until such a time as remote access could be arranged. She was also allowed to come to IAS at designated times to engage in live, computer-based chats (telephone contacts were still virtually impossible). After some discussion with Serdiuk about our plans for use of the account, we left.
That evening was the last of my trip. I had arranged for Velikhov to come to Pozner’s house for dinner (I supplied the meat, Volodya and Katya graciously supplied the rest). We went quickly over the accomplishments of the visit as he saw them. He seemed both pleased with the rather narrow project that we were proposing (small groups of school children sharing software and communicating with each other through the network while they were studied by psychologists on the two sides) and anxious to see the project broadened into the mega-exchange he had sketched out during our discussion in his office.
I used this occasion to explain to him my plan for a communication subcommission and why it was necessary as a way to bring together talented people by neutralizing the power of existing Institute Directors to prevent all but their closest allies from engaging in international exchanges. Volodya, with whom I had discussed this problem in connection with his continuing interest in spacebridges, filled in some of the history of the need for this new structure. Velikhov seemed to sympathize with the motivation for this somewhat odd move, and from that moment forward, the VelHam project proceeded under several loosely coordinated bureaucratic structures: the existing exchange program in Psychology, for which I shared responsibility with Boris Lomov and the exchanges in Education and Communication. We didn’t have a project yet. The contradictions evident at the outset of our visit were still clearly in evidence. They were interested in a blockbuster project, we were interested in a small, highly focused, and pre-eminently scientific research project. We had lots of technology but a well motivated reluctance to allow Soviets access to it. The Soviets, desperate for the technology had no compunction about fooling us into giving it to them. We touted the ideology and practice of open communication. The Soviets lived a system of hierarchically organized and highly controlled communication, especially when it came to international communication.
The list of difficulties was impressive. But we had at least arrived at a common focus on young children and the inclusion of telecommunication as preconditions for the project. The seeds for a genuine joint project had been planted. We began referring to it as the VelHam project, indexing the critical role of its sponsors, Velikhov and Hamburg. Whether and how the VelHam project would grow became the central question.
Creating a Common Project
It was not a difficult matter to agree to joint projects while sipping vodka and engaging in the formalities of Soviet-American academic exchanges. I had been doing it for several years and my Russian hosts were virtual professionals of the trade. But what I was proposing this time around was fundamentally different in several respects. First, whatever their different priorities, both Velikhov and Hamburg were strongly committed to seeing something more than further meetings come out of this initiative; they wanted evidence of actual cooperation in addressing a set of significant educational problems that were of concern to them quite apart from their desire for a symbolic gesture in the name of reducing international tensions.
Second, gaining Velikhov’s support for using telecommunications as the medium for this project promised to make it practically feasible, for the first time in the history of Soviet-American relations, for scholars to cooperate on a time-scale of hours and days rather than weeks and months. I knew from my prior experience using e-mail to organize collaborations at a distance in the United States that it afforded one of those rare cases where a quantitative change in the rate of conversational turn taking could produce a qualitative change in the resulting interactions. The use of e-mail didn’t cause high level interactions at a distance to occur, but it made such interactions possible.
These two features, a core commitment to creating scientifically presentable Soviet-American cooperation and reliance on telecommunications to enable the practical implementation of such cooperation, can be considered the hallmark of the VelHam project as common goals, irrespective of the many ways in which we fell short of those ideals.
No Medium, No Message
My first priority was to establish the legitimacy of using computer-mediated communication as an acceptable practice within the framework of our project. It needs to be stressed that there were no important technological barriers to making telecommunications the essential medium of this project. Vlad Serdiuk and his colleagues were technically competent and anxious to be allowed to emerge onto the world network scene. They had already been engaged in some limited interactions with a group calling themselves the Arc Foundation, based in San Francisco. The foundation, which had close ties to Joseph Goldin and other members of the human potential movement in both the US and the USSR, had made contact with Serdiuk using EIES, an early educational networking project headed by Murray Turroff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology with the explicit purpose of promoting scientific cooperation.
But the political, social, cultural, and monetary barriers to such undertakings were formidable indeed. In October, 1985, it was illegal for a Soviet citizen to have an unauthorized conversation with a foreigner, and if such a conversation took place, the offender was legally required to report the “mishap” immediately to the KGB. The trickle of electronic mail from abroad passed through a single node at IAS and was carefully monitored. A Soviet who sent or received e-mail through the leased line from Austria or Helsinki, did so only with explicit clearance, and such clearance was not lightly given. The U.S. Government was also concerned. It had begun to investigate Arc’s initiatives, putting in doubt the legality of Americans engaging in telecommunications contact with Soviets. As good luck would have it, legal restrictions from the American side were removed just as we arrived in Moscow. But the channels of communication were extraordinarily precarious and had not yet gone beyond the walls of the Institute of Automated Systems to any significant extent. E-mail use as we knew it in the US at the time was well beyond the imagination of most Russians.
If anything was going to come of this project, we had to find some way to extend and broaden the special permission provided by Velikhov for a single foray into IAS. First, we required a kind of permission that would allow not only Sasha, but the group of scholars she needed to gather on Velikhov’s behalf, to use e-mail on a routine basis. (By routine, given the restricted hardware resources available to Soviets at the time, we meant one or two leased lines from sites in Moscow to IAS so that kids and scientists could interact through the IAS node to counterparts in the United States, and an adequate allotment of time for sending and receiving mail).
My basic communicative strategy was to presuppose the existence of an “international norm” of open scientific communication through the use of e-mail and to make this presupposition obvious through my behavior. In effect, I sought to establish a norm of communication equivalent to that used in our work linking children and scholars within the United States, our work with Italian kids and scholars, or in our writing project for the National Research Council.
The first step was to secure permission for Sasha to use the IAS facility as an intermediary representing Velikhov so that we could work out the next concrete organizational steps. To this end, she created a “poryadok,” a special form of “permission slip,” in which she, in the dual roles of assistant to Velikhov for purposes of the VelHam project, and as a staff member at the Institute of Psychology, was made responsible for developing the IREX-sponsored collaborative research program on questions of computer-mediated activity. The order had to be signed by Lomov, as head of the Institute of Psychology. He was reluctant to get involved in such a risky business, but when told that the request came from Velikhov, signed as requested.
Sasha (helped by Vlad Serdiuk) was assigned the right to use 1 hour of channel time at IAS per week. The access wasn’t much and it required a difficult cross-town journey to get to IAS. But at least this procedure provided the essential point of contact to make it worthwhile to proceed.
Even before official permission was in place, I began to use the connection we had established as if the agreement signed in Moscow were sufficient authority. As soon as I arrived home I sent a message to the account we had provided, with “For Serdiuk, Belyaeva, & Velikhov” on the subject line. In the note, I addressed technical issues to Serdiuk. I addressed Sasha concerning an IREX meeting held in Moscow at which the question of a Communication Commission was supposed to be raised. I also asked her about a joint book which had been agreed to in the previous IREX proposal, particularly a chapter she was obligated to co-author using material from research on spacebridges. I did not address Velikhov. I indicated to Sasha that I assumed he was seeing to it that whatever structure was necessary to make the project run would be put in place.
Sasha and Vlad upheld the presupposition that we were now moving into “regular working mode” despite the difficulties. During December we exchanged a number of messages about the organization of the work. However, their task was much more difficult than mine in a purely logistical sense. It required an average of anywhere from two days to a week for a message to get from the terminal in the IAS to Sasha—time required not only (I assume) for the KGB agent in charge to read the message, but to arrange for Sasha to have it picked up. Then time was needed for her to take whatever next steps were required, which often meant contacting other people, getting permissions, arranging for notes to be brought back to Vlad, etc. Often Sasha would dictate responses to Vlad who would forward them to me to save time.
Despite these difficulties, we pushed ahead to expand the tiny communicative opening we had created. We needed to follow up with likely participants in the project in both the USSR and the US and to bring them into the planning process as soon as possible. Equally important, we had to find an appropriate institutional home for the project that would work for both the American and Russian sides. Several possibilities suggested themselves. First, of course, was the existing exchange in Psychology. Additional possibilities included new subcommissions in Communication and Education, both of which I had been actively seeking to promote. The need to explore this broad range of possibilities gave me a lot of legitimate reasons to communicate.
I used these possibilities to the extent feasible in legitimating use of the telecommunications link. So, for example, I wrote, through Sasha, to Volodya Posner about the communicative strategy he was using in a new round of spacebridges. I wrote to Boris Lomov about planned meetings of psychologists, a book he was committed to co-editing, and an invitation for him to be a guest editor of a special issue of Soviet Psychology, the translation journal I edited. Moreover, I obtained responses, passed along by Sasha. Often these responses were directed not to me, but to one of my colleagues who was directly involved in the specific activities.
Using our communications link as an organizing tool, we were able to help coordinate bi-national meetings in both the US and the USSR to promote cooperative exchanges in general, and the VelHam project in particular. In different ways, each of the bi-national meetings we organized using the VelHam-sponsored communication system became an opportunity for both sides to figure out what sort of project Velikhov and Hamburg might actually implement and how it fit into the larger pattern of exchange activity. A formidable set of conflicting priorities and constraints had to be dealt with. My hope was that from the full pool of possibilities, a workable arrangement could be cobbled together.
As I noted in the previous chapter, during the Carnegie Delegation visit to Moscow in late October, I visited briefly a number of the people/institutions who I thought would be necessary and/or desirable participants in a Communication Commission. These included:
- Institute of Psychology (Sasha’s home institute)
- Institute of Automated Systems (which controlled network access)
- Journalism Faculty at Moscow University (where the Dean was an acquaintance from the 1960s when Sheila had been a journalism student)
- Gostelradio (which was central if interactive video were to be used)
- Institute of Slavic Studies (where a famous communication theorist worked)
- Institute of State and Law
- Institute of Informatics (Velikhov’s initial base of operations for the project)
- Institute of Pedagogical Psychology (where work on computers and education was getting started)
By mid-December, despite some setbacks in coordinating American and Soviet exchange bureaucracies, it was agreed that a delegation would go to Moscow with the purpose of establishing a new IREX Subcommission in Communication. The delegation flew to Moscow in February, headed by George Gerbner, then Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication. It included several distinguished scholars in communications-related subfields.
Coordination problems were obvious during this visit. The list of institutions we were proposing to include in the new subcommission did not fall within a single Academy, Institute, or discipline: While it was not a big problem for Americans from disparate institutions to participate, it was a problem for the Soviets. In the end, the delegation was able to sign an agreement recommending the creation of the Commission on Communication, to meet with potential partners, and to gain agreement on a list of projects including experimentation with computer networking and spacebridging, in the official protocol. But, Velikhov did not find time to see the delegation and no one else stepped forward with the power and willingness to mold the appropriate inter-institutional organization on the Soviet side.
Nevertheless, interaction under the auspices of this “quasi-subcommission” continued for considerable time. For example, in June we used the possibility of a subcommission on Communication to get support for Turroff and Hiltz to fly to Moscow to pursue their efforts at building telecommunications ties. In July we held a large conference at UCSD on the future of spacebridging sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and attended by a broad cross-section of academic and media experts. Sasha, who was visiting my Lab at the time, attended as a representative of the Russian group seeking to form a Communication subcommission.
A second promising venue for VelHam, given its focus on issues of computer-based educational activities, was the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. After a good deal of preparatory work, Patricia Graham, then-Dean of the Harvard School of Education and President of the National Academy of Education led a delegation to the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in early April, 1986. The Americans came interested in a variety of research topics, but time and again their Russian hosts focused in on the use of computers in education. In the end, four topics ranging from subject matter instruction to the study of cultural and individual differences were proposed. At the Soviet’s insistence, “as a way of getting started” it was agreed that an exemplary project involving computers in instruction would be initiated. It was left up to Wesley Fisher at IREX and his counterpart in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences to follow through on this idea. While this focus was frustrating for the delegation, it fit with the more local goal of finding potential partners for the VelHam project.
Communication and Cognition Meeting
In April 1986, after months of negotiation by e-mail, James Wertsch, an expert on Soviet psychology, led a delegation of Psychologists to the Institute of Psychology. This group included Eleanor Ochs, an anthropological linguist who had carried out linguistic-interactional analyses of a spacebridge, Luis Moll, a colleague with extensive experience working with children, computers, and networking, Robert Krauss, who specializes in the study of referential communication, and James Youniss, a specialist in social development. This visit produced various plans for collaborative research, some of it more or less mainstream psychological questions, some of it motivated by spacebridging and some of it intended to allow continued elaboration of interaction among kids through computer networks.
A Second VelHam Delegation
Unexpectedly, during the Wertsch delegation’s visit to Moscow, Sasha wrote that Velikhov urgently requested that we send a group of specialists to Moscow in two to three week’s time for discussion of the VelHam project. On short notice, Judah Schwartz, from MIT, who had developed pioneering geometry teaching software, Richard Burton from Xerox Parc, who was involved in the development of intelligent tutoring systems, and Esteban Diaz, another LCHC researcher who had extensive experience working with kids and computers went to Moscow in late May.
This visit gave us our first peek at how Velikhov was seeking to create an institutional context for the project. The American group was met by a new cast of characters at the Council on Cybernetics. At the initial meeting, in addition to the head of the Institute of Cybernetics and his deputies was Lomov, a former member of Lomov’s institute who was a deputy minister of Education at the time, and a mathematician from Moscow State University. After introductions, the Americans were asked to give a series of talks about the lines of work they were pursuing as possible foci of activities for the project and a group of 20 or so Russians engaged them in discussion until late in the evening. They also visited a school distinguished by the fact that it had a small computer lab for kids as well as the special computer club we had seen during our first visit.
This time Velikhov did make time for the delegation. Apparently briefed on the conversations of the previous two days, he discussed the difficulties of figuring out how to share software given the differences in hardware and the marked asymmetries in the computer resources that the Soviets and Americans were bringing to the interaction. He also announced that 500,000 versions of the Corvette, the machine that had impressed me during my visit in October, would be in Soviet schools within the next four years.
The following day the group made the 2 _ hour drive to Pereslavl-Zalesky, which housed a branch of the Council on Cybernetics run by Alfred Ailamazian, one of the people who had been present in Velikhov’s office during our discussions in November. Ailamazian’s institute was located on the grounds of a Pioneer camp. The group repeated the presentations it had given in Moscow, was shown a school, given a meal, and sent back to Moscow.
The final day, spent at the Institute of Psychology, each member of the group was paired with a potential Soviet partner. They demonstrated various software they had brought along and explored areas of common interest. After a final dinner with some of the people they had been meeting with previously, they departed. They were uncertain of what had been accomplished and so was I.
Narrowing the Field and Getting to the Starting Line
I have by no means described all of the ways in which we sought to create a collaborative space and resources for the VelHam project. We were working in an extremely “noisy” environment. The basic idea of setting up cooperative projects was being pursued by a lot of Americans and encouraged by the Russians. Both interactive-TV exchanges and computer networking were recognized as important elements in such activities. Consequently I spent a lot of time on the phone and on e-mail following up various leads.
At the start of the summer of 1986, after assessing the possibilities that had arisen from the hectic round of exchanges I have briefly described here, I was not particularly optimistic about the trajectory of events. There was no doubt that our proposals for joint activity directed at the study of kids and computers had resonated with both academic colleagues and a more general inclination in American society. But aside from jet lag and a number of time-limited discussions among academics, what had come of it?
Not much was my evaluation.
At the center of my concern was the very restricted form of Soviet-American communication that we had achieved. E-mail from a fair number of non-Russians had been relayed to colleagues in Moscow, but the direct Russian correspondents were either Sasha or Vlad Serdiuk. A similar situation existed in efforts by Arc and others to exploit the potential of electronic networking. Vlad and his assistants were their de facto correspondents, with no legal authority to broaden access to include, for example, scientists worried about the greenhouse effect. So, while a number of such projects sponsored by important scientists were proposed, none had come to pass.
Up close, on a day by day basis, it was impossible for me to parse the sources of the problems that Sasha and I faced in trying to piece together a project: Lack of channel capacity on the Russian side, of course. Lack of computers, error correcting modems, printers, paper. Lack of laws making such communication free of KGB prior oversight. Local institutional priorities. Velikhov’s preoccupation with an incredible range of assignments including arms control, production of a reliable computer for classroom use, computerization of the Soviet school system, and tragically, putting a lid on Chernobyl in April.
Whatever the impediments, it was clear that we had made very little substantive progress toward realizing our goal: the creation of coordinated research groups on the two sides who interacted on a frequent and regular basis in an effort to infuse computer-mediated activity more deeply into children’s educational experiences. At the start of the summer I was very concerned about the possible future of the project.
MOST: The Summer Bridge
As a means of pushing the substantive agenda while addressing the technical problems, I arranged for Sasha and Vladimir Teremetsky from IAS to come to LCHC for two months to work out the nitty gritty problems of starting a joint project. This visit was supported by IREX. One aspect, of course, was to provide a telecommunications infrastructure. To this end, Teremetsky explored all of the then-existing conferencing utilities with the task of coming up with a recommendation that would work well for kids, academics, and which his institute could support.
In order to involve Sasha in making contacts with potential partners, we created a special on-line conference to discuss research ideas involving kids, computers, and telecommunications. Despite the fact that many people were on vacation, we managed to include people not only from the United States, but from Canada, England, Denmark, and Japan in the discussion. Topics ranged from the usefulness of different metaphors for organizing communication to information about particular programs and lines of research. We called the conference MOST, which means bridge in Russian, and a good deal of discussion went into how this metaphor did and did not work in the case of creating international joint activity.
In parallel, we showed Sasha and Volodya how we worked with a variety of computer programs, several of which had been designed by participants in the MOST conference and discussed how different pieces of software might serve as the motive for joint activity among children.
We also made it a point for them to engage in e-mail contact with their home laboratories. This turned out to be quite difficult. More than once, Sasha was unhappy with the way in which her messages were interpreted, bringing home the realization of how much local context shapes communication and how confused the context was when a Russian communicated through e-mail to another Russian in Moscow.
This visit also brought home to us the sensitive nature of the project in a more direct way. When the FBI got wind of the visit and realized that a Russian telecommunications expert was going to be given access to our computer system, I received a concerned call. It seems that they were afraid that the already-existing communications from IAS were being use to probe unauthorized American installations and they wanted to know what we were up to.
I explained as straightforwardly as I could what we planned to do, and that part of the idea of the project was to demonstrate that we could interact in a completely legal and mutually productive way. I told my caller what systems and user-ID’s our guests had access to. I also explained that we all assumed that the CIA and KGB were reading every word we exchanged, but promised to notify them of any behavior that seemed to me inappropriate (I never saw any, but there is no way of knowing if I erred). I wished my interlocutor good luck in his work, which I assumed was being busily repeated in Moscow. The closed Soviet system was cracking open, a fact everyone was going to have to deal with.
As Sasha and Volodya reached the end of their visit at LCHC, conversation on the MOST teleconference edged toward identification of concrete proposals for joint activity under the aegis of the Velikhov-Hamburg project. In late July, we wrote to potential partners in Cambridge coordinated by Sarah Michaels, at Bank Street College of Education in New York coordinated by Denis Newman and Laura Martin, and at Hunter College, where Pedro Pedraza was working with a local community development center in East Harlem. We outlined how we imagined a joint project might work. This note, written and signed by Sasha, Esteban Diaz, and myself provides an interesting reflection of our thinking as Sasha started East:
One important issue is the concrete organization of the settings. We are assuming that the core site for the project on the U.S. side will be a classroom and afterschool setting in New York, that Sarah will work with a classroom in Cambridge that will provide pilot data, suggestions, and support for the New York site, and that LCHC will provide backup. …and help in making sure that the Soviet-American communication part of the project runs as smoothly as possible….If you were to start today, what would be your proposals for software? Sasha is trying to get some idea of how the specific activities would fit into the school day. In our discussions we assumed that in the beginning computer-based activities would be only a small part of the school day and perhaps the core of the afterschool activities, and that over time the computer-based part of the work would spread out (as teachers got into it, as new, successful programs were implemented, etc.). (Posted July 23, 1986).
In light of later events, note our strong presuppositions that the model activities we created should be designed to be taken up by teachers and that there would be a rapid increase in the power and pedagogical usefulness of computer-mediated instruction. Both assumptions would be sorely tested in the years to come.
At the end of their visit to UCSD Sasha and Volodya went to the East Coast on their way home to visit potential partners they had been in contact with for follow up, face-to-face discussions. When they left for home they were laden with information, examples of elementary school software, too many proposals for possible projects, and a pretty good feel for what they would be up against in actually making such a project take place. We now had common educational computer software on both sides of the Atlantic, but still no appropriate structure on the Soviet side and no expansion in the number of Soviet participants who had access to e-mail.
A Year of Coordination at a Distance
Up to this point in the process, Sasha and I had taken the major initiative and responsibility for creating and coordinating the Soviet and American sides; we were present when key Russian-American meetings that affected the project took place. In the Fall of 1986 this situation changed dramatically. First, I moved to London and Copenhagen for a sabbatical year that had been arranged well before the VelHam project came upon the scene. I knew this shift was coming, of course, and sought to provide follow through on plans for the project by bringing my colleague Peg Griffin into the role of on-the-ground coordinator of the American side. Peg had extensive experience working with children and computers and a deep interest in the work of Russian developmental/educational psychologists. Despite the inconvenience, I continued my role of coordinating with the Soviet side via e-mail and phone calls.
Although my absence from UCSD and residence in Europe was in some ways unfortunate, it also offered opportunities. On the negative side my physical absence made it impossible for me to attend some important decision-making meetings and relatively cut me off from my American partners. The positive side, while it was virtually impossible to phone Moscow from San Diego, it was not particularly difficult to phone Moscow from London, Copenhagen, or Helsinki. Communication between Sasha and I increased.
As a result of my geographical position, I was not a direct party to the important interactions I report on in the next section, whether in the US or the USSR. Consequently I rely on the record of fieldnotes, telex’s, synchronous live-chats via Satellite, and summaries written mostly by others.
Velikhov’s Organizational Solutions
It was clear as early as our initial conversation in his office in October, 1985, that Velikhov’s ideas about this project were much more grandiose than Hamburg’s. Hamburg’s primary goal was to create a model of peaceful cooperation around common problems; pressing domestic educational concerns were relevant, but secondary. Carnegie funds came from the Avoiding Nuclear War Program, not one of Carnegie’s educational initiatives.
Velikhov’s position was Hamburg’s turned inside out. He certainly wanted a positive symbolic outcome, but for him the need to do something substantial about computers and education was a pressing social responsibility. He had a country falling down around his ears and he needed a lot of resources for computerization fast, whether he liked the regime within which he worked or not. Consequently, VelHam was important to Velikhov for precisely the opposite reason it was important for Hamburg.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, even before the follow-up VelHam visit by Judah Schwartz and his colleagues in May, Velikhov had moved decisively to create a special laboratory to deal with his mandate of computerizing Soviet education. He created a “Temporary Collective” called Shkola (school) to be organized on the grounds of the Institute of Cybernetics. More than one hundred and fifty staff positions were allotted, to be distributed around many institutions and parts of the country. They included the Institute of Psychology where Sasha worked (although Sasha herself was not included) but otherwise were heavily oriented toward computer science and technical education. Their responsibility: to create educational informatics programs focused on high school students and to develop plans for the mass manufacture of a computer especially designed for schools (The Corvette, which I had seen in Velikhov’s office).
The order creating Shkola also included the goal of strengthening international ties. However, communication was not included in the official themes of the Shkola Collective.
For a period of time it looked to me as if Velikhov wanted VelHam to be some sort of adjunct to the Shkola Collective. The concrete manifestation of this strategy was his request to have a group that would be going to the US from the Shkola Collective represent VelHam. This group had funds for a visit to the US scheduled for November.
The American side hesitated because of the new players that had been introduced into the discussion for reasons we did not understand. Sasha was not included in the travel plans, which seemed odd. There was a flurry of international communication between London, New York, San Diego, Cambridge, Copenhagen, and Moscow in an effort to figure out what was going on. To accommodate our concerns, the Russian side split their delegation to form a subdelegation devoted to VelHam concerns. Sasha told us that Velikhov wanted to take advantage of the fact that money was already there for a delegation and no other sources of money from the Soviet side were likely to be forthcoming in the coming months.
Assuming we could get some of “our” delegates onto the traveling group, this proposal seemed promising, although it clearly entailed risks. At least it was an official act to make public the existence of the project in the USSR, and it gave some hope of identifying the set of people with whom we were to work.
So, we began a period of negotiating. On her side, Sasha pushed for opening up the delegation to include VelHam’s emphasis on 3rd-4th grade children, low level computer technology, the need for reciprocity, and interest in communication. She was partly successful. Two of the visitors showed an interest in VelHam and were relevant. The rest had their own agendas.
This divergence of interests showed up in another way: one of our main arguments for reciprocity was the existence in Moscow of top flight psychologists with strong theories of how to organize school instruction from whom we potentially had a lot to learn. We particularly wanted to work with representatives of Vasilii Davydov’s approach to teaching mathematics through the creation of formative experiments. Davydov assigned his protégé, Vitali Rubstov to stand in for him. Since we knew Rubtsov’s work well (he had been Laura Martin’s advisor during her visit a few years earlier) we pushed for him to come with the delegation. No dice.
At the last minute, Sasha discovered that the delegation was not split with a VelHam subdelegation contained within it. The head of the Shkola delegation was made head of the entire delegation, thus absorbing VelHam into Shkola.
Once again our hybrid international communication system went to work. I was already doubtful about agreeing to have this delegation represent VelHam because it was likely to result in Shkola’s broad reaching high school-oriented agenda being dumped on us. That would have meant the end of the project. In the end a compromise was reached. Alfred Ailamazian emerged as head of the subdelegation considered a part of VelHam; at least he had been a party to prior visits and discussions about the project. But no psychologist appeared with the kinds of theoretical background we wanted.
The meetings themselves read something like a Hollywood send up of spy movies. For starters, the delegation failed to turn up on their scheduled plane and it was only upon returning home that the hosts discovered e-mail from Sasha saying that they would be exactly one week late. They had been unable to receive their visas because the Soviet staff at the American Embassy had walked off their jobs as part of the ongoing round of petty provocations that were taking place between the US and the USSR at the time.
This snafu really hurt the American side which had put together a complicated itinerary to accommodate the various interests of the delegate members. In some cases, these were visits to classrooms that were difficult to reschedule.
When the delegation arrived a week later, and work began, the FBI made its presence heavily felt, the way I had been made to feel the KGB when dealing with Joel Shatz in Moscow. Even a year later, the FBI queried members of the American delegation about suspicious behavior by members of this delegation. One of the American participants was dismayed to learn that his project, which he thought was strictly educational, was considered secret by his employer. He was forbidden to demonstrate his software, and had his meeting moved to a seminar room to which Soviet visitors were escorted by security men. Naturally, members of the Soviet delegation had their own suspicions, which such behavior helped to confirm. Paranoia reached its zenith when a box of software donated by participants in another city arrived with all of the software removed and only the cases remaining!
At the end of this adventure, the American side concluded that the trip had been useful. Peg Griffin summarized her perspective as follows:
By the end of the trip…the VelHam Project had been publicly and officially acknowledged, one research center (Sasha’s) was about to be added to the coordinator’s own center in the USSR, the U.S. research centers had some experience in the mode of work and the problems to be encountered, and there were two more people from two different institutions to be involved in next steps in the USSR. (Griffin, p. 34).
Following this meeting, the American side put together a formal proposal, outlining its idea of a feasible VelHam project. As Sasha and I had planned, it was agreed to organize work with children at four sites in the United States: In Boston, a group was coordinated by Sarah Michaels whose knowledge of Russian on the one hand and interest in the topic of kids and computers were key assets. This group included several prominent Cambridge-area experts in the fields of computers, education, and networking.
Two sites in New York would participate. The first was a group from Bank Street where Denis Newman and Laura Martin took the lead. They had both studied at LCHC and were deeply involved in the use of new communication technologies in education. The second was a group, headed by Pedro Pedraza and Seth Chaiklin at Hunter College, that focused its efforts on creating an afterschool computer club in a housing project in East Harlem.
UCSD was the fourth locale. We were responsible for providing e-mail access to Russian colleagues and coordinating the American activities so that they developed within the real-world constraints that were buffeting us.
In addition, the group planned to involve then-existing resource centers, such as that provided by The National Geographic Society and the Lawrence Hall of Science where the Soviet and American delegations had visited and found activities to which they wanted to become connected.
Although the American group was not entirely clear about details, its members assumed that children in each of the American sites would engage in activities that overlapped at certain points. For example, children in each site might engage in a LOGO programming project or gather data to be put into common data bases to answer a scientific question. These overlapping activities would be used as a basis for interacting with a corresponding group (or groups) of Russian children. The group identified four broad themes as the focus of the work:
•Discussions of specific methods of using new technologies in different educational domains
•Examination of education in different social contexts (a major contrast here was between in-school and after-school activities)
•Mutual comparisons of computer programs currently in use in education in the two countries.
•Examination of the use of communication technologies to assist in teacher training, the applications of theoretical knowledge in practice, and family involvement in educational activities.
That was the American side’s idea, based upon its priorities and constraints, and its (rather dim) understanding of the possibilities for development on the Soviet side. We assumed that a Soviet group would be brought together by Sasha and Velikhov, with involvement of Ailamazian, in some form of interdisciplinary laboratory and that Velikhov would find a way to obtain the needed resources. We assumed that there would be at least two Russian sites in different locales. This assumption was based on the jointly recognized need to discriminate the difficulties of working in such a distributed fashion at a distance within national groups as a baseline to judge our success or lack thereof when interacting across national/linguistic/ ideological borders. We further assumed that Sasha would coordinate communication for this group and that some subset of the people we had met during various visits would be directly involved and have the legal authority for regular communication about the work. But this was all supposition. It took a year for these suppositions to mix with Soviet reality to produce the first cooperative experimental work.
Velikhov Creates a Working Group
In October, 1986, even as he was preparing to send a largely Shkola group to the US, Velikhov proposed to create a new entity under the auspices of the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences. He called it “The working group on preparing proposals for the organization of a Commission on Communication with the American Council of Learned Societies on the problem of using computer technology and new communication technologies in education.” He included Andrei Ershov (de facto Director of Shkola) and Vladimir Shadrikov (Under-secretary of Education) in the group along with Sasha and Alexander Kharitonov. The first two provided linkages to technology (Shkola) and the schools (Shadrikov) while the latter two were expected actually to implement this initiative. In effect, Velikhov was now following through on the obvious need to make communication connections a cornerstone of the project and moving toward creation of a subcommission equivalent to the one in Psychology that had existed for a decade.
This proposal looked very promising. It allowed Sasha to continue communicating with American partners and set the groundwork for extending her privilege to other Russian researchers and to students engaged in educational activity. In that sense, creation of the Working Group seemed very useful to the process of building a collaborative research project. Sasha was overjoyed and Carnegie was relieved. It seemed like Velikhov was getting his act together.
Our optimism was short lived. To begin with, the Working Group was not provided with a budget and did not achieve its intended goal of becoming a Subcommission on Communication. In fact, it never emerged as a formal proposal to the binational Commission. Second, although Ershov was formally a part of this working group, he displayed little interest in the VelHam project, focusing on his main responsibility, Shkola. Collaboration involving Ershov never took place. Matters were no better with the member of the committee representing the Ministry of Education. Although in a position to do so, he never found it possible for Sasha to be able to work in a school that was given e-mail access to participate in the project.
Collaboration between Sasha and Ailamazian also appeared complicated. Ailamazian’s institute was a part of the Council on Cybernetics which served as the administrative headquarters of Shkola. The fact that his institute was on the grounds of a former pioneer camp made it ideal for running international computer summer camps. It made perfectly good sense for Ailamazian to expect the project to be located in Pereslavl-Zalevsky, and for Sasha to begin working for him.
Ailamazian made no bones about what he wanted for the Institute: he wanted to make it a mecca for children that would attract world attention and provide him with a source of foreign revenue for his Institute. In this, his goals and Velikhov’s coincided to an unusual degree.
Ailamazian’s goals made it natural for him to support international exchanges of children in large numbers and to make the core of his educational activities a camp attended by children from abroad. By contrast, we wanted to work on the problem of the day to day experiences of children who sat in their classrooms attached in some way to a computer. Interactions among children, in our view, would come through telecommunications, not through costly visits available only to a privileged few.
When the Ailamazian/Shkola delegation returned to Moscow, an intense period of conflict and uncertainty ensued. Should VelHam be absorbed into Shkola and transformed to meet its goals? Should Sasha be removed as coordinator of the effort to be replaced by someone of appropriate senior status to insure that the project attained the grand scale Velikhov wanted?
The first question was answered in the negative. Although we continued to interact in one way or another with the Shkola group in subsequent years, it went on to pursue its own interests. Its members caught on to the importance of e-mail and they made widespread contacts with foreigners on their own.
The second question was also answered in the negative, but it took a good deal of time to answer. We were unprepared to continue if Sasha did not act as the direct representative of Velikhov and guarantee that the spirit of the project would be carried out. While Ailamazian was perfectly competent, his interests diverged greatly from ours. He had little interest in our research agenda and he seemed a lot more interested in getting his hands on American resources than providing models of reciprocal joint research. We had to be careful, however, because we recognized the many motives that Velikhov had for making Ailamazian a major player in the project. And Ailamazian did have a bright group of co-workers with whom interaction promised to be interesting. So, we pushed for an arrangement where Sasha remained as Coordinator, but Ailamazian participated as a key member on the Soviet side. We also insisted that representatives of the psychological circle we wanted to interact with be brought into the process. Our hope was that the new working group set up by Velikhov would provide the organizing structure for VelHam. Over the next two years, the rough plan put forward by the American side played itself out in the first, operatory joint experiments of the VelHam project, and the eventual transformation of the activity in both countries.
The Transformation of VelHam: 1987-1988
The omens at the beginning of January, 1987 were good. There was activity, generally cooperative activity, going on all over the budding system. Over the holidays, the Pereslavl group conducted a winter camp at which they tried out some ideas that had been discussed in the MOST teleconference the previous summer. Sasha had three of her co-workers at the camp who were able to carry out several pilot studies. She reported that not only were she and Ailamazian getting along well, but she was making progress toward bringing cultural-historical psychologists into the project. She informed us about the official working group, which had been established a few weeks earlier, commenting that “We hope very much that this step will help all of us to consolidate efforts on this side, for now we can officially use the name of the Academy in all our efforts.”
This same message announced that IAS had asked to join the project on the Russian side and that the problem of access to schools should be solved within a week. Two weeks later Sasha’s partner, Alexander Kharitonov, wrote us that Sasha and Ailamazian were working with members of the Shkola collective who promised to provide “one or two classrooms of Corvettes for the children’s camp to be run in Pereslavl during the coming summer.”
These changes brought about most of the core social structure of the project on the Soviet side for the next two years: Sasha’s group at the Communication Laboratory, Ailamazian’s group in Pereslavl, and Vlad and Volodya Teremetsky at IAS. Still missing were the cultural-historical psychologists.
There was a lot of activity on the American side too. Core groups participated from Boston College, Educational Development Center, and other institutions in Cambridge, Bank Street and Hunter College in New York, and LCHC in San Diego. The people from these sites who had participated in the November meetings had begun proposing specific topics for consideration by the group as a whole. For example, the idea of having children associated with the project to collect and analyze local proverbs, which first appeared during the Summer 1986 MOST discussion, resurfaced. There was discussion about how to fit this “language arts” topic within the VelHam project by having the students categorize proverbs in a variety of ways and then enter them into a data base to enable explicit comparisons along abstract dimensions. The Soviet side also made proposals. People in Pereslavl suggested that the development of programming languages be added to the topics considered. They proposed the study of Micro-Prologue, which ran on their Yamaha computer as one such language. Sasha proposed a study of teaching deaf children how to read using computers following up work she had done with an American postdoctoral student. This topic seemed attractive because it took advantage of a rare case where there were actually computers available in Moscow. A detailed questionnaire about how teachers used computers in their classrooms was posted to see if there would be uptake on the Soviet side.
People in Cambridge went down to New York to meet with the two groups there, creating the conditions for collaborative work between East Coast locales and several institutions. We were also encouraged by the fact that Sasha or Alexander communicated at the allotted times each week and that they were succeeding in making the link-up to Pereslavl by phone or by getting a diskette from them and uploading it when they went to IAS. The project appeared to be coming to life.
Despite these encouraging signs, the difficulties encountered in 1986 continued to manifest themselves. These difficulties were of four general types: Creating a stable social organization of the project in each country, achieving agreement on the content of the work, securing stable access to telecommunications by all participants, and provision of financial resources. Each of these difficulties was intertwined with all the others, but are partially separable for purposes of exposition.
Social Organization and Content of the Work
Recall that at the end of her visit to LCHC in the summer of 1986, Sasha and I had proposed an organizational structure in which the various American groups would serve as test-beds and support facilities for the site in East Harlem, which would be the focal node from which children in the US would communicate with children in the USSR. It was assumed that there would be an analogous structure on the Soviet side.
Early in our planning, I had proposed a well known experiment in reducing inter-group tensions as a metaphor for the sought-after structure of the VelHam project—the “Robbers Cave” experiment conducted by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif in the 1950s (Sherif & Sherif, 1961). In that study, two groups of boys attending neighboring summer camps were brought into contact with each in a competitive way. Inter-group antagonisms grew quickly, subtly encouraged by the adults. Once a stable set of inter-group antagonisms had emerged, the adults arranged for the children to begin interacting in less competitive ways. For example, the two groups were brought together for a meal and to watch a movie. The initial result was to provide more opportunities for conflict and aggressive behavior.
It was only after the adults arranged for the boys to confront common problems that required cooperative solutions that group antagonisms began to abate. For example, the adults arranged to cut off the water supply to the two camps, and organized teams of boys to go in search of the problem which required their combined strength to solve. The result of engaging the boys in genuinely cooperative joint activity was a marked reduction in inter-group hostility and the emergence of cross-group friendships.
By analogy, we sought a situation where the Soviet and American researchers would jointly address the problematic state of computer-mediated educational activities in their educational systems. In addition, they would engage children in the different sites in joint efforts at solving the common problem of mastering and modifying the technological and curricular content that adults were presenting them.
In line with the Robbers Cave metaphor for VelHam, we placed a heavy emphasis on the need for
joint activity; there could be no question of one group dictating to another how problems should be solved. Both identification of interesting concrete research goals and the possible means to their solution needed to be worked out in common. And of course, in line with the principle of reciprocity, we required that while one side might contribute more or less to a particular aspect of the effort, the overall contributions of the two sides should be roughly equivalent in scope. Reciprocity and balance were essential to any lasting effort at cooperation.
At the start of 1987 it was not possible to realize anything approaching this ideal. At the most basic level, there were no Soviet counterpart children being studied by Soviet researchers with whom American children and researchers could interact. Consequently, interactions among researchers were restricted to various kinds of planning. Moreover, we had achieved nothing remotely approaching adequate access to e-mail and teleconferences for our Soviet colleagues.
As a means of providing the interested American groups with useful activities while we awaited development of the Soviet side, we created a special conference for the American group where they could propose, discuss, and try out various ideas. This pilot work could then, we hoped, serve as the basis for joint work with the Soviet side.
It soon became apparent that LCHC’s idea of how to conduct joint activity and about the overall communicative structure of the project was not shared by potential East Coast partners, who seemed to be operating on the assumption that their kids would be interacting directly with the Russian kids and that they were free to propose and implement specific joint activities with Soviet partners independently. Moreover, as new people got involved at the different American sites, commitment to the basic principles of the project was not automatically required and the range of possible joint activities suggested became broader and broader. A teacher included in the project at one site proposed joint participation in a mock trial of Brown v. Board of Education, for example, which had no discernible relation to the agreed-upon content area of math, science, and technology education. Another got involved in the study of proverbs, but ignored the need to make inclusion of computer technology and communication central to the project, asserting his right to pursue the proffered topic without the need for parallel work in other sites. Despite these deviations from the overall plan, Peg Griffin, who carried the burden of organizing next stages in the activity, sought to encourage development of the proffered ideas in the teleconference as a way of getting people more skilled in the art of coordinating school kids at a distance, more consistent in responding to initiatives and more adept in finding appropriate groups of kids to engage in responsive activities. There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm and effort being expended, but as ideas of what an appropriate activity might be and the sense in which it needed to be joint activity proliferated, it became more and more difficult to coordinate an effort. Naturally enough, the more time and energy people put into the effort, the more they began to wonder what would come of it.
Securing Access and Financial Support
My main focus, perched in London, was to deal with problems on the Soviet side while playing for time on the American side; until we had a Soviet “other” to interact with, I did not see any way to remedy the situation on the U.S. side.
One problem was access to Russian 3rd-4th graders. In principle, the fact that two members of the Soviet delegation were associated with the Ministry of Education should have led quickly to the solution of this problem. And at the start of the year, Sasha thought that a solution had been found. But it was to be more than a year later before anything approaching regular access to Russian children became a reality, requiring us to find a substitute solution.
A second problem was access to the Soviet developmental psychologists whose contributions we considered crucial to our plans. While Sasha had made contact with Vasilii Davydov, Vladimir Zinchenko, and others, no concrete plans for their participation had been made.
A third, ongoing, problem was access for our Soviet partners to telecommunications. Only Sasha and Alexander had direct access to telecommunications when they went to IAS during their one or two assigned hours and they had to act as messengers for Pereslavl. We needed not only more time, but also remote access for our Soviet partners; otherwise working conditions would be impossible for them. Remote access, in turn, required either leased lines or dial-up lines to IAS. More than the lines was required of course. Use of the lines required adequate modems and permission to use them.
A fourth, ongoing problem was the provision of computers to our Soviet partners, both for purposes of communication and for working with children. The promised Corvettes continued to be “just over the horizon.” We were able to provide a minimum of non-embargoed computer equipment to Sasha—one low level computer for purposes of communication and another to run sample software packages that might serve as objects of joint activity. But we were not about to provide classrooms with computers of any sort as part of our activities: that was Velikhov’s responsibility.
Finally, there was the general problem of paying for the work. Up to this point the U.S. side was relying on already-existing funds provided to ongoing projects. The scale of the work remained minimal making this kind of economy possible. It was completely unclear, however, where money for the Soviet side of the project would come from. This kind of support was also Velikhov’s responsibility. But in the absence of a niche in the Soviet system, problems of personnel and finances seemed intractable.
My messages to Moscow during this period expressed more and more concern that the project would collapse unless Velikhov obtained funds and equipment to enable the kind of balanced, reciprocal exchange to which we had agreed.
New Organizational Initiatives
The difficulties that Velikhov was experiencing in providing support to our project clearly reflected the broader problem he faced in obtaining the resources needed to deal with the seemingly insurmountable job of making Soviet school children computer literate. By itself, there was no way that our small effort could solve the broader problem. However, facing limitations on several related fronts, Velikhov moved to broaden his efforts by consolidating several different lines of activity, including VelHam, into a single, large, international philanthropic fund that would combine ruble and dollar resources to address his broad range of concerns. In early January Sasha called me in London. That was a shock—it was the first phone call I had received from Moscow since the harried preparations for the spacebridge project in 1983. She told me about a new Velikhov plan, which she subsequently described in a message titled “Urgent from Velikhov.”
E.P. (Velikhov) has encouraged me to communicate to the VelHam project people his proposal to include the project as a constituent part in the to-be Open World Laboratory. This Lab is conceived of as a kind of international institution providing an umbrella for several joint international research projects. Among them there will be the “Space and Health Care” project (Chazov-Lown),. ..space studies, joint projects in physics and geophysics. The national research teams of the Open World Lab are to be united by means of global satellite communication. Velikhov wishes very much to include the VelHam project into the will-be lab as he feels the project has a kind of exemplary ideology fitting well into his own concept of the institution. (Certainly he is aware that as of yet the VelHam project is on its organizational phase, but he does his best to have a full-fledged program of cooperation soonest possible. Please contact David Hamburg. (1/9/87)
In addition, she informed us that Velikhov was involved in planning an international forum on the theme “Toward a nuclear-free world” to which he had invited a variety of world leaders, opinion makers, and well known cultural figures. Velikhov proposed that Hamburg come to the Forum at which time further plans for the Open World Laboratory and VelHam could be discussed. Peg Griffin and I were invited in order to use the same occasion to resolve a variety of continuing problems in the VelHam project. Although Hamburg had his reservations about the Forum, he decided to make the trip to Moscow. I had plenty of doubts about putting our project together with Velikhov’s big ticket items, but the opportunities for joint face-to-face discussion with Velikhov and Hamburg simultaneously, the opportunity for me to meet and talk with Ailamazian, and the need to get my psychologist colleagues involved in the project were too good to pass up, so Peg and I also made the trip.
I was met on my arrival by a representative of Velikhov who whisked me past immigration and customs and into a limousine. I was taken directly to the large auditorium where the Forum was being held. I spotted Hamburg and sat down beside him.
Velikhov seemed to have been anxiously awaiting my arrival. He acknowledged my entrance and a few minutes later I found myself explaining to the assemblage the basic idea of the VelHam project and a little about its current state. Unlike the other projects being proposed at the Forum, ours was actually functioning, after its own fashion. Although cooperation in studies of children and computers was not a major part of the Forum’s agenda, Velikhov apparently wanted to show that the Soviets and American foundations could cooperate to do more than talk about possible projects.
We did succeed in meeting jointly with Velikhov and Hamburg to discuss how to break the log jam caused by the Soviet side’s lack of communication facilities (we assumed that the lack of computers was about to end and salary support would not be a problem). Hamburg agreed to provide a few modems for communication from Pereslavl and Sasha’s laboratory if Velikhov would see to it that leased lines were made available. This arrangement took many months to complete, but by summer, communication from Pereslavl became technically possible and a few months later, a leased line was provided at the Institute of Psychology. Closer to home, with help from Vlad Serdiuk and Volodya Teremetsky, who loaned a modem from IAS, Sasha was provided dialup e-mail access from home, increasing our ability to communicate significantly.
We spent most of our time, however, meeting with potential Soviet VelHam partners, including Vlad Serdiuk from IAS, Ailamazian, Vasilii Davydov, then-Director of the Institute of Pedagogical Psychology, and Vitali Rubstov.
Sasha and Alexander even managed to get the various groups to meet together. It was not an easy task; the neutral meeting place was Peg Griffin’s hotel room. Our hope was that a Soviet group could be forged from a combination of Sasha’s lab, Ailamazian’s group and Rubstov (whose research was being conducted in a famous experimental school in Moscow near the IAS building).
The protocols that were signed at the end of these meetings reflect the continuing complexities of arranging actual joint research. Our delegation reiterated its emphasis on organizing the activity of elementary school-aged children using computer software and communications technologies, while the Soviet side reiterated its much broader desire to develop and evaluate specific programming languages and to exchange teaching programs in all manner of disciplinary areas. There was even one item retaining the idea of some interactive TV exchanges, reflecting our continued belief in the telecommunications potential of spacebridges.
It is difficult to assess the effects of this visit. By and large, the problems we faced previously continued to occupy us daily, although their specific form changed. One consequence of the trip seemed to be an expectation of increased resources for potential Soviet partners to be provided by Carnegie; Not long after I returned from Moscow to London, Sasha and Vlad engaged me in a chat via the Source in which Vlad announced that in order for IAS to help with telecommunications, they would need three high level PCs with good graphics and hard discs. When I objected that we seemed to manage communication just fine with low power computers (which did not violate the embargo) Vlad replied that they needed the machines “to look to the future and to see perspectives” but if we could not supply the machines, they would use the promised Corvettes. I wrote that from my perspective the main task was to get local Moscow schools hooked up so that we could get started on the project. Sasha’s reply wasn’t encouraging: “Dear Michael! The schools are beyond our control: they are not regulated by the Academy.”
I called Sasha following this chat (this possibility being a virtue of living in London, since calls from the US were virtually impossible). The news was even less encouraging. In effect, she had lost some control as coordinator of the project because technical matters were now to be decided by Serdiuk and Ailamazian, the Ministry of Education was being uncooperative, and the best we could hope for was to get communication going between the full range of American and Soviet researchers about possible projects.
Over the next few months, we continued to push interactions along the available routes. We spent a lot of time working to promote cooperation on the American side and to develop discussions with Russian counterparts. An inordinate amount of time went into developing a telecommunication structure that both Americans and Russians could use comfortably. In April we heard for the first time from Vitali Rubtsov about his research interests, but when we responded, there was no follow-up. Some mail came from Pereslavl, work continued on technical problems of sending uploads and programs back and forth. On the more ominous side, there were obviously continued conflicts between Sasha and Ailamazian. Most importantly, no substantive work with children was getting done and time was passing.
These difficulties prompted me to write a series of concerned notes to Hamburg and Velikhov, saying, in effect, that the February visit had failed to bring about the needed conditions for successful implementation of the project and that perhaps it was time to cash it in. The asymmetries in participation we had been trying to balance did not seem to be yielding to our attempts to come up with a stable and equitable structure.
Opposition From the Right
During the same period when Velikhov was expanding his horizons to create International Fund as a way of reducing the threat of nuclear war and gaining access to American good will, expertise, and money, segments of the American right wing mounted an attack on the opening up of Soviet-American interaction that was part of the Summit of 1985. On June 29, 1987 Phyllis Shlafly singled out the Carnegie Corporation as the covert agent of forces bent on corrupting the minds of American children by implementing the Summit agreements on exchanges in the area of education. Putting together VelHam’s focus on kids and computers with the Summit agreements on the exchange of textbooks, teachers, and curriculum materials, Shlafly ironically commented
It’s quite a deal: The United States gives its computer technology to the Soviets, and the Soviets give us instructional material to teach American school children….Soviet input into our public school curricula via computers will thus be disseminated nationally into every U.S. school by the techniques of national testing and teacher certification….Carnegie-gate cries out for a fully televised congressional investigation. (Washington Times, 6-29-87, p. 34)
This heady stuff was amplified two weeks later in a paid advertisement in the same paper, that completes many of the links implied by Shlafly’s alarming charges. The advertisement’s headline reads
LISTEN AMERICA, “EDU-GATE” IS BIGGER THAN THE “IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR” AND “WATERGATE COMBINED :
It is the ultimate brainwash of our children, and if allowed to stand, nothing, absolutely nothing, will be worth fighting for.
(Washington Times, 7-17-87)
Edu-gate, we learn, is “the Sovietization (internationalization) of the American classroom.” The ad lchcautobios from Fred Hechinger’s account of our October, 1985 meetings with Velikhov and his colleagues, and goes on to tell readers, “That meeting paved the way for the U.S.-Soviet education agreements signed at the Geneva Summit in November.” The ad goes on to urge readers to write to government officials to put an end to this dangerous activity.
Over the course of the next year, Carnegie received dozens of letters from congressional representatives, which Hamburg answered with a simple statement of the project’s background and aims, with the assurance that “the project is open to public scrutiny and the results of the research will be published in scientific journals.”
Considering the subsequent development of the VelHam project and Soviet-American interactions around issues of curriculum and computers, attacks such as these appear simply comical. At the time these attacks occurred, a year and a half following implementation of the Summit agreements, there had been
no interactions among schoolchildren and precious little serious interaction of any kind, as this narrative indicates. But the attacks did make manifest the continuing suspicion of many Americans about the wisdom of interacting with the Russians. The vulgar identification of internationalism and “Sovietization” found only limited resonance, but fear of the Soviet Union remained a potent force in popular consciousness.
It is worth noting that when I told Sasha about these criticisms she reported a similar phenomenon. People who interacted routinely with Americans were, of course, suspect. But more particularly, an Academy member who worked with Velikhov and a psychologist who was an official in the Ministry of Education asserted that “if we use their pedagogy, our kids will get their ideas.”
In light of the subsequent history of the VelHam project, such fears seem ludicrous. We were not giving away computer technology and the Soviets were not influencing what and how American children learned, other than fear of the USSR. At the time, with the cold war still in a virulent state, these attacks provided a reminder of how important, politically, our emphasis on balance and reciprocity was. They also could have reminded us, if our experience was not making that so clear, that achieving balance and reciprocity were as difficult to achieve as glasnost and perestroika.
The Experiment of Summer 1987
It is entirely possible that the project could have ended in the summer of 1987. But in the middle of these difficulties, Ailamazian wrote to say that he was planning a computer summer camp to which he invited the American VelHam group.
As I have already noted, the VelHam project was but a tiny instrument in Velikhov’s tool kit. It was a small, but scientifically principled, project that he hoped to use to pursue his much broader goals. The proposal to have a summer camp be the venue for a VelHam study provides a good example of how our small project could fit in with these broader plans.
Ailamazian’s institute in Pereslavl was important to Velikhov for many reasons; the main impetus for the camp certainly did not come from VelHam. Velikhov and Ailamazian saw Pereslavl-Zalevesky as a City-of-the-Future, an international center for technological and cultural transformation, much in the spirit of the ideas of the human potential movement with which Velikhov had long and enduring contacts. Had there never been a VelHam project, the summer camp would have occurred anyway. But since there was a VelHam project, and it was this project that could provide scientific legitimacy- the excuse for obtaining leased lines from the Soviet Ministry of Communication and scarce modems – it clearly made sense to combine the two efforts.
Without knowing all of this at the time, we saw the camp as our first real opportunity for joint research. The ensuing negotiations about how to organize joint research using the camp as the occasion revealed a good deal about how difficult it was to conduct the kinds of joint experiments we envisioned, but also the positive kinds of results that could be obtained.
We immediately began to push hard on getting modems to Moscow and Pereslavl, on the assumption that Velikhov would follow through and see to the provision of the lease lines.
It turned out to be quite a complicated business because we were determined to adhere to the letter of American laws concerning technology transfer and our own fancy ideas about reciprocity. First, we had to clear purchase and export of the specific modems recommended by IAS with our Commerce Department. Those modems were manufactured in Finland. We got that clearance. Then we had to get the modems from Helsinki to Moscow. As luck would have it, Sasha was going to Helsinki for a scientific meeting, so we tried to arrange for her carry the modems back to Moscow. But we required written assurance from Velikhov that he would accept responsibility for the modems, which were technically on loan. Velikhov did not manage to get that document to us before Sasha left Helsinki. Instead he had the Academy of Sciences telex the embassy in Helsinki to instruct Sasha to bring the modems back with her. We refused to release the modems without Velikhov’s written guarantee. After we received the needed document from Velikhov, we sent the modems by air express to Sasha and they got to their designated destinations.
Planning for Joint Activity
Even as we wrestled with the problem of providing a few modems to enable a joint experiment involving Ailamazian’s camp, we were facing the problem of how the work should be conducted. Initially we considered the possibility of sending some researchers for face-to-face collaboration. One East Coast researcher was excited enough about the idea to volunteer before any discussion among the American group was even possible. In the event family reasons prevented this person from going, but the offer revealed both the desire of people on the American side to get on with the work and the general tendency to act unilaterally that we had been observing for some months.
After some deliberation, we decided that apart from finding a way for the appropriate American researchers to free up time to go to Pereslavl and to provide the money to get them there, sending American researchers to Pereslavl was not the best way to proceed. Our basic model was to organize joint activity through telecommunications where the actors (children and adults) remained in their own countries. We believed it would be more informative if we organized a small summer camp in the US, brought U.S. researchers together face-to-face at that camp (after all, we had not all met each other, given the distributed nature of the planning), and tried to model in those special and flexible circumstances the kinds of interactions that we might, in the future, organize during the school year.
As we began to make concrete plans for the summer experiment, the difficulties resulting from the way in which Velikhov intertwined VelHam activities with his broad use of international contacts and the human potential movement were much in evidence. At the end of April, following a meeting called by Velikhov to respond to my various concerns and complaints, Sasha informed us that there would be a large contingent of American children attending the camp. She put the matter as follows:
Two days ago I found out that there will be a second camp, next door to, or mixed with the first one—it is still not clear which. The support for this second camp is not academic but very serious. I did not find out about this in time to separate the two activities. EP knew about this in principle and supported it as a way to support Pereslavl, but did not have any idea that this activity came from our friend in San Francisco (reference here is to Joel Shatz). (4/29/87)
Sasha knew that the mixing of the two groups would not be at all to our liking. Without trying to impede other American groups who wished to interact with Russians through person-person diplomacy, we were anxious not to have our own efforts identified with theirs. The reasons for our concern were brought home not long after when Peg received a note from Sarah Michaels in Cambridge which she relayed to Carnegie and me:
Dear Mike and Fritz,
Sarah just called. Evidently Sylvia Weir (Papert’s colleague) was talking with Jerome Wiesner [of MIT] and the conversation turned to the possible strangeness of some of the things Velikhov seemed interested in. One thing that Wiesner thought was that “those San Diego people” were proponents of the parapsychology stuff. Weir tried to tell him no, not us… (5/19/87).
Clearly our efforts were mixed with Esalen’s in the eyes of at least some of our American colleagues.
Some time later Ailamazian appeared on Soviet television in a program about the summer camp. The program featured Russian and foreign children working together on computers at his special camp, fusing the popular desire for exchanges of children with our efforts to arrange for international interaction at a distance through telecommunications. Ailamazian declared that this kind of activity, featuring exchange of children, was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation as part of the Velikhov-Hamburg project. While we continued to struggle against this mixing of sponsors and venues, it was a mixture that never went away because it was deeply embedded in Velikhov’s overall strategy for gaining resources for the computerization of Russian schools and it suited anyone who worked for Velikhov.
In order to assuage our doubts, the Soviet side created a special group within the overall camp setup that included a dozen Russian children. They arranged for members of Sasha’s and Rubtsov’s laboratories to participate so that we could, in good faith, treat the ensuing activities as a reasonable pilot experiment for the VelHam project.
Meanwhile, Peg and the American group made arrangements in San Diego to run a parallel camp. Representatives were sent from each of the East Coast groups and a school was found in a working class, largely Latino, area of San Diego, to host the special activities.
Doing the Work
The two summer camps ran from August 3rd-20th. Peg did most of the planning and supervising of the work in San Diego. She put together a team of undergraduate assistants who had experience working with kids and computers. In addition she got help from our colleague Jerry Balzano, who had done extensive work with LOGO and some help from me. East Coast participants came for various periods of time.
As a way to organize the work of the children, we created a structure involving a set of computer-based activities drawing heavily on software that had already been the object of group discussion. A good deal of this software had been made available to Sasha and Ailamazian during visits the previous year. This was clearly not optimal—we would have liked to include Soviet software—but we had none that ran on computers to which we could gain access. At Pereslavl, by contrast, there were a variety of imported low-end machines that could run American software.
Following a device we had developed in our earlier work with children, we arranged for a Wizard to be the “master of ceremonies” on the American side, and encouraged the Russian side to see if they could locate a proper counterpart, a Volshebnik. The Wizard wrote an introductory message laying out the purpose of the camp, introduced the American children by name, and set a tone of playful engagement. During the camp, the Wizard stimulated children and adults alike with pointed questions about the contents of the games, prodded people to respond to mail addressed to them, answered mail as a temporary intermediary when it appeared that children from either side would be disappointed by silence in response to their messages. During the second week, the Wizard was joined in its work by a Russian Wizard called Volshebnik. In general, these electronically constituted entities maintained the flow of interaction, intrigued the kids, and gave the adults opportunities for playful interaction in the midst of what was otherwise a stressful period of overwork.
The Russian camp ran daily. The camp in the US ran Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. During and after each session, children not only worked locally on the computer activities the adults arranged for them, but engaged in correspondence with the kids in the other country. For the most part the kid-kid correspondence was focused on the games: kids reported on their successes and challenged each other to match various levels of achievement. But kid-kid correspondence quickly went beyond the limits of the games to include exchanges of riddles and poems, comparisons of favorite snacks, and the like. There was also a good deal of written interaction between children and their local wizard entities. The Russians even conducted a small pilot experiment where they arranged for the Volshebnik to be on-line with their children as a way of exploring the potential of computer-mediated communication for organizing children’s educational activity.
A major difficulty was the need to provide rapid translations of the children’s mail. Mail was sent either during the sessions themselves or immediately thereafter. Because of the 11 hour time differential, each side made sure that someone was up early in the morning to receive and translate the mail before the local children gathered for their camp. That was the easy part, because the kid-kid mail was generally of short duration. We also needed to support translation of the correspondence among the adults who needed both to coordinate the children’s activities with their colleagues “over there” and to communicate their analysis of what was going on as the basis for their suggestions about what next to do with the children.
The adult discussions covered a wide range of topics including the strengths and weaknesses of various software packages, the best ways of organizing interactions between the children and particular games, and ways to take advantage of telecommunications to stimulate children’s active engagement in learning and communicating. For example, the Russians expressed what we considered to be quite justified criticisms of the principles underpinning some of the software. Some of these criticisms we had formulated for ourselves and we wrote back about the measures we had taken to circumvent the problems through the use of ancillary tools and procedures in organizing the children’s games. In one case the Russians reformulated the goal of one of the games and opened our eyes to entirely new possibilities contained within it.
The camp lasted too short a time to allow more than a taste of what it would mean to engage the Russian team in sustained, long term, joint research. What is important for the current narrative is that we succeeded, at last, in getting to the actual work. And having arrived there, we found it to be scientifically useful. Most important, we demonstrated our basic thesis for the first time: When properly organized, American and Soviet researchers could cooperate as professionals to address common theoretical and practical problems of computer-mediated education in a way that each side saw as scientifically useful.
Attempting to Follow up on Success
The results of the summer experiment were sufficiently promising to convince Carnegie to scale up the project. It seemed that the right elements were in place. Communication from a site outside of Moscow involving both children and researchers had been achieved. The Russian team now included not only Sasha and her group and Ailamazian and his group, but Vitali Rubstov, who brought high-class pedagogical psychology into the mix. It was clear that important elements remained to be put in place: access to children and the extension of communication facilities in Moscow, for example. But given the fact that we had achieved success with Pereslavl, a small town some distance from Moscow, getting linked to Rubtsov’s experimental school a few blocks from IAS didn’t appear too much of a challenge. As a way of pushing past these remaining barriers, we organized for a subgroup of the American researchers to travel to Moscow and Pereslavl to cement the gains we had made. Joined by Fritz Mosher from Carnegie, a group representing each of the major research locales was organized to make the trip in mid-September. In response to repeated requests from Pereslavl, which was openly interested in extending the project to include possible joint commercial undertakings, we invited a well known expert on the UNIX system to explore the possibilities that such undertakings could be fit under the VelHam umbrella.
As we were getting organized for the trip, we received a rude reminder that the problems of organization and competition for scarce resources on the Soviet side that had hindered the project all year had by no means disappeared. David Hamburg received a letter from Ailamazian, written just as the camp was about to get under way. He proposed Pereslavl as the basic site for the project, and requested Carnegie to provide him with the equipment necessary to create a local area network for two classrooms as the material foundations of the work. Pushing his claim to leadership of the Soviet team, he went to great lengths to see that when the American team came to the USSR they would spend all of their time in Pereslavl.
When we got wind of his plans, we made it clear that while we would be happy to visit Pereslavl, we were not prepared to see him take control of the project, nor would we agree to the visit unless we were provided time in Moscow. Ailamazan backed down, but the overall effect of his efforts was to disrupt the work.
When we arrived in Moscow we were taken straight to Pereslavl from the airport. All three major groups of Russian partners were there: Rubtsov, Sasha’s group, and Ailamazian’s group. We managed to work with some children and to demonstrate the ways in which we modified stand-alone computer games through the introduction of auxiliary tools and social interactions. We attempted to conduct a mini-experiment with colleagues in Cambridge and San Diego to see if we could replicate and extend the procedures used during the summer experiment; we succeeded in making contact with both locations but we achieved only minimal interactions—there was simply too little time to work out the complex timing issues involved in interaction across three different time zones.
We also conducted an experiment in connecting School 91, where Rubtsov had his experimental base; within-country interactions were central to our overall plan and we wanted to demonstrate that they were technically feasible. This attempt also failed, but for a different reason; Ailamazian did not have clearance to send messages from one point to another in Russia! I told Ailamazian to call whatever KGB colonel he needed in order to get permission to make the linkage and promised to create a well publicized scandal if he could not. Meanwhile, Sasha made sure that one of her co-workers sat all day in School 91 until a connection was made. After a long and uncomfortable wait, we made contact with School 91; two Soviet locales could indeed interact through computers, given sufficient political clout. At the same time, it was clear that we had struck a raw nerve in the Soviet system of control.
The remainder of the visit to Pereslavl was taken up with discussion of plans for the coming year. One line of work focused on developing activities around specific software, building on the summer experiment. Ailamazian’s coworkers were excited by the prospect of working with John Muster on UNIX questions. There were also some lively discussions about potential projects involving the use of Seymour Papert’s educational computer language, LOGO.
We had very little time in Moscow. We were able to make a ceremonial visit to School 91, enough to assure ourselves that it would make an ideal research site. We also went to School 45, which specialized in the teaching of English and which had some Apple computers. We managed to demonstrate the way we worked with children while they used some of our educational software. The principal of the school declared his strong desire to participate in the project. We met with a group of cultural-historical psychologists and agreed to start a joint seminar to be coordinated through the computer network on optimal ways to organize children’s learning using computers. We also met Vlad Serdiuk and discussed development of the networking infrastructure in Russia. Vlad told us about the development of a Soviet computer conferencing facility called Adonis, which we agreed to investigate as a potential alternative to The Source.
When we departed for home, we believed that at last the project had arrived at the point where there was a diverse, appropriate, team of Soviet researchers ready and able to carry out joint projects. If such a group could begin actively interacting with the American group that had participated in the summer experiment, our initial goals for an exemplary project had a chance of being realized.
The Struggle for Stability
It did not take us long to realize that despite the warm words and good intentions of our Soviet counterparts, our trip had not succeeded in putting an end to difficulties that had plagued us for the past year. Rather than present a chronicle of the dynamics of interaction over the ensuing year, I will summarize the major areas of activity to indicate the recurrent difficulties that we encountered and the kinds of positive outcome we achieved despite these difficulties. This patchwork of failure and success characterized the work until we instituted a basic reorganization of activities in late 1988.
One of the central problems we faced was the continued failure of Velikhov to come up with funding for the Soviet side. No sooner had we returned home than messages from the USSR made it crystal clear Velikhov was still not in a position to support the activities of the Soviet team with anything more than his name. During our visit, on the assumption that such funding would be made available, Carnegie agreed to provide a small ($25,000) grant to cover special expenses associated with Soviet activities that required the use of foreign currency. It was assumed that this aid would cover international telecommunication costs for linking IAS to Vienna or Helsinki, and a few, low-end computers to enable our Soviet colleagues to run U.S. software. In return, we assumed that they would provide us with a few of the computers on which they ran their own software as a basis for joint activities.
We were back in the US only a few days when we received requests for funds from our Soviet partners. But this did not come as a single request coordinated by Sasha. Instead, individual Soviet nodes made independent requests that were dominated by items we believed to be Velikhov’s responsibility, not Carnegie’s. Rubstov requested salaries for more than a dozen staff including a mathematician and communications expert, as well as a “big free funds” to pay for other help. He also requested support for new communications lines and the equipment to use them. Ailamazian asked for support for five staff members. Vlad asked for several high-end PCs. It was apparent that our willingness to consider a modest level of support to supplement what we assumed was a large contribution on the Soviet side was reinterpreted to mean that Carnegie would support the entire operation in both countries!
Sasha, of course, knew better. But the fact of the matter was that Velikhov was not following through on his promises of support, nor did he seem to have any way to do so. The presumed solutions to this problem were the so-called Open World Laboratory and the Survival Fund. But as our account in Chapter 6 makes clear, this route failed to provide more than a very low level of support, and that little bit was very slow in coming. Months of correspondence ensued. In the Spring of 1988 Carnegie made a grant to fulfill its part of the bargain. That grant secured international communication and a visit from Soviet VelHam participants to UCSD in the summer of 1988. But it did not trigger a reciprocal provision of support in Moscow.
At the end of our Fall 1987 visit we had established the feasibility of hooking up Rubtsov’s laboratory and two Moscow schools. But these linkages were never made. Consequently, in order to participate in the project, Rubtsov had to communicate with Sasha’s lab, where someone had to forward his messages and print out the mail for him. When pilot work was conducted in a school, the same messenger service had to be used. This lack of access was demoralizing for Rubstov and the schools.
Failure to install promised lines or to provide dial-up access to IAS were not the only problems. Even Sasha’s laboratory, which had a leased line, experienced transmission difficulties that would knock them off line for periods of time during which they relied on Vlad Serdiuk to keep the connections alive. Moreover, the preferred technologies used by IAS were changing. As IAS changed its equipment, it required changes in the equipment needed by Soviet users; consequently an inordinate amount of time went into finding ways to get appropriate modems to Sasha, at the same time that we continued to insist that Rubtsov and the schools be provided access.
Problems Coordinating Key Players
Taken together, the failure to provide financial support and telecommunications access on the Soviet side seriously compromised the possibilities of holding together the fragile coalition of Russian and American groups that we had long labored to create. Pereslavl, frustrated in its attempts to take over the project, had little motivation to continue except in the hope that it would eventually be able to use the project to break through to the kind of large-scale entrepreneurial group it was seeking for purposes of a commercial partnership. The main resource it had gained was telecommunications access, which it proceeded to use for its own purposes, having nothing to do with VelHam. Rubtsov received neither financial support nor direct telecommunications access.
Sasha’s group was somewhat better off because the main line of their work was the study of communication and psychological processes and we were certainly gathering a lot of data on that topic! The challenge in her case, aside from deflecting the anger of disappointed colleagues, was to find a way to convert all of this activity into data that could be used for scientific publications, the basic coin of the realm in the Institute of Psychology; she and her colleagues were devoting too much time trying to make VelHam work to be able to conduct parallel research of a more traditional kind and they were too junior to be able to forgo publishing and still survive professionally.
The American participants did not face the same difficulties with respect to access or resources; despite some difficulty in learning to use the telecommunications facilities, they could all do so. But the continued non-participation of Soviet partners was a serious problem. We had insisted that VelHam projects should be developed, from the beginning, as joint projects, agreed to by those who participated. Our temporary expedient of having the American group work at creating and piloting joint projects was sufficient at the beginning of 1987, but by the end of the year it had worn exceedingly thin.
One response was for a particular American participant to seek contact with a Russian partner outside the project. For example, in December, 1987 Sylvia Weir returned to Moscow with Seymour Papert to explore the possibilities of a project involving the Shkola group focused on the implementation of Papert’s ideas about the creation of mathematical cultures in schools. Such initiatives were perfectly understandable and legitimate taken on their own merits; Papert is a major figure in the field and he was attracted to the idea of setting up a parallel to the school he had set up in the Boston area which made intensive use of computers and LOGO as a basis for instruction. But such efforts sewed confusion about how our project related to other projects involving kids, computers, and education. Confusion was exacerbated because of the historical overlap between the Shkola group and VelHam and a fashion among Soviet scholars involved in such activities to give their projects fancy-sounding Greek names. For several months, the Shkola group involved with Papert and Sasha’s group both used the name “Omega” to refer to themselves. Both were supported, at least morally, by Velikhov. They used the same schools as their bases of operations. As a consequence, there was total confusion on the Soviet side about who was who.
Given the lack of support from Velikhov, it is hardly surprising that the Soviet members of VelHam also sought to cut their own deals with foreign partners who would be more forthcoming with financial support than Carnegie. Ailamazian, for example, cultivated extensive contacts with potential foreign partners, and in this he was supported by Velikhov. These efforts were closely connected with Velikhov’s ongoing involvement with the American human potential movement as well as people interested in promoting international contacts in many other countries. The Italian children who attended the summer camp in 1987 were accompanied by a sizeable set of Olivetti computers, and subsequent camps involving the participation of foreign children also brought him foreign computers.
Rubtsov and even members of Sasha’s research group also sought to make useful contacts with potential foreign partners. These efforts did not interfere with VelHam activities because little came of them until several years later.
Continued Presence of the Human Potential Movement
Another source of difficulty in our efforts to organize VelHam as a distinctive form of scientific cooperation was the continuing overlap of our efforts with the broad movement of ordinary citizens to find a way out of the dangerous confrontation of the US and USSR. The major mediators of these activities were Joel Shatz and his colleagues at the Arc Foundation who continued to develop their collaboration with IAS and to promote exchange activities. A note forwarded to us by Pedro Pedraza in early January, 1988 indicates just how closely connected such efforts were to Velikhov, and hence, to VelHam:
Mr. Yuri Kobzev, Director
Moscow City Pioneer and School Children Palace
Ulitsa Kosigin, 17
Dear Mr. Kobzev;
We enjoyed meeting with you in October and are excited about the computer link with the Pioneer Palace which we discussed with you and Mrs. Velikhov.
Since returning to Minnesota, we have continued to work with McGraw-Hill on the project. We are pleased to be able to tell you that we can move quickly if this is possible for the computer staff at the Pioneer Palace.
We are working with Joel Shatz, Director, San Francisco/ Moscow Teleport (SFMT) who will arrange the communication link through VNIIPAS (IAS). SFMT electronic mail accounts in Moscow now include Space Research Institute, Ministry of Health, Union of Designers, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Mir Publishers, Novosti Press, Peace Committee, Sovinfilm, Cultural Fund, Foundation for Survival, and Institute of Automated Systems. Once you are connected, you will be able to communicate via SFMT with these Soviet agencies as well as with McGraw-Hill. He have asked SFMT to make arrangements for the link between Pioneer Palace and McGraw-Hill.
… SFMT will connect a special computer modem to the IBM computer at the Pioneer Palace. If, for some reason, your computer does not work, we will bring a computer with us in the Spring… Please respond via Sergei Alexandrov at Novosti, who is on-line with us every day…
This message, signed by Susan Hartman and Paula DeCosse from an organization called Connect/US-USSR, was accompanied by two responses from Joel Shatz. The first included, among other things, the news that “Mrs. Velikhov will be visiting with us in California in early January, and I will discuss the [Pioneer Palace] project personally with her at that time.” The second reported that “I received a call from Velikhov this morning. He is in DC for the summit. Among other things I told him about developments with Pioneer Palace/ McGraw-Hill project. He was delighted.”
These messages provide a different perspective on the way in which VelHam activities continued to be part of the larger flow of citizen-citizen “third track” diplomacy that mixed popular desires to lessen the threat of thermonuclear war, business, and technology. Within Moscow our efforts to organize research were virtually impossible to distinguish from the broader efforts at establishing kid-kid contacts. Many people claimed to be the “real” representatives of Velikhov in this effort—and not without justification. But the confusion existed on the US side as well, and extended right into the American academic exchange program.
In May, 1988, at the instigation of Carnegie and IREX, a meeting was held at the American National Academy of Sciences to review the state of Soviet-American scientific communication. Although invited to the meeting, Shatz could not make it. The meeting ended inconclusively; the main sense of the participants was that they understood very little of what was going on and that extreme caution was needed in developing telecommunications ties. Discussion of these issues continued for a long time thereafter, with no clear resolution. The main effect of this uncertainty for VelHam was to maintain the high noise level within which we worked.
Despite all of the discoordination, delays, and discouragement entailed by the difficulties I have enumerated, some of the hoped-for work of VelHam did get accomplished. There were many instances of genuinely interesting academic exchanges—enough to sustain us in the belief that our goal of a stable working relationship involving the groups of researchers in each country was, so to speak, just around the corner. A few examples give the flavor of these efforts.
In the winter of 1987-1988 a seminar attended by a group of well known, Moscow-based cultural-historical psychologists met regularly to discuss the question of organizing new forms of educational activity for elementary school children using computers. We arranged for a parallel face-to-face seminar to run at LCHC and invited all the American participants to join the discussion. A broad variety of topics were raised and discussed. These included:
- Davydov’s ideas concerning the development of mathematical concept formation, in particular, his efforts to minimize the gap between arithmetic and algebra and his ideas about measurement. Here we were able to draw upon translations of Davydov’s work, which were distributed to each American group. This discussion was directly relevant to an attempt led by the Cambridge group to get the study of measurement on the table as a joint VelHam project.
- Competing ideas about how to conceive of educational activity.
Here we involved our Finnish colleague, Yrjo Engeström who was visiting UCSD at the time. Engeström’s work evoked considerable interest from Davydov and Rubstov, who obtained a copy for translation into Russian.
- Optimal ways to arrange for the social organization of instruction.
Here the exchanges focused on the Vygotskian concept of a zone of proximal development which had become one of the major shared conceptual tools of Russian and American developmental psychologists at the time.
- The methodological problems of employing cross-cultural methods in the study of education and development.
- The Russian distinction between spontaneous and scientific concepts.
The American group was strongly disposed to “start where the child is,” while the Soviet group was more likely to see everyday concepts as a potential impediment to the development of scientific concepts.
- Methods for organizing the division of labor among children engaged in a cooperative task that promoted their conceptual development through the need to communicate how their part of the problem fit into the whole.
This was a specialty of Rubtsov, who pointed us to prior work in this area and expressed his optimism about the power of computer-mediated educational activity to amplify this potential in joint activity.
This work evoked not only Soviet-American discussion, but discussion among the Americans. Unfortunately, after a few months, Russian participation decreased, with the exception of Rubtsov, who continued to interact as a regular member of the Soviet VelHam group. Long-term coordination of the Moscow group proved too costly in terms of time. It proved impossible to provide any of the participants with direct access to e-mail so replies had to be distributed by Sasha’s group, which entailed delays and discoordination. As a capstone exercise, we arranged to hold a live chat from a meeting of the American National Academy of Education with the Soviet participants, but Davydov, who had just been elected a foreign member of the Academy, did not make it to the chat owing to local teaching obligations.
Serious work following up on the summer 1987 summer camp experience also continued during 1988. Topics included:
- The use of LOGO both as a medium for teaching elementary programming skills and as an interesting way for teaching basic concepts in mathematics and measurement. This effort involved members of Ailamazian’s group as well as American researchers in Cambridge, San Diego, and New York. A special effort was made to work collaboratively on a programming environment called “Robotland” developed by a scholar working in Pereslavl. Rubtsov agreed to investigate this program and several American partners worked hard to create a version that would run on machines available in the USA.
- Work continued on Judah Schwartz’s “Geometric Supposer” software. A Soviet scholar from outside the VelHam collective showed an interest in this software, and efforts were made to facilitate his interaction with Schwartz.
- Americans in San Diego and New York worked with Vlad to create ways to code Cyrillic text so that it could be sent through the network and to work out the procedures necessary to use ADONIS as a networking medium.
- Analysis of other software packages developed during the summer camp continued. Cambridge and San Diego worked primarily with Sasha’s group on these games, with sporadic participation from Pereslavl. Work on Pond seemed particularly promising. Eventually the joint critical analysis of this program led to involvement of the Sunburst Corporation as a partner in the project. In the Fall of 1988 a group from Sunburst accompanied by Peg Griffin and Ric Ricard (who had worked with the project in New York) went to Moscow and designed a revised version of
Pond that circumvented some of the difficulties turned up by our prior analysis and built in new potentials for two children to play the game “simultaneously,” to take advantage of potential divisions of labor, following the ideas of Rubstov.
The End of an Era: The Perestroika of VelHam
As early as the summer of 1988 it was clear that we were not going to be able to rid ourselves of the problems that constantly undermined our efforts at creating a stable, collaborative structure.
Two years had passed since the Ailamazian/Shkola delegation had visited the US and we had identified likely American participants. Except for summer times, when the American side could not depend on using its existing institutional arrangements to work with children, requiring us to put on special, short-term efforts, no regular access to Soviet children had been provided. No telecommunications access had been provided for Rubtsov or to any existing school. No money had been provided by Velikhov to pay for the added time required of Soviet scholars to participate. Our strategy for organizing the American side of the project as a confederation of existing research programs in which VelHam activity could be piggy-backed on existing high visibility research projects was not working. The level of coordination required could not be achieved. Moreover, it was not clear what could succeed given the inability of the Soviet side to provide matching resources. This situation played havoc on the American side, where people were asked to be constantly ready to engage Russian partners who never fully materialized. We either had to give up on the idea of VelHam entirely, or we had to come up with a more modest structure that could be supported on both sides.
From Planning and Theory to Theory and Practice
By the middle of 1988 it was becoming clear that we could not continue the project in its current form. Our strategy for organizing the project as a confederation of existing research programs in which VelHam activity could be piggy backed on existing high visibility research projects was not working. The level of coordination required could not be achieved. Moreover, it was not clear what could succeed given the inability of the Soviet side to provide matching resources.
In July, 1988 we gave the original strategy a last chance. We invited our existing partners from the USSR and a modified roster of potential U.S. partners to UCSD. The Soviet participants were Ailamazian, Vlad, Rubtsov, Leonid Milgram (the principal of School #41 who had extensive contact with Americans interested in school-school interaction) and two members of Sasha’s laboratory. Vlad did not make the trip.
We sought American partners who might, as an ensemble, be able to work productively with the Russian ensemble. Ailamazian was firmly focused on a project that combined programming skill and pedagogical knowledge to make new, commercially viable, educational products. So, we involved The Sunburst Corporation, an educational software producer. We tried hard to engage Rubtsov, bringing into the group a young colleague from UC Berkeley who was applying Davydov’s ideas in his math classroom. We sought to satisfy the Soviets’ desire for more science and computer expertise by including Andy Di Sessa and Alan Schoenfeld, distinguished researchers from UC Berkeley.
These efforts came to little. Following his return to Pereslavl, Ailamazian’s group ceased regular interaction with the rest of VelHam. The only remaining evidence of his formal membership was that the account we provided him on our satellite-mediated conferencing system was used with some frequency. But we had no idea who he was writing to since it did not include us. For a while it appeared that a Logo-like project begun in Pereslavl would survive as part of the project because Rubtsov indicated an interest in it, but by November Rubtsov also withdrew from the project. He had never received communications facilities nor had he any lingering hopes that he would be able to use the project to get substantial financial support and equipment for his laboratory. The overhead of continued participation was simply too high. For a while we continued to work with Milgram’s school. But again, no communication facilities could be obtained for the school and no money was forthcoming for supportive staff, so this effort was eventually abandoned. These failures rendered moot the willingness of our Berkeley colleagues to contribute to the project.
In the early Fall of 1988 Sasha proposed a way to achieve the original goals of the project using resources at her disposal, without the need to depend crucially on the good will of other organizations. She would create an afterschool club, similar to clubs that we had been running at LCHC for several years. For the system to work, these clubs would need to be located where the children had access to telecommunications. There were two such locations available in the Fall of 1988: The Comlab at the Institute of Psychology and her own living room. Using these two communication points as a “secure base” she could continue attempting to find additional partners, but not have to depend upon them in order for the project to work.
Although I did not like a turn of events where LCHC was converted from a guarantor of interaction and coordinator of American sites into a direct “service provider,” Sasha’s suggestion appeared to provide the only hope of demonstrating the possibility of cooperative interaction. We were adept at running specially organized computer activities for kids, so in this sense the suggestion was right up our alley. But we could not operate totally on our own since one of the basic design principles we had built into the work was the need for at least two geographically distinct sites within each country to allow both within and between site communication in the overall system. Pedro Pedraza and Seth Chaiklin in New York elected to stay in the project, using their afterschool club in East Harlem as a site. I also invited Gillian McNamee at the Erikson Institute in Chicago and Katherine King at the University of New Orleans to join the project. Gill was already running activities in a community afterschool program and Katie had gained extensive experience running such activities as a graduate student in my Laboratory.
Beginning in the Fall of 1988 regular, coordinated work involving multiple groups of children and their adult facilitator/researchers in both countries became the basis for VelHam work. I will focus in this chapter on the research we did with children because it constituted the basic goal of the project we formulated in 1985. Successful completion of this work brought the first broad stage of the VelHam project to an end while “setting the stage” for the next.
A Common Medium: The Fifth Dimension Activity System
As part of her plan for reorganizing the project in a manner she could plausibly stand behind, Sasha suggested that we use a form of activity that she had observed us using in our research at UCSD that we called The 5th Dimension (hereafter 5thD). The 5thD was invented as a way to engage elementary school-aged children in educational activities during the afterschool hours. These activities were organized around computer games and telecommunications, in a manner designed to make them fun for kids—fun enough to compete with all the other activities they have to choose among. The level of technology used in these systems is comparatively low; because they are designed for use in community settings which depend largely on local donations for their staff and equipment, the activities can be carried out on a wide variety of inexpensive, often cast-off computers. LCHC research had shown that a wide spectrum of American children willingly engaged in such activities.
The 5thD had some obvious virtues for the project considering its circumstances in the USSR where the most Sasha could hope for by way of computers had to be gleaned from those that Velikhov had repeatedly promised plus the few that could be provided from Carnegie. It also had the virtue for me of being fully funded at UCSD, so I really could piggy back VelHam work on the facilities and staff already in place. In fact, adding Moscow to my local 5thD activities provided a bit of exotica that made the 5thD even more attractive to my local community than it might otherwise have been.
Figure 1 provides an overview of a generic 5thD in its institutional context (a children’s club, a church, a school computer room after school, etc.). The central coordinating artifact of the activity is shown at the top of the figure in the form of a cardboard maze approximately one square meter in area divided into 20 or so “rooms” connected by doorways. Each room gives access to two activities. About 3/4 of these activities are instantiated as computer programs that include computer games and educational software, some of which also have game-like qualities; the remainder are non-computer activities that include board games, arts and crafts, and physical exercise. A typical 5thD has a variety of computers arrayed around the edges of the room, one of which is linked to telecommunications, a variety of auxiliary artifacts (logs of the children’s accomplishments, books with hints about how to play the games, etc.).
According to the rules of the 5thD (enshrined in a Constitution which each child receives upon entering the activity system) children make progress through the maze by achieving mastery of the games. In order to achieve the goals of the 5thD while playing the games, children and their adult helpers consult a game card that indicates how that game is to be played in this activity setting. These game cards provide auxiliary tools that make it possible to introduce educational elements into otherwise non-educational software or to make overly didactic software more fun.
To enhance the playful aspects of the activity, the rules of the 5thD provide for a variety of goals, designed to appeal to a variety of children, in addition to whatever attractiveness is provided by the games themselves. For example, every child is given a very plain looking token figurine upon entering the 5thD. By traversing a path which takes them in one door and out another, they may “transform their cruddy creature” and obtain a more desirable figurine. Or, they may choose to complete all of the rooms in the maze, thereby attaining expert status and access to new activities.
Every 5thD has a creation myth in which it is claimed that a wizard-like creature created the activity for the pleasure and edification of children and adults, and as a way to introduce them into the world of new information technologies. In the life-world of the 5thD, the Wizard is known as the ultimate authority. The Constitution of the 5thD was created by the Wizard. This Constitution can be amended, but only through discussion with the Wizard. However, the Wizard can be contacted only through computer-mediated telecommunications either in the form of electronic mail or a live chat. The children write to the Wizard as part of their activities with the games and the Wizard writes to the children, encouraging them when they are having difficulty and chiding them when they behave antisocially or perform below their abilities. The participants debate the real nature of the Wizard and how to evaluate it. The Wizard is especially helpful in making and maintaining contacts with children in other geographical locales, whose local schedules often make continuity of interaction a problem. At the same time, the Wizard rarely provides adequate facilities; when programs stop working, a rule seems unfair, or computers break, the Wizard comes in for a lot of complaints.
The Wizard is an essential tool in reordering power relations between adults and children in the 5thD. This rearrangement comes about in part because when conflicts arise in the 5thD adults need not confront children directly since it is the Wizard, not the human participants, who has the power to adjudicate disputes. In such cases, adults as well as children must write to the Wizard to decide how matters should proceed. It is also important that by subordinating themselves to the Wizard the adults can collude with the children in the pretension of the Wizard’s existence and thereby play with the child. Finally, since computer technology is not especially reliable and programs or computers often fail to work, adults can off-load responsibility onto the Wizard at strategic moments, a possibility that has endeared the Wizard to all adults who have worked in the 5thD.
Overall, the 5thD is organized as a loosely coupled set of game-like activities that can be ordered and reordered flexibly in a great variety of ways to meet local contingencies. Its overall structure is designed not only to provide dense practice in specific academic content areas, but to do so in such a way that direct involvement with the games and their associated knowledge domains was coupled with the need and desire to communicate about the activities to others. This emphasis on communication has a strong foundation in developmental-psychological theory, particularly the kind of theory promulgated by Vygotsky and other Russian cultural-historical psychologists.
When children stop what they are doing to formulate what they are doing for someone else in words, they must pull back from their intense “figurative” involvement in the game-like tasks of the 5thD. Theoretically, this moment when personal sense is converted into culturally acceptable meanings, is a key opportunity for concept development. According to a well known formulation of Vygotsky’s, “the thought is completed in the word”: by arranging repeatedly for children to “complete their thoughts” in writing, we believed we were creating repeated opportunities for concept formation to occur.
The 5th Dimension in VelHam
In the Fall of 1988 Sasha created a small computer club in her living room. She had only a few computers, but she had access to telecommunications and the computers were sufficient to run several software packages that had been the object of prior joint work and which continued to be of interest to both sides. The initial group of 7-10 year old children were the sons and daughters of people associated with the project and Sasha’s acquaintances at the Kurchatov Institute. They included Velikhov’s two sons, Volodya Teremetsky’s two sons, the daughter and niece of a Kurchatov physicist, and two additional children of local friends.
For a few months this group met weekly. The children played the games and wrote some initial message about them to American children in San Diego and New York. Initially there was not much structure to this activity but in November Peg Griffin and Ric Ricard went to Moscow to work with the Soviet group and to introduce the idea of the 5thD. They took along with them two sets of photographs that American children in San Diego had prepared to convey the nature of their 5thDs. Each set of photographs, which included pictures of the children, had been arranged by the American children in a specially constructed collage. One set of pictures was organized according to a computer keyboard, the other in concentric circles that began with pictures of the town, the club, and the 5thD, with a picture of the maze in the center. Peg brought with her a schematic list of the two sets of photos and worked with the Soviet children to help them reconstruct how the sites in the US worked and to get some idea about the children with whom they would be interacting.
Eventually this living room club was moved to a nearby youth club associated with the Kurchatov Institute where it occupied a small room of its own. The youth club served as the headquarters from which Velikhov and his wife could coordinate a variety of citizen-citizen exchanges involving children, of the sort involved in the summer camps that Ailamazian ran. The club received several computers from abroad, a few of which Sasha was able to sequester for use by the children in her “VelHam Club.”
Later in the year she opened a second computer club at her laboratory in the Institute of Psychology. Each club had its own staff and Wizard (Volshebnik) and each developed its own, local, culture.
During the first year of reorganized activity, the counterpart sites in the US were Casita Maria in New York, the daycare center run by Gill McNamee in Chicago, and the youth center and library run by LCHC. The next year Casita Maria was replaced by the afterschool center run by Katie King in New Orleans. These centers all ran versions of the generic 5thD one or more days a week. From time to time special activities were created by the group in order to experiment with the limits of children’s cross-site activities.
For the next two years, this reconstituted project implemented the initially stated goals of the VelHam project. We carried out a series of studies focused on the children’s computer-mediated educational activities and the use of telecommunications to amplify the educational potential of the local interactions. In the sections to follow, I describe a few of the specific subprojects we conducted. Each example illustrates a different feature of the work and its achievements.
§ Realizing the Potential in an Existing Computer Program: Island Survivors
Laura Martin suggested that VelHam investigate the software package called Island Survivors (IS) in the Fall of 1986 during the visit by Ailamazian and others to the US. She and her colleagues at the Bank Street College of Education were involved in research on this program and they were interested in participating in the VelHam project, so it seemed like a productive suggestion.
Although created to accompany the educational TV program, Voyage of the Mimi, IS showed promise for use quite apart from the TV program. The program is implemented as a game in which three characters are stranded on an island and must survive. Learning to survive requires the acquisition of various psychomotor skills such as fishing, hunting, and gathering plants and the more complex conceptual abilities needed to understand and work within a reasonably complex ecological system. Subparts of the game involved creating different ecological systems and reading graphs of the state of the system in addition to mastering the psychomotor skills necessary to the task of surviving.
By the Fall of 1988, all of the participants in VelHam had accumulated experience with the game and the way children could interact with it. There had also been a good deal of discussion about the software. But this extended discussion had not resulted in agreement on a specific program of research.
§ The Rough Road From Talk to Action
A new round of planning for joint research on Island Survivors began. It was assigned the conference name, COMIMECO (symbolizing communication, the Mimi program, and the problematic of ecology). This conference became the “communicative space” for deciding on, and implementing, a collaborative research plan. In addition, comments and ideas about Island Survivors appeared in notes in other Conferences where participants discussed general theoretical issues, problems associated with file sharing, and the overall mix of software that they wanted to implement at their clubs.
I will discuss the new stage of work on Island Survivors, which began with a note sent on August 30, 1988, in some detail because it illustrates both the difficulty of arriving at an adequate level of agreement about specific goals and the range of technical difficulties that had to be overcome even after specific joint activities were agreed to be characteristic of the project as a whole.
Ric Ricard initiated renewed work on the program when he posted a brief summary of the previous relevant discussions:
To date I understand that there are two approaches to the usefulness of IS: 1.) Island Survivors provides us with the opportunity to study communication patterns that arise between different configurations of participants. For example experts and novices, adults and children, wizards and normal humans, whole classrooms and dyads etc. 2.) Island Survivors provides us with the opportunity to understand something about the way children learn to appreciate principles of ecology. Ecology both in the sense taught by text books about jungles as well as more generalized ecological principles such as surviving in the city of New York. I hope that the fall work can consolidate these two approaches. I think one positive step in that direction is to specify what principles we want to focus on.
Subsequent messages sought to concretize plans by specifying how children’s interactions involving the program and each other should be organized to maximize the program’s usefulness in the absence of an accompanying TV program. It was a common observation of the prior research that if left to follow the program’s menu, children often created trivially easy games for themselves (e.g., a rich ecology with few demands) after which they lost interest in the game.
To counter this shortcoming, Peg Griffin used the authoring potential of the program (heretofore taken for granted by the group) to create three partially completed versions of the games. Each game and their sequence was arranged to maximize the likelihood that the children would come in contact with, and master, key concepts essential to ecological systems thinking. In the second game, for example, it was arranged that a mischievous character had decimated the fish population, denying children the easiest route to food and upsetting the ecological balance on the island. Peg proposed that different sites investigate the usefulness of these partially complete games.
A variety of other potential foci for research were considered. The group at Casita Maria was interested in Island Survivors, but they focused on pointing to analogies between problems that arise in the game and problems that arise in the everyday lives of children surviving in East Harlem. A number of the participants were interested in the communicative and cognitive potential in what came to be called “the imaginary third player” which arises when two children play Island Survivors together because the game includes three players. There was also a lively discussion about the mathematical model behind the game.
Given all of these differing interests, as well as the problems of translation and interpretation intrinsic to the communicative conditions of the project, it was entirely natural that the discussion would give rise to difficulties moving from theory to actual practice. The following exchange provides an example of the types of difficulties that arose in arriving at an adequate level of common understanding.
From Galya (9/26): I agree with you [Seth and Pedro] that it is important to come to a clear agreement about the general outline of our activities I am interested as well as your team in the idea ‘city survivors’. And so I would like to say a few worlds about ‘surviving’. The word ‘surviving’ has become one of the key words in international relations. We could regard this concept as a spiritual essence of IS experiment. I propose to concentrate our efforts on the comparative psychological analysis of the semantic field of the concept of ‘surviving’ in the different cultures. How do children come to the concrete personal sense of the abstract concept ‘surviving of humanity’?
From Casita Maria (9/29): Galya, you raise an interesting issue about ‘surviving’ in international relations. Your proposal about doing a comparative psychological analysis of the semantic field of ‘surviving’ sounds interesting, and we are wondering if you could imagine including some ethnographic case studies of two or three children as part of developing this comparative analysis? As you suggest, let’s try to get a common understanding (at last) and then we can turn to the methodological questions.
From Casita Maria (10/6): In your message, Galya, you wrote that ‘We could regard this concept [surviving] as the spiritual essence of the IS-experiment.’ However, as you can see from my previous message #73, the spiritual essence for Pedro and Seth is something like “How can we help children develop a theoretical understanding of the material conditions within which they live?’ Now I am very pleased to notice that you too are talking about moving from the concrete personal experience to an abstract concept of ‘surviving of humanity.’ Although our specific theoretical interests are different, I do not see that they are incompatible. It just requires that we make an extra effort to be very clear about our intentions. It is extremely difficult to do with this form because it is easy to forget that we are working with different orienting horizons.
From Galya (10/18): In connection with the above mentioned, it should be noted that we do not at all expect to consider investigating the semantic field of the word ‘survival’, as the central focus of our experiment. This impression of the goals is the result of a misunderstanding. The study of this aspect as one of the joint aspects of comparative analysis is possible in the framework of the project only given the mutual consent of the partners, for instance in the case where we also, just like our partners from CM, decide to study the aspect of survival in the city.
These theoretical discussions continued, but a crucial new element had entered the picture because Sasha had at this time formed a children’s computer club in her living room. These children had played IS, they had written to American children about IS, and they were waiting for an answer. On October 10th, I sent the following, unusually directive, note to the conference.
While discussions proceed on the various plans for IS activities we face the necessity of organizing joint activity NOW, since the children in the VelHam Club are expecting to hear from children in Solana Beach about it and we do not want their interactions to be trivial. Here is a concrete plan for the short-run which should not interfere with any long-run plans, but might serve as a basis for some kind of experiment. We will upload the task card specifying children’s activities in IS that are part of the Solana Beach (SB) 5th Dimensions. The basic strategy in this work is to present the children with partially completed games they must complete. As a means of closer coordination, we propose to create share uploads on the source so that children in different locations can start with the exact same partially completed games.
Easier said than done! There were two problems with my plan. First of all, we ran afoul of the limitations of the telecommunications system through which we were working: We could not upload partially completed games to the VelHam Conference in such a manner that they remained uncorrupted for others to download. For two months the staffs at LCHC and COMLAB wrestled with this problem, displaying an excellent ability to cooperate in applying their problem solving expertise. But actual sharing of games required that we physically transport diskettes from one site to another. Second, there was by no means universal agreement about the idea of using partially constructed games as the foundation for joint activity. The Chicago site was happy just to get their kids excited about the topic of ecology and doing some reading and writing. Our colleagues at Casita Maria were not at all interested in this approach.
At this point, children at all of the sites had been engaged with Island Survivors in some manner and we had accumulated a fair number of written messages about their work. But we had not made provisions for their letters to arrive at other destinations in a manner that might instigate, let alone sustain actual interchange involving ecological concepts. Distressed with this state of affairs, I urged all the participants to orient to the problem of kid-kid communication by posting a message from a child. Following this “let’s get on with it” initiative, the flow of child mail about Island Survivors began to increase. Several more children’s letters were posted and on February 15, 1989 we created a conference called SURVIVING for children’s mail about Island Survivors. At first many of the children’s notes were actually forwarded messages that had originally been written as part of the local activity or as a note to the local Wizard. This pump priming seemed to work.
When actual kid-kid interactions about Island Survivors began to flow, the interactions became a focus of adult research activity. We found that the content of the children’s communications served as a resource for the researchers, suggesting avenues of discussion and further development.
The flow of the children’s communication during the next month was quite high. A note from School 45 on February 27th stimulated many responses from Chicago and New York. For example, Nessa in Chicago wrote to the Wizard, “I got too much fish and it spoiled. You told us not to do that but I forgot. And next time I play the game I will follow your directions.” Children in New York offered various kinds of advice such as “Make sure you don’t pick the crayfish and don’t pick the bear.” Scott and Kevin from San Diego wrote that there are only two bears so that if they had fished more “they probably would have lived.” One week later, these two boys received a response from Damien in New York who corrected them, writing “I think you need a little bit of help, like you can so pick more than two bears. And I would like to warn you that if you pick too much food it will get spoiled.” He added his hope that “you use my hints correctly.” In March, three girls from New York responded to kids in Chicago, writing that “We took your advice. Thanks to you we won. We are so proud to be your friends.”
During this period when the first kid-kid mail interactions become a focus of attention, the interactions among the adults also become better coordinated. Cooperation in keeping the mail flowing became a leading topic. Other messages during this period of high activity include fieldnotes about activities at the various sites, observations about how children’s mail from afar is received at the various locales and some mediation of the children’s messages by the Wizard, especially in the spontaneous development of the topic of “expert” players and other sorts of bragging.
Over the Easter break this phase of joint activity came to a halt. When interaction resumed, it was in the form of a note from Casita Maria describing a discussion with their children “about what was different between surviving on the island and surviving in the city.” This note was accompanied by a specially designed chart that children could use to help them keep straight the factors involved in surviving in the two locales. Other sites welcomed this initiative. Everyone seemed to agree that this comparative exercise was both a good vehicle for concept development and that it could easily be assimilated at the various locales.
Despite our enthusiasm, there followed a period of uncertainty about how specifically to implement Casita’s new initiative. We at LCHC introduced the task into our local 5thDs and posted an example of a child’s work using Casita Maria’s comparison chart along with a fieldnote from an undergraduate who had worked with the child in the hopes that other sites would be able to build on our next step. But Casita Maria found the notes insufficient, reporting that “The fieldnotes about Touradj do not give any sense of the form of his reasoning. We don’t know how to make a joint plan when we don’t understand what you would like to accomplish.” I did not take kindly to their reticence this far into a project in which the value of interaction around concepts communicated in writing was, I thought, agreed upon. A rather sharp exchange in which LCHC and Casita Maria sought to resolve their differences followed.
A year earlier, this kind of disagreement would have been enough to sidetrack the entire enterprise, but fortunately the researchers at COMLAB did not get caught up in the intra-American discussion. They went ahead to provide a next step on their own. They posted the results of two “debates” they had organized among their children about the relative merits of island and city living, along with fieldnotes about the discussion and a summary chart. The COMLAB messages were used at the 5thD site in San Diego, just as if they were the usual intersite letter.
This summary note produced a good deal of intersite writing. It also produced an unanticipated outcome. UCSD students (adult helpers at site) who saw the fieldnotes about the Soviet children’s discussion mistook it for a letter from the children themselves. They were quite impressed by its organization and the high level of sophistication that the Soviet children achieved in their discussion. One student interpreted references to flora and fauna, a planned economy and “spiritual development” as propaganda. Other students thought they had encountered a “gap” in the level sophistication of the Soviet and American kids and decided that it was their responsibility to do something about it. There followed a marked change in the way the students interacted with the children around Island Survivors. They played Island Survivors with the children as usual, followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of island and city dwelling. The chart was filled out and a letter was written to the Soviet children. But the level of involvement of the students increased markedly, to the point where some of the UCSD students working with the children re-wrote the children’s letter in neat, outline form, so that it surpassed the sophistication of the message from Moscow. According to their fieldnotes, they even polished up the message, adding a few things that the kids didn’t “actually say,” but were “driving at.”
§ Lessons Learned
The difficulties we experienced in coordinating the Island Survivors project, despite the high level involvement of several sites, combined with the relative success of this effort compared with the accomplishments of prior years provided us with a lot of lessons. First, the difficulties impressed on us once again the great importance of local contingencies in making possible or blocking the formation of common goals across institutional boundaries. At Casita Maria Island Survivors was an element in a quite different system of activity than at LCHC, Comlab in Moscow, or Erikson Institute in Chicago. In addition, Casita Maria did not consider intersite coordination among the children an important goal. Nonetheless, in their good faith efforts to coordinate, Casita Maria provided the occasion for the most intense and sustained implementation of joint activity and kid-kid communication using Island Survivors.
Second, this work made clear the important influence of the fact that there were actually Soviet kids participating in a special club that had computers and communication as its focus on the interactions on the U.S. side. The U.S. researchers, forced to subordinate their differences to the overall commitment to interact with the Soviets, found positive grounds for interaction.
Third, the process of interaction was genuinely creative. Some of this creativity was produced by the children, some by the researchers. The overall outcome was the production of educationally rich experiences for children that were simultaneously informative about the possibilities and limitations of computer-mediated joint activities for the adults.
Fourth, not all of this creativity could be celebrated. As had occurred in response to the Soviet children in the spacebridge in 1983, the American adults reacted with feelings of envy and competition to the formal rhetorical style of the Soviet children (mediated through Soviet adults). The Americans created the myth of the advanced Soviet child, and were motivated to change their orientation to their work with American kids in a manner that more or less deliberately misrepresented the children’s voices.
Fifth, it became clear that despite all of the difficulties, interesting joint scholarly activity around a common research object involving kids, computers, and communication was possible between hostile countries.
Criticizing and Re-Creating an Existing Software Package
In the course of our earlier work with children in the 5thD we made use of a variety of educational software programs created by the Sunburst Corporation. A general characteristic of these programs was their attempt to combine accepted pedagogical theory with game-like embodiments thus mixing the leading activities of play and teaching/learning. The computer program was supplemented by a booklet which explicitly indicated how the different aspects of the program related to possible educational goals. Many of these software packages won recognition as exemplary educational software. A program called Pond was among these programs and it became our test case for creating a new piece of software in conjunction with a for-profit company. Griffin et al, 1992, p. 271-273 provide a succinct description of the program:
The Pond is expected to be used by 10 yr. olds, learning the task by working separately with a computer, and it appears to be quite appealing to them, but also difficult for most of them. An engaging frog hops from a beginning lily pad to an ending one (marked with a different color). If given the wrong directions, it splashes into the pond water or balks at leaping to the surrounding grass. In the first mode (exploration), the directions on screen are: <<Use,,,, to move the frogs>>. The frog hops in direct response to each key press. The screen is re-drawn, “panning” across the pond when the frog is directed beyond the screen boundaries. There are two options in this mode: When the nine key is pressed, some of the lily pads flash, indicating the next portion of the frog’s correct path. Pressing the 0 key makes a schematic drawing of the whole pond appear on one screen. ..
Following the other direction on the screen, <<Press return when you know the patterns>>, leads to the formula mode. The frog stays seated on the first lily pad, not responding to the directions immediately. The direction to <<Enter your first move>> has four arrows as choices. After each [direction] choice is made, the screen questions <<How many?>> offering 1,2,3,4,5 as choices. [The frog moves when the player executes the set of directions coded set of choices representing the pattern of lily pads. There are six different basic patterns contained in the Pond program].[An analysis of the patterns contained in the Pond showed that]
the types differ on two dimensions: the number of direction-number pairs (steps) required by the formula and whether there are distractor lily pads which should be ignored by the frog and the formula. Many tokens of each type are available and are presented randomly.
Additional analyses indicated an interesting way in which one type of pond sequence differed from the others. The first and the third types required an even number of steps, 2 and 4. But the second type was made up of three-step ponds, and for these patterns many formulas required children to re-analyze a step into its constituent parts. So, for example, a pond that appears to require a sequence that begins 2, 3, might require reanalysis in to 2,2, 1.
Observation of 7-10 year olds playing Pond in varying circumstances yielded two preliminary conclusions. First, children had a lot more trouble with the 3-step ponds than either the 2- or 4- step ponds; starting with the 2- step ponds seemed actually to interfere with their developing a full understanding of the program’s underlying principles. Second, it seemed possible to create a theoretically guided revision of the Pond educational package to make it a more effective pedagogical tool.
Peg Griffin and Melissa Lemons at LCHC and members of Comlab in Moscow spearheaded the collaborative research on Pond which began as a part of the summer experiment in 1987 and continued through several phases. As described in much more detail in the published articles, researchers in the two laboratories carried out a series of studies motivated by a set of theoretical principles derived from cultural-historical approaches to learning and development. The individual studies focused on the social organization of involvement with the program, the inclusion of auxiliary tools into the problem solving activity, and the sequence in which ponds were presented to the children. These efforts were capped by the writing of a revised version ofPond guided by the results of the research.
With respect to social organization Griffin and her colleagues collected data from cases in which 10-year-old children (the target age) worked alone or in pairs in the presence of a passive adult to contrast individual and collaborative problem solving. They also observed pairings of older children and younger children with a passive adult present to assess the importance of different levels of expertise in collaborative problem solving. Finally, they included a condition in which the adult actively intervened to enrich the learning activity through the introduction of auxiliary means, reordering both the sequence of problems, and the nature of the goal directed conversation.
With respect to auxiliary means they investigated such simple measures as providing pencil and paper and the introduction of a three-dimensional model made of marshmallows and skewers to provide a concrete, primary representation. They found that older children spontaneously used pencil and paper representations of ponds to help them arrive at correct formulas. When older and younger children interacted, the younger children began to appropriate the techniques introduced by the older children, increasing the sophistication of their coding. This finding supported the belief that something akin to cross-age tutoring with Pond would be pedagogically useful. Younger children also benefited from the introduction of the concrete auxiliary means to help them deal with the representation on the computer screen, suggesting that an expanded educational package should contain alternative modes for representing the pond patterns.
The work on re-ordering the sequence of problem types drew explicitly on Davydov’s ideas about the need to introduce new concepts through carefully chosen examples that contain all of the properties of the domain in question. When adults reordered the ponds so that 3-step ponds were encountered first, and children were provided auxiliary means to represent the problems more effectively for themselves, they did not experience the severe difficulties so often observed when the 2-step, 3-step, 4-step sequence of ponds was used.
On the basis of this work, in collaboration with people at the Sunburst Corporation, a modified version of Pond in English and Russian incorporating the results of our research were created. This product was never sold in Russia, but Sunburst did incorporate some of the modifications into their later software.
Evaluation of the Impact of the 5thD on Children
As a part of my ongoing research I was seeking ways to evaluate the impact of participation in the 5thD on children’s cognitive and social development. This issue was also of interest to our Soviet colleagues. However, for a variety of reasons, the most obvious route to evaluating the impact of the 5thD on children was closed to us. Standard evaluation procedures would dictate that we set up control and experimental groups of children who would be tested before and after participation on various standardized tests. This route was closed to me because, by design, the 5thDs I created were voluntary institutions in which children themselves chose to participate and which they could enter and leave a will. This route was closed to Sasha and her colleagues because their resources were stretched to the maximum; while it would have been possible in principle to create the needed contrast groups, in practice they could not manage the increased work load.
Faced with these restrictions, we focused our evaluation efforts on tracing changes in individual children over the course of several months of participation in 5thD activities. Time and again we documented the way in which participation was associated with changes in children’s social and cognitive behaviors. One particularly striking example described in a fieldnote by Galina Ivanovna illustrates such results:
Sveta is in third grade. Before this school, she used to study in a special boarding school. She has a slight form of autism.
During the first few lessons she was very closed. When a question was asked she would reply very quietly, in a monosyllable, or sometimes she would simply stay silently, and her face would show a strained, somewhat guilty smile. During our tea breaks, when we usually discussed questions, joked, and told each other stories, Sveta would sit silently with her eyes lowered. As a rule she would work at the computer alone. If something didn’t work, she never called an adult to come over and help; she would sit silently and wait.
In her first letter, Sveta asked the Volshebnik lots of questions, using the polite, formal way of addressing him. But from those questions Volshebnik gathered that Sveta really likes birds and animals, especially horses. And so Volshebnik starts an involved conversation with Sveta on that topic. Volshebnik also asks the girl questions, asks her to tell him about horses, because “even though he is very clever, he really doesn’t know very much about them,” thus inducing communication. And Sveta replies, telling him about the horse she saw in the summer in the country and about the kitten that lives in her home. Gradually, the tone of Sveta’s letters to the Volshebnik becomes more trusting. She tells him about her brother, and how their dog disappeared. And she even asks the Volshebnik to teach her to write in English. The girl starts feeling Volshebnik’s sincere interest in her inner world and she obviously really likes his funny way of talking. When Sveta comes to the 5th Dimension she unhurriedly comes to the mailbox, takes her letter and goes off into the corner to read. It is very pleasant to see a smile on her face when she reads something funny from the Volshebnik.
But as for her work with the games, Sveta refers to them very laconically in her letters: “I played Tetris on the beginning level.” Meanwhile we must say that Sveta is handling the games very well indeed. In the period from October through March, Sveta played: Tetris (on the beginning level), Printshop (middle level), Montezuma’s Revenge (beginning level), Shark (middle level). Botanical Gardens (middle level), Pick a Pair (beginning level).
For Sveta, just like for many other children, it is very important to have approval from the adults. But we felt that in this case, we should work with Sveta very cautiously and subtly, using mediated encouragement for her actions. I will give you the following example: Sveta is playing Shark. She is really doing very well. Olga Petrovna and I are standing next to each other, and deliberately exchanging remarks about her actions in the game: “Sveta is hitting the target so well! She has such a good aim, and she is doing such a good job in general!” And here I would like to present a fragment from my fieldnotes, which I wrote the next day, still under the influence of that lesson.
“But yesterday Sveta simply made me very happy. For us, the people who know Sveta, it was actually quite an event. After she patiently and successfully handled the middle level in Shark, Sveta sat down at the computer to write the Volshebnik a letter, on her own initiative. Several times she had turned to me in a fairly relaxed and clam manner, asking me to show her something, or help her find the needed key. And then I suddenly heard: ‘Galina Ivanovna! (this is the first time she addressed an adult by name) Help me. I would really like to write something interesting for the Volshebnik.’ I told her: ‘Svetochka, now write him something about yourself. I am sure it will be very interesting.’ The first part of her letter had to do with the game, and our new boy Sasha. And suddenly!… She looked into my eyes, very easily, and a little bit mysteriously, with a smile, and said happily: ‘Oh! I know what will be interesting to him. ..’ She told Volshebnik about the parakeet that now lives in her house. And that’s all there is to it, you might say, but for us it was an event. I spent the entire day afterward under the influence of her look, her tone, and that very wonderful open smile (unfortunately not very characteristic of her at this point).”
At this point we all began noting that Sveta became much more relaxed and sociable. She would come up to one of the kids and help, if she had figured out that game already. It is extremely valuable, that Sveta joined the collective work without any incentive from the adults, on her own initiative. And we always felt the joy that Sveta felt from personal participation in the life of the club. We saw how willingly, and with how much pleasure she would bring from home her own colorful illustrations for our part of the newspaper about the Global 5th Dimension. And here I would like to lchcautobio Sveta’s school teacher. I talked with her a week ago. I asked her to share her impressions on those kids from her class that go to our club. I wrote down her words – this is what she said about Sveta: “The girl started playing with other kids more, she started behaving with them in a more relaxed way. If previously Sveta could spend the whole break sitting and staring at one point, now she often spends time with the other kids, and even – and this completely astonished me! – gives them various advice!”
I should note that in subsequent years, such evaluations have been conducted in both the US and the USSR. In Moscow researchers at the Institute of Psychology worked with children from a nearby elementary school, choosing experimental and control children at random. In the US such comparisons became possible when the work began to attract our colleagues’ interest and 5thD systems were set up in social circumstances that made it possible to create real control groups. In both cases, such comparisons yielded statistical evidence of the positive developmental impact of participation in the 5thD on children.
Organizing Children’s Writing
All during the time when work with children in face-to-face interaction served as the grounding for the VelHam project, the goal of inducing the children to write and use the telecommunications facilities remained a major concern of the adults. Child-child interaction was, of course, a frequently invoked goal by many groups seeking increased Soviet-American contacts. When we began our work such interaction was generally sought via visits to summer camps, but as time went on, and the possibility of using telecommunications technologies became more widely known, the idea that children could communicate in this manner came into common currency. We see this tendency, for example, in the correspondence about making links between Minnesota and a Pioneer Palace in Moscow presented in Chapter 4.
Focused as we were on cooperation at a distance, we had no interest in children visiting each other, but we shared the general goal of organizing productive joint activities among children. In addition to the general feeling that such interactions could provide models for non-antagonistic interaction, our prior experience with computer networking and education had amply indicated that under the right circumstances, the fact that the children living in different social circumstances were not face-to-face provided many opportunities for them to become intrigued with writing and the life of the children with whom they interacted. In LCHC’s earliest experiment organizing cooperation of children at a distance (Levin et al., 1984), for example, it was found that children in San Diego and the north slope of Alaska were intrigued by the differences in daily experiences they reported to each other (eating whale blubber, surfing). More important, they were motivated by the incomplete accounts of their far-away correspondents to re-examine the adequacy of their own writing, and began to engage in self-editing and rewriting of exactly the kind that the teacher had been unable to motivate previously. Our experience linking children in Italy and San Diego revealed that language differences could provide occasions for children to reflect more on their own language and cultural identity, another educational objective that educators of young children value. Both of these findings were obtained in our brief 1987 summer experiment, so that overall, we felt confident that over and beyond any symbolic significance involved in organizing children’s international writing, there were firm reasons to expect such correspondence to be rich in useful pedagogical moments of the sort discussed in connection with the Island Survivors work.
During the 1988-1990 period we studied several different kinds of children’s writing including correspondence with the Wizard and other children focused on a game, pen-pal letters, and writing focused on a special topic or event. I have already provided examples of notes between children concerning Island Survivors. A few additional examples give the flavor of the different writing forms that the project supported.
Correspondence With the Wizard/Volshebnik
A frequent occasion for writing was the request to write to the Wizard or Volshebnik built into the specially designed task cards that were used to structure children and adult interactions around the computer programs. The following exchange about Island Survivors indicates how the Wizard entity entered into this activity. The first message was received in Russian and translated; only the translated version is given.
July 10, 1989
I think that what’s important on the island is not just how much meat you can get from deer or rabbits, but also how many animals there are. And so you have to figure out the number of remaining animals on the island. But when someone does a new level I think it is necessary not only to count the population of animals but also see to it that the many hares don’t eat all the grass (From Misha, age 10)
July 14, 1989
From the Real Wizard to Misha
thank you for your letter about how the number of animals and the hares on the Island is important, and about the hares and the grass. The way they all relate together on the difficult Island does seem to be important. Your are right about if you take all the grass away then the hares (or rabbits) will die. But have you seen what happens to the grass if you take away all the hares/rabbits? My friend Ryan was trying to survive on the hard island the other day, and he found that very interesting. Also, he found that he could eat the pondweed. Do you know any good recipes for cooking pondweed? He also thought that even though there are not many owls and they don’t have much meat, you should try to catch them, and then there will be more rabbits. He would like some advice, though, on what to do when he catches bass. Should he throw them back? Your Wizzo
Think I’ll have a snack, all this talk of food; now where is that
At the time these messages were written, Sasha had been running a small “summer session” for VelHam Club attendees who were not at their dachas. But this was also a time when there were no American children engaged in the activities. So, the Wizard stepped in to ensure that Misha had feedback that built on what he wrote and sought to intrigue him to experiment with aspects of the program he had not yet considered.
A Child-Initiated Special Project: Discussing War
In January, 1991, the Gulf War was very much on the minds of the American children at the same time that the Soviet children were concerned about the crisis over continued Soviet domination of Lithuania. A tradition had grown up at the Moscow clubs for the children to stop for tea and cookies in the middle of their 5thD sessions during which topics of general interest were often discussed. When the Russian children brought up their concerns about Lithuania and the adults present pointed out that there was also war in the Persian Gulf, there ensued a note to the U.S. sites recounting the children’s comments such as “there are now two terrible wars in the world—in Lithuania and in the Persian Gulf” and “Yesterday my father was at a demonstration against the war in Lithuania.” When concerns for American troops were expressed by the group in Chicago, the adults in San Diego organized a discussion of the two conflicts and the group entered into an extended exchange with the Soviet children. These exchanges occurred on two levels: the adults described the local discussions and the kids sent letters. For example:
January 30, 1991
A few of the boys responded to the questions you sent us about the war. The group included Daniel, Dennil, Jon, Brian, Kellen, & Stefan. First we asked them if they knew about the war in Lithuania and they said:
Daniel: We don’t know about it but still think its horrible. It should stop, it is bad.
Kellen: It is not very good
Daniel: I want to know what they are fighting about. I think they should be free because they want to be, every country has their own rights. [The discussion continues]
This description of the conversation is accompanied by three letters from the different sets of American children to the Russian children. For example:
Dear children in Chico, this letter is in response to the questions you asked us regarding the war in Lithuania and the war in the Persian Gulf. First, we do know that there is a war in Lithuania. We also feel sorry for you and the people in Lithuania, because a lot of people will get hurt if the war will continue. Everyone in our group here feels that there is no reason for this war. But we would like to know why is there a war in Lithuania and why Gorbachev does not want to give up Lithuania.
Most of us here are worried about our troops in the Persian Gulf and that’s why we want more news on the war in the Persian Gulf than on the war in Lithuania. We are worried about the war in the Persian Gulf because a lot of people that we love will die because of Saddam Hussein. We also think that a lot of innocent people will die in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Tel Aviv when they will get bombed.
You also asked if we write to the troops in the Persian Gulf. A lot of children do write to the troops, but we haven’t written to them. Our teacher Sandy told us if we would like to write to them we could. We all wish that the war will end soon because it is a bad thing.
A week later the Russian children respond. The translation reads in part:
Hello kids from the LJSC!
We are answering your questions about Lithuania. Lithuania wanted to secede, but the Soviet Union won’t let it. Katya thinks that Gorbachev is wrong, and he should have let Lithuania go. But on the other hand, Zhenya thinks that if he lets Lithuania go, then the entire Soviet Union might fall apart.
What threatens us more, hunger or the war? The threat of hunger is worse than the threat of war for us. We don’t have a war in Moscow right now. But its pretty bad with food. We used to eat cookies and sweets in Chico before, but now there is no such stuff in the stores.
What can we tell you about Lithuania? Katya went to Lithuania last summer. It has lots of trees and grass, and at that time there was plenty of food there. A lot of beautiful clothes. They are polite and friendly. There are beautiful lakes there. But we don’t know much about the Persian Gulf, we have not been there. The most important thing for us right now is Lithuania.
Interchanges such as these not only sparked the interest of the children and broadened their knowledge of world events, they provided the adults involved with more than a little to reflect on.
An Adult-Initiated Special Project: Imagining Each Other
Over the course of the project, several researchers had noticed that it was difficult for children to form a “portrait of the other” and wondered if it would be possible to foster inter-site writing by fostering this process. Lora Taub, who was working with the project in San Diego, took the lead in organizing a sort of “artisan’s” circle in which each of the five current sites would imagine what life was like for children at other sites: Chico (Moscow)–>New Orleans–>VeGa (Moscow)–>Chicago–> San Diego–> Chico. Assisted by local adults, children at each site created a verbal portrait of their assigned site, and in return received feedback from those imagined.
The cycle began with children in Chicago (who live in a working class, African-American neighborhood) imagining the children in the largely Anglo, affluent, San Diego suburb of La Jolla:
Chicago: Cassandra thinks there is hot weather and it never gets cold except maybe a little at night. .. San Diego is near the ocean so people go to the beach everyday…. The boys are cool, looking straight ahead, wearing Nike Gym shoes. .. The girls wear jeans with cut holes in them and off the shoulder shirts. .. The hairstyles for boys are a checkerboard, pineapple or designs on your head. For girls they wear one whole bow on one side or curls with lots of bows.
These imaginings are a mixture of reasonable geographic extrapolation (if you live near the beach in a warm place you probably swim a lot) and unreasonable extrapolation of local cultural patterns onto others (the description of clothing and hairstyles evoked polite but firm rejection from the children in Southern California).
As the initial imaginings were circulated, much to the amusement, and sometimes the incredulity of the recipients (children in Moscow imagined that children in New Orleans lived in skyscrapers with luxurious rugs on the floor!), local children were invited to provide corrective feedback. One of the Russian clubs provided their feedback in the form of an imaginary bus tour of Moscow that began entering the city from the airport, crossing the canal that connects the Volga and Moscow rivers, past the Bolshoi theater, the Arbat Museum, the Kremlin and St. Basil’s cathedral, ending up at the club. The other Moscow club created a quiz show and invited children at the recipient site to judge the correctness of their children’s answers (an arrangement that motivated the adults to be sure that answers were provided in the return mail).
This project was considered a success. It generated lively conversation and a flurry of writing by children and adults at each site. Children were induced to be self reflective when their initial expectations were thwarted while extended turn taking succeeded in giving children more realistic pictures of the lives they had been imagining. Eventually this activity ended up in the production of a bilingual “Mirror Newsletter” that represented the various kinds of joint activity of the children at the different sites.
Joint Research Through the 5thD: Some Reflections
By the beginning of the 1990-1991 academic year we felt that we had, albeit it in significantly altered form, achieved the core goals that had motivated American involvement in the VelHam project five long years earlier. We had two or more groups of children in each country and their researcher-sponsors routinely engaging in computer-mediated educational activity and interacting with each other through a telecommunications channel (at the height of the activity, an average of 20 messages a day were exchanged among sites). There was little doubt that the children enjoyed the activity and that the adults deemed the activity good for the children.
Researchers in the two countries had demonstrated that they could indeed cooperate with each other on behalf of the children while addressing important research questions of the day. New methods of working with existing software were invented and even a new piece of software.
As time went on, and the products of joint activity accumulated, the bi-national research collective began presenting their work in a variety of arenas. The first such presentation was in 1989 at a NATO sponsored meeting on communication and cognition in Leningrad in which Lena Samoilenko from Sasha’s lab gave a paper on work with Pond while Sasha and I discussed the problem of organizing the overall project. In that same year, a special issue of the LCHC Newsletter was devoted to papers growing out of the project, and further papers were published in the translation journal, Soviet Psychology. During this same period, three graduate students in Sasha’s laboratory and one in Chicago wrote Ph.D. theses based on different aspects of the research.
The scope of the work was, of course, far more narrow than Velikhov had hoped for. In so far as it influenced his broader goals of bringing massive resources to bear on the problem of making Soviet school children computer literate, it did so indirectly. Time and again he used the project as a stalking horse for his broader aims, holding it up as a model of cooperation, only to put it back in the closet when it came to providing funding.
It is difficult for me to gauge how well it met Hamburg’s aspirations. In so far as the symbolic goal of demonstrating the possibility of cooperation took priority, his aspirations were achieved. Thanks to Sasha’s persistence and perseverance in the face of diminishingly small amounts of financial assistance and her ingenuity in finding a way to get Soviet children involved in the project, real children engaged in real international communication and genuine joint scientific work took place. However, by virtue of the convoluted way in which this work was organized and its small scale, it could have little resonance in either Soviet or American education. That our collaborative research did not revolutionize American education does not distinguish it from any of the other, more visible, research efforts of that day or this: despite enormous hype, the computerization of American education remains just over the horizon of our national experience.
Section 2: A Focus on Institutions
So long as our project was focused on a conventional scientific objective (applying theories of learning and development to design new forms of educational activity) our meta-goal of creating a virtual community of scientists living in antagonistic states could, when convenient, be backgrounded. We viewed the ambiguity of goals and meta-goals as a necessary component of our work when it first began. But by the Fall of 1990 we were determined to shift our efforts; we sought to involve Soviet social scientists directly in international interaction using computer networks. Laying aside our credentials as developmental psychologists, we claimed our credentials as communications researchers for an effort to study the institutional and interpersonal dynamics of the process by which a new medium of communication enters into the daily practices and cultural life of people for whom it is initially alien. This section focuses on the effort to institutionalize open access e-mail and Sasha’s laboratory as a research organization dedicated to the promotion and study of scientific research using new communication technologies.
Going Public: Introducing Open Access E-Mail to the Academy of Sciences
Our initial efforts at moving beyond the work with children to support a broad range of scholarly collaborations were focused on the community of psychologists. This choice seemed natural because it was with this group that both Sasha and I had the deepest ties. During the 1990-1991 academic year we invited a number of psychologists representing various institutions in Moscow to participate in an ongoing international e-mail-mediated discussion among psychologists and other social scientists interested in cultural-mediational approaches to cognition, development, and education. Participants in these discussions generally admired Russian psychological traditions of approaching these topics, so the venue seemed a friendly one.
In late 1990, two colleagues at the Institute of Psychology, Sasha’s home institute, initiated a discussion of issues in the history of psychology while relying on Sasha’s staff for technical support. At first the discussion attracted a number of interested people, but the discussion, despite apparent good will on all sides, was desultory and after several months, it ceased. This did not mean that nothing came of the effort. The two psychologists made additional international contacts, some visits back and forth resulted, and a book consisting of a set of independently authored articles was eventually co-edited on the basis of these contacts. But no inclusive discussions involving the Institute’s staff grew out of this effort.
In the Spring of 1991 we decided that a broader attack on the problem of encouraging e-mail use would be necessary. We proposed to the Directorate of the Institute of Psychology that they open their own communication facility. We would help by providing a computer, modem, e-mail account, and translation help. Since these scholars work at the Institute, access would presumably be greatly enhanced. Our only conditions were that access be open to all and that people not use their accounts for commercial purposes. By agreement with the directorate of the Institute, this node was opened in June, 1991.
If this were a saga of the triumph of progress and reason rather than a report of a participant-observational study of changing communication practices, at this point in the narrative I would declare not only that “The ice had been cracked” but that the ice had been melted, resulting in a flood of open communication followed by the bounteous flowering of the once desiccated fields of international scientific communication in Russia. No student of history could anticipate such a conclusion. Cultural formations which reach back over several centuries are glacial structures that do not melt instantaneously even in the heat of a political economic and communication revolution. No consumer of the mediated reports of current circumstances in Russia can fail to appreciate that a great many of the institutional structures which existed in the summer of 1991 continue to exist today; in fact, many 18th and 19th century structures, lacquered over by the rhetoric of Soviet power have emerged as prominent organizers of people’s consciousness. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in Russia the spread of communicative practices common among scholars from other advanced economic states has been slow and uneven.
When we agreed to provide an electronic mail node for the Institute with the clear understanding that it would be placed in the library or some other publicly accessible place for use by any institute staff member, our proposal was received with deep consternation; on the one hand we were offering an extremely valuable tool for access to highly desired international contacts; on the other hand we were doing so on terms deeply subversive to the social order.
Despite their acceptance of the idea of opening their own communication node in principle, in practice the Institute could not get organized to put the node into operation. The Directorate of the Institute held a meeting of the Institute’s laboratory heads to inform them about the new communication facility and to determine who might take responsibility for it. No one came forward to take responsibility for the facility; instead what little communication came from Institute staff came through Sasha’s laboratory and in each case, it was initiated with permission of the Director. It was a very uncomfortable time: it was clear to all that the technical barriers to full use of a highly desired communicative resource had been removed, but deeper cultural barriers had been exposed in their place.
Breaking Out of the System
By the early summer of 1991 we realized that we and our colleagues at the Institute of Psychology were locked into a situation from which we could not extricate ourselves. So, while we continued to push at the barriers blocking open communication at our “home” institute, we simultaneously began to pursue alternative institutional structures within which to create models of open international communication. These explorations led us simultaneously in two directions: first, we opened our own public access node, Psy-Pub which was organized on the behalf of psychologists, but to which any Soviet scholar was given access simply for the asking. Second, we made contacts with a number of other institutes. Here the frail threads of prior international contacts supported by the academic communities of the US and USSR and the turbulent winds of history played (and continue to play) essential roles. Owing to my long-term involvement with the USSR, I was acquainted with scholars whom I had met in the early 1960s. Sasha had additional contacts in a great variety of Academy Institutes. These prior connections were the raw material from which we began.
In the sections to follow, I track these events through eight different institutes, a major library, and the public access node created at the Institute of Psychology. The data concerning the development of telecommunication practices in these institutions consist primarily of fieldnotes sent by Sasha and her staff at the VeGa lab following visits, workshops, and telephone conversations with institute personnel.
These cases represent only a fraction of the more than 100 institutes, libraries, and other institutions which VeGa assisted between 1990 and 1994, when I ceased to be actively involved in the research. They represent the cases for which we have the most complete data, thus allowing us to trace the dynamics of change in the most fine-grained manner.
Because it requires a minimum amount of space to tell the story of each institute, this section of the text is much longer than the chapters presented in the previous section. It is as brief as I could make it and still convey what happened in sufficient detail to reveal basic patterns. After presenting the individual case studies, I will return at the end of this section to draw some general conclusions concerning the patterns of change that emerged.
A Note on Methodology
Up to this point, I have treated the development of the VelHam project as a single narrative—a case study. From the perspective of social science methodologies, individual case studies reveal the rich interplay of individuals, their circumstances, and the content of their activities in the course of change. But individual case studies also have their weakness. First, because there is only one case, and because that case depends on specific individuals, circumstances, and content, it is difficult to know what general conclusions concerning the causes of change are permissible. Many factors co-vary and memories are selective, disabling logical conclusions about causality. Second, there is a great temptation in individual case histories to assign causal significance to the particular personalities involved. What if Velikhov were a career aparatchik concerned with protecting Soviet power and scornful of the human potential movement? What if Sasha was head of the Institute of Psychology instead of an ordinary staff member? What if she had not been married to an obscure pianist rather than a prominent physicist? Or been male instead of female? And so on. The “what if” questions that arise in such cases are endless.
Our study of the propagation of e-mail communication, precisely because it involved a great many cases, allowed us to abstract away from individual personalities. In order to take advantage of this possibility (and to protect the anonymity of the individuals involved) my summaries of these cases have been stripped of as much identifying information as possible. The institutes are not named, they are numbered. Their order does not follow directly the order in which we came in contact with them. No proper names are used.
A good deal of information is lost by this kind of abstraction, but in so far as certain forms of behavior and change processes reveal themselves repeatedly despite variation from case to case, we can be more certain that we are observing general socio-cultural processes, not the accidental results of particular personalities operating in unique social settings.
This institute was home to several scholars whom I had personally known for many years and to a special interdisciplinary committee on a topic of particular interest to me. Moreover, Velikhov was the leader of this interdisciplinary committee. These existing connections served as a starting point for involving Institute #1 in computer-mediated communication. As early as 1986 a member of the committee, V, participated in the live chat that I had arranged in connection with a meeting of the American Academy of Education. V also participated in planning meetings for our work with children and a seminar devoted to psychological principles relevant to the organization of computer-mediated educational activity for children using computers and telecommunications.
In an attempt to involve V more deeply in international communication, Sasha arranged with V to accept a graduate student, N, who would support his involvement in teleconferencing around issues relevant to the VelHam project, gather information from the network of interest to researchers at the Institute, and at the same time gather materials to do his own Ph.D. thesis. We provided V a personal e-mail account to enable his participation in international discussions, thereby initiating a second phase of our work that came to prominence approximately two years later.
Over a period of more than a year, N worked for Sasha and V, gathering materials, translating V’s messages and relevant messages from the teleconference. V’s participation in the teleconference produced a good deal of interest, but V was not one of those who found the discussion interesting. In general, non-Russians found his perspective difficult to understand, and N commented at one point that most conferees seemed to miss the point of V’s remarks.
We believed that during this time, N was providing colleagues at Institute #1 information about telecommunications discussions of possible relevance to them and inviting them to join. However, when N’s thesis committee met to check on his progress, Sasha learned that N had not, in fact, been conveying information to researchers at the Institute. Rather, only the vaguest rumors about the activity had filtered into the Institute and overall there was a strong sentiment in the Institute that computer-mediated international interaction for scholarly purposes was a bad thing. Moreover, it turned out that V himself had come to the conclusion that attempts to promote joint activity through teleconferencing were misguided. Poor N had to give up the idea of getting a Ph.D. in connection with the work of the VelHam project. For more than a year, we heard little from this Institute.
The opening of Psy-Pub in September, 1991, brought about a little change in this situation. Two weeks after the opening of Psy-Pub, an American scholar wrote indicating his interest in a scientific issue that fell within the domain of the Institute. Sasha rashly wrote back to the American promising to find him a correspondent to help him obtain the information he was seeking. She first attempted to elicit interest from members of the Institute by passing along word through V, but nothing happened. So she called the Academic Secretary of the Institute who was also the person in charge of international relations. When the Secretary answered the phone and Sasha explained that Psy-Pub had received a query that was relevant to his Institute, her call was met with disbelief. Sasha was told in no uncertain terms that unplanned international relations were forbidden at the Institute and lectured on the inappropriateness of seeking to involve a member of that Institute in an unauthorized way.
Sasha then called on a young Russian scholar of her acquaintance versed in the topic at hand and asked him if he would take on the task of responding to the American. He expressed great interest in doing so, but did not follow through.
Finally, Sasha asked a co-worker at VeGa, whose husband worked in the Institute, if he would be interested in such a correspondence. He had heard nothing about this possibility at the Institute, but he took on the task and a fruitful correspondence ensued. However, this correspondence had no effect whatsoever on the position of the Institute with respect to telecommunications. So far as we know, the volunteer correspondent did not mention his activities to anyone in the Institute.
This example illustrates nicely the extreme lengths to which VeGa went in the earliest days of the project to follow through and obtain an answer when a query was obtained. None of this extra work was, of course, visible to the American who wrote initially. In a similar manner, when LCHC scouted out partners for Russians writing to the US, we tried in so far as possible to remove ourselves from the interactions as soon as connections were made.
On November 1, when Sasha gave a talk about VeGa’s work on supporting the spread of telecommunications at a meeting of the Academy to discuss ways to overcome the international isolation of Russian scientists, representatives of seven institutes contacted her about initiating activities, but Institute #1 was not among them.
The next contact with the Institute came via a staff member from the Institute of Psychology who had a friend at the Institute, S. At her initiative, S visited the VeGa laboratory. Sasha tried to talk him into taking some initiative at the Institute, but he began using Psy-Pub instead and became a steady user. He did not involve anyone at the Institute.
In February, 1992, as part of a general evaluation of the progress of efforts to encourage involvement in e-mail, Sasha contacted the Academic Secretary at the Institute. He said that the Institute had no interest in this kind of activity as a scientific matter, but directed her to see a computer specialist at the Institute, P. P said that several researchers at the Institute were unhappy with fax machines as media of communications and were interested in somehow improving international communications facilities. He had not heard a word about VeGa or the possibilities of e-mail from the Institute’s representatives at the November meeting, nor anyone else. He had, he said, heard about the possibilities of e-mail through another networking group, but nothing had come of it.
Sasha provided him with written documents and VeGa’s phone numbers so that he could get started on creating a public access account at the Institute. For his part, P was enthusiastic about getting himself and the Institute involved in e-mail. He promised to run a course for new users as a way of getting the activity going. For the next half year, however, progress was very slow and nothing of substance occurred. P said that the indifference of the Directorship of the Institute was to blame.
November 1993 was a “transforming moment” in the history of Institute #1’s inclusion in telecommunications activities. At one of the regular meetings that the VeGa staff held at various humanitarian institutes (not Institute #1), two professors from the Institute’s staff were present and joined in the discussion. These two men were exceedingly distressed when they heard that
any regular scholar could get hooked up to e-mail, either through Psy-Pub or their own institutes. They declared that not a single member of Institute #1 had access to computer-mediated telecommunications. In response the VeGa staff said that Professor S, in their Institute, had been using Psy-Pub for many months, that Professor V had participated in international discussions, and furthermore that the entire administration of the Institute plus the computer specialist, P, had been trying to figure out what they wanted to do for the past 1 1/2 years.
These two men were non-plussed by this information. Professor S was their boss and they had been asking him for more than a year to find some way to obtain access to e-mail. Professor S had given no hint that he knew anything about Psy-Pub or VeGa’s long-standing invitation to the Institute. Nor had they heard anything about these possibilities from anyone else at the Institute. They declared it a matter of personal honor that they “unmask this history” in their institute openly and begin a revolution.
Over the next several weeks these two professors formed the core of an Initiator’s Group that managed virtually every day to do something public about the telecommunications situation in the Institute. VeGa knew about this activity because it received daily phone calls from various staff at the Institute who had not previously become active in pressuring the administration for greater access.
After a few weeks of investigation the Initiator’s Group discovered that the Institute was indeed connected to the net, but that access was restricted to regular scientific staff because it was very expensive. They also found that their Institute node was set up through the administration office, not through the Institute’s computer center. This arrangement supported the view that e-mail was set up for the administration. Nonetheless, the Initiator’s Group succeeded in creating a firm acceptance of the idea that these issues could be discussed openly, so long as someone provided initiative from the inside.
As a result of these efforts, VeGa was asked to meet with the Director of the Institute and several of his staff as well as the Initiator Group. The meeting opened with the Director denying that he had ever heard a word about the VelHam project (this despite the fact that four different members of the Institute had narrated accounts of visits with the Director about the project). Sasha went through the entire explanation over again, now with almost four years of history to it! After her presentation, the Director and all assembled agreed to a joint project between VeGa and the Institute to bring it up to speed in open-access e-mail practices.
At first change was rapid. The Institute immediately came up with a postmaster who was a good technical specialist. He consulted with VeGa about how to obtain e-mail addresses and how to locate conferences. LCHC worked with the postmaster to shape announcements about Institute activities subsequently sent out on the net. Soon this first postmaster wanted to become an everyday user and a second postmaster was found and trained by the VeGa staff.
After this change, activity seemed to stagnate. One of the key members of the Initiator Group went abroad for an extended stay. Two Institute staff began to use Psy-Pub on a regular basis. Judging from the bills VeGa received, they knew that at least one user was logging a lot of time on the network, but they had no idea of the content of this communication and it was difficult to judge the degree to which usage had really become accessible. VeGa continued its interactions with anyone from the Institute who showed an interest. But it eventually seemed clear that not all was well.
In January, 1993 Sasha wrote to me about this situation:
It turns out that L, the postmaster at the Institute, understood little of our explanations and advise. A staff member approached their Academic Secretary (who has visited VeGa) and said, “I have to send e-mail to Belgium; how can I get to do it? He received the following response : “Well, who’s going to pay for it? In other words, the guy couldn’t send the message! The staff member asked the Academic Secretary: “Isn’t VeGa going to pay?” The Secretary replied, ” I guess we didn’t understand it that way” (!!!!)—and ended up not even explaining how to send the message. In other words, with a working electronic mail system right under his nose, the staff member was in effect not allowed to use it. The staff member went to the postmaster to find out what was happening with e-mail. L responded, “nothing – yet. “(!!??).
This staff member then called me up and made me go through the entire speech over again, from the beginning. I explained everything again, and confirmed that we could and we would be glad to provide support in so far as our “glasnost” conditions were respected.
In March 1993 VeGa conducted another systematic evaluation of the situation in each institute, among them IP. There was noticeable progress in the direction of genuine open access. A great many people in the Institute now knew about e-mail, but the continuing relatively low level of usage by the general public had become a topic of conversation. People speculated about causes, but could not decide among themselves what the main problem might be.
A special feature of Institute #2 was that its initiation into e-mail resulted from the fact that its Director, T, had been a student at Moscow University in 1962-63 where we had gotten to know him quite well. We had maintained only sporadic contact with him in the intervening years, but we had mutual friends from whom we obtained news of each other.
In the winter of 1990-1991, as Sasha and I were trying to figure out how to begin to involve a broad range of social scientists in e-mail I learned from a colleague that our friend, T, was now Director of an institute. I immediately forwarded T’s home phone number to Sasha and asked her to contact T on my behalf with the invitation to open a telecommunications node from his institute. She did so, and shortly thereafter, T visited Sasha at home to learn more about this unexpected initiative. According to notes sent by Sasha at the time, he listened with great interest to her account of the VelHam project and expressed a strong desire to establish international contacts for both professional and personal reasons. We made T our standard offer: we would provide a computer, technical expertise, a modem, and pay for the costs of communication on the condition that he create open communication through e-mail from his institute.
As it happened, my daughter was passing through Moscow not long after T and Sasha met. Her professional interests fell within the scope of T’s institute and at my suggestion (and with Sasha’s aid) she and T met. It was an emotional meeting for T because he had last seen my daughter in 1966 in Moscow when she was 3 months old; to be having a professional discussion with her was a sure sign of changing times. It also made real the idea that after so many years of communicative isolation, it was becoming possible to interact normally with one’s old friends and colleagues, even if they were Americans.
Despite his obvious interest and emotional inclinations to initiate communication, no concrete steps toward initiating telecommunications ensued. There were objective reasons for these delays—T was insanely busy because his institute’s topic was relevant to a number of burning policy issues confronting the Soviet government. Still, VeGa staff noted and comment on his ambivalence.
A few weeks after my daughter left Moscow, T learned in a conversation with Sasha that two institutes had begun to use e-mail and asked that an expert from VeGa be assigned to assist Institute #2 in initiating e-mail communication. Sasha immediately agreed and assigned her most trusted technician to set things up for him. But preparations still dragged for reasons that were hard to fathom.
Noting these delays, Sasha asked T to set up a meeting with several of the Institute’s staff so that VeGa could teach them the concrete steps to initiate networking activity. T agreed, and a meeting was set up for mid-August. But when Sasha and her staff arrived for the meeting, only T was present. It was summer time, he explained, and people were at their dachas. The meeting went ahead anyway, and T received his first lesson in networking.
At this point, the coup against Gorbachev occurred. When I did not hear from T, I used the strategy of contacting him through Psy-Pub to inquire how things were going. I informed him that I had met with one of his distinguished colleagues at Institute #2 in the U.S. and informed this scholar that T had secured e-mail access. The VeGa staff called T to convey this information. T responded.
During the fall T began to use e-mail to correspond with foreign colleagues. But VeGa staff noted that the open access computer remained in his office where it was, de facto, inaccessible to Institute staff who had not, in any event, been instructed in how to use it. VeGa began gently to suggest to T that it was time to make the computer available “to the people” and after a month of gentle pressure, the computer was in fact moved to a more accessible spot. T also arranged for a second person at the Institute to be taught the mysteries of e-mail so that she could act as postmaster. This person was not an active scholar, however, she was T’s assistant. Three months after the e-mail account began to work from this institute, T was the only user.
At the time, we believed that this situation had both negative and positive implications. The negative implications were clear enough; access was clearly not open to institute staff. The positive implication was that T was the first institute Director to become personally involved in e-mail practice. At a meeting of Institute Directors at the Academy of Sciences, Velikhov asked who among the directors was using e-mail; T was the only one. However, when Sasha asked T if he had told Velikhov and his colleagues that his e-mail usage had been provided by our project, T said that he had not. He even expressed surprise at the idea that the support he had received from me and the VeGa staff had anything at all to do with Velikhov—despite the fact that Sasha had explained our project to him in great detail at the very outset!
In early November, after a long silence, T sent me a message that reflected his interactions with Sasha about e-mail (changed only enough to maintain the anonymity of the Institute):
This is a report on my use of e-mail since it was established at the Institute and some of my speculations for the future. First, about mistakes which I feel were done in this important matter. Highly estimating such a serious gesture towards me personally on your part and AVB I must confess that establishing a brand new IBM with e-mail in my office I unwillingly had limited an access to it for the rest of the people at our Institute. At the same time a heavy burden of administrative duties and business trips made the use period even shorter. Today the system will be moved to another room – an office for our three-person group which runs all our computer business with the data bank for our main project. Next week I am organizing a small seminar for everybody who wants to be an user of e-mail. AVB had promised me to be at this meeting and to make introductory remarks. I did not make it earlier because of waiting for more practical experience to demonstrate it to my colleagues.
Then, I think that a rather slow process of exploring this new means of communication on my part was precipitated by a complete absence of any guiding materials or at least any literature on using e-mail by academics. Two-three articles could help seriously in this situation. So even for me – a person with a wide range of contacts and demands and opened to changes and innovations – it was not so easy to figure out all new opportunities.
But in spite of it all, this initial two-month stage demonstrated for me and my colleagues unquestionable need of this tool for our research and communication activities. Now I can outline the main directions and plans for using electronic mail at the Institute.
1. In the field of research:
a) to get a direct access to international data bases and archives.
b) to receive bibliographical references and to establish contacts with specialists working in the same fields for our researchers who can communicate directly with each other;
c) to establish contacts with headquarters of professional associations and groups for getting information on conferences and otheractivities to extend for Soviet scholars international contacts and to overcome long-time isolation from the world community of scholars.
2.In the field of personal communications we plan to have different channels for individual users at the Institutes and also to organize a communication with our colleagues in other republics where they have e-mail. In some cases it may be the only operational and fast contacts with researchers in other parts of the Soviet Disunion. We plan to organize a conference with those who could communicate with us next year around the first week of March. I am planning to go to Crete (Greece) next May to participate in a conference where they will discuss electronic mail.
3.I am still waiting for proposals and a suggestion to put our Institute in the disciplinary network is very important and promising. Let us do it as soon as possible.
4.We can use e-mail for more wider purposes including a dialogue on some public and academic issues. The country is in a process of big changes including academic life. As I know during the last putsch in August e-mail was used by our colleagues quite regularly to report abroad on the situation in Moscow.
Dear Colleagues, I hope very much that you will stay patient with a slow progress of e-mail at our Institute but I still believe very strongly for a better future.
Warm regards, T.
Cc: American colleague, Sasha
When I received this message, I decided to take T at his word and proposed that he create an analogue of Psy-Pub at his institute. I also promised to distribute word of such a public access node to scholars in his discipline around the world. In January, 1992, T sent me a general announcement about the profile of the Institute’s interests and existence of their public access node which I distributed broadly through the network. This announcement evoked approximately forty responses. At VeGa’s urging, the postmaster of the Institute also began to post general interest announcements from the net on the Institute’s bulletin board. Interest in the use of e-mail grew rapidly at the Institute and soon there were 20 active users.
To further stimulate interest, VeGa held a meeting at the Institute to which all staff were invited in order to explain how e-mail communication worked and to make fully public the existence of the Institute’s public access node. This meeting produced a more formal structure for e-mail use at the Institute. The Director, who was busy with government policy issues, put the postmaster squarely in charge of e-mail. This shift in responsibility soon made itself felt because the postmaster was of the opinion that there should be no organized effort to exploit the public access node in order to promote the development of joint projects with foreign scholars. Needless to say, since the postmaster was the Director’s employee, her dim view of public access damped enthusiasm for e-mail in the Institute.
In the Fall of 1992 the Director became involved in a large project with an American partner that required the creation of e-mail ties in many parts of the former Soviet Union. At the time, the infrastructure for such a network was still lacking, so VeGa was asked to participate as an active supporter of the project, which it continues to do up to present time (mid 1996).
This project led immediately to the differentiation of networking activities as the Institute. Three new accounts were set up—one for the Director at home, one for his chief administrator on the project, and one for their American partners working in Moscow. From this time on, networking for the Institute as a whole took the back seat to the Director’s own project. A new postmaster was assigned to work with the public access node and it continued to operate, but the numbers of active members using it dwindled. In the Spring of 1993 the postmaster reported 13 users, only 7 of whom could be considered active.
Initially we thought that these numbers reflected a low level of interest in e-mail use by Institute staff, perhaps because the novelty had worn off. But over time we discovered that a more complicated and interesting situation had developed. Instead of using e-mail at the Institute, several individuals and groups, who learned how to use e-mail at the Institute, were beginning to use e-mail from other locations, in some cases, their own homes (a possibility that expanded slowly in the early 1990s but more rapidly with each passing year). In fact, several projects began. At least one of them was every bit as large as the networking project in which the Director was engaged.
This Institute was not the only one where people used e-mail from home and from other locales, but this form of communication took on a special character at this Institute: no one publicly acknowledged that they were using e-mail to put together joint projects and they were very direct in requesting that VeGa staff
not communicate their activities to the postmaster or the Director. At the same time, the Director made the involvement of his Institute in e-mail mediated international communication a priority, pointing with pride to its pioneering role in developing open access telecommunications in the new Russia. Meanwhile, the Institute has continued to accrue grants to build up its communications infrastructure, having received support from a number of international as well as Russian foundations.
In the late Spring of 1991 Sasha approached S, the scientific secretary of this Institute, to see if he would be interested in supporting the establishment of international e-mail interactions at his institute. S and Sasha shared scholarly interests and S had often helped Sasha to arrange for visiting American scholars to see colleagues outside of the Institute of Psychology. S responded positively to this idea both as a scholar and as administrator. But he was unable to carry out the work himself and he could not find any member of the scientific staff to undertake the task. As he put it, “I can’t assign such work to an engineer or a secretary, that would be senseless.”
In September 1991, S was drawn into international networking when he received a message via Psy-Pub from an American scholar whom he had known and corresponded with for several years. (The American was responding to the e-mail announcement of the opening of a public access e-mail account at the Institute of Psychology distributed by LCHC). As a result, S gained a minimal first-hand experience of the emotional impact of rapid international communication, which further predisposed him to the idea of creating an e-mail node at the Institute.
Note that at this time, it was still impossible even to begin such a discussion in a normal institute of the Academy of Sciences. The idea would have seemed preposterous as it did to the Academic Secretary in Institute #1. But in this Institute, the administration took the idea in stride because of S’s prior experience. In addition, a scholar, L, based at another institute, but who knew S well and whose professional expertise overlapped significantly with that of S’s Institute, was one of the earliest, and most active, users of Psy-Pub. Initially he kept his involvement in Psy-Pub to himself, but within a relatively short period of time, this scholar became a sort of “collective user” of Psy-Pub. He sent and received not only mail for himself, but for his disciplinary colleagues in several institutes, including Institute #3 His network of connections provided an excellent foundation for initiating e-mail at the Institute.
In the Fall of 1992 a young staff member at the Institute, A, returned from a lengthy visit at an American university. During his stay, A had come to use e-mail as a routine part of his daily work. Most significantly for future developments, he had begun communicating regularly with his colleagues in Moscow through the active mediation and assistance of L.
No sooner did he arrive home than A phoned Sasha and came to visit her home office. He even brought with him a formal letter requesting that VeGa set up an e-mail note at the Institute. It didn’t take Sasha long to realize that the element heretofore missing at the Institute, a competent and motivated scientific staff member, had made its appearance. A was ready, even anxious, to take responsibility for creating and supporting an open access node at the Institute.
A distinguishing characteristic of e-mail at this Institute was that from the very beginning, as if it was totally self evident, the initiating group created a broad and deep acceptance of open-access e-mail use. Almost immediately a postmaster’s group was formed consisting of three scholars and one person with an engineering-technical background. They actively sought joint projects with colleagues abroad and cooperated with VeGa in every way possible to promote the spread of open-access e-mail use. They posted information from VeGa about potential e-mail contacts on a prominent bulletin board and advised interested colleagues in other institutions to contact VeGa on their own.
This active promotional work by the Institute became clear a month after they began to use e-mail when Sasha accompanied a large delegation of American scholars to several humanities/social sciences institutes. Everywhere she went, people said that they had learned about VeGa’s work from the Institute and wanted to know how to get involved. Some of these institutions were subsequently hooked up by VeGa. Those which were not officially part of the Russian Academy of Sciences (and thus, beyond our official mandate) began using Psy-Pub and the Institute #3 node.
At the Institute itself, the postmaster group divided up the working week so that one of them would always be around to offer assistance. They welcomed people from allied institutes to use the facilities if they wanted, and several who had been using Psy-Pub began to use the Institute’s node. They made it clear that theirs was an open access node, on the model of Psy-Pub. They began posting information of general professional interest from the network. This practice was so popular with visitors that they began printing up copies for people to take with them and when the supply was exhausted, they simply printed more.
Within the first two months of its existence, 15 members of the Institute became relatively frequent users, often sending and receiving several messages a day. The postmasters also subscribed to a variety of list-servers in the Institute’s field of specialization so that anyone could come and print out a copy if they so wished.
Although this Institute’s e-mail practices could be considered exemplary, they were not developed without a struggle. The high level of interest and participation brought problems of its own: the single communications computer soon bore a heavy load of users.
A problem that soon cropped up, as it did in many locations, was that many users insisted in obtaining and storing their own copies of informational materials from abroad in their own uploads on the shared computer’s hard disk. Since the postmaster made all such information available in a common file, which could be read or printed on request, such duplication was, at a minimum, unnecessary. However, given the limited storage space on the communicating computer’s hard disk and the fact that there was not an infinitely large budget for sending and receiving information, this duplication was sometimes quite disruptive. The hard disk became overloaded with multiple copies of long documents and budgets were exceeded. VeGa footed the bills and offered help when trouble occurred, but did not directly interfere, leaving it to the postmasters to work out local solutions.
In the summer of 1993 the Institute experienced a “crisis of growth” in its use of e-mail. There were now two information boards containing information about teleconferences, electronic journals, and new addresses of interest. Usage was heavy, with about 25 regular users, despite the summer season.
In this context, S, our initial contact at the Institute, heard that IREX was engaged in a large program of introducing e-mail into Academy institutes. Despite the many times that he had been told that VeGa’s program of activities was carried out in collaboration with IREX’s effort, S decided, “just in case,” to contact IREX and to ask to be made a member of the IREX network. When the IREX representative asked if S was working with VeGa at the Institute, he replied “Yes, but we want to join IREX.” When told that he needed to contact VeGa, S called Sasha. She told him that the postmasters had not told her of the urgent need for additional telecommunications facilities. In the conversation, it became clear that S was interested in getting additional facilities and figured that the best route was to go to the rich Americans. Sasha explained that some institutes had two or more nodes when there was heavy demand, the issue was to figure out what sort of expansion was needed and possible, and who would pay for it.
In light of these new demands, a meeting was organized at the Institute to discuss what to do. Several VeGa staff attended, ready to offer different kinds of assistance. To their disappointment, only the Academic Secretary (S), the postmasters, and the Director of a new, autonomous, research center within the Institute were present. S said that he had been unable organize a meeting for the rank and file of the Institute. As it turned out, however, S had his own agenda. He argued that VeGa should provide a second node to the new research center. He indicated several large-scale projects that such increased resources were needed for.
Sasha asked that over the course of the next month, the members of the Institute come up with a plausible plan for re-dividing their duties to support a second node. As it turned out, the more technically oriented postmaster was happy to become the postmaster of the second node and the research center was happy to house it and provide a computer.
Over time, this new division of labor proved to be productive. Eventually the research center agreed to begin paying its own telecommunications costs while the remainder of the Institute was eventually linked to the high quality academic net associated with Moscow University and subsidized by RELARN. As before, the Institute remained exceptional in its propagation of the practice of open access.
Institute #4 offered a number of special features for our research. Its staff was well connected to the scientific establishment and its Director was the chairman of an Academy committee on communication and new technologies. This committee was constituted in November 1991 when the Academy had ceased to be the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, but had not yet become the Academy of Russia. Representatives of various foundations, including the Carnegie Corporation and IREX, were invited to the initial meeting of this committee which took place at Institute #4. Sasha knew from members of the Academy that such a committee had been created to formulate new approaches to international communication via telecommunications and the use of new technologies for information exchange. Sasha’s participation was unofficial– she had been invited by one of the members of the committee.
When Sasha heard what they were saying she got very upset because the ideas they were discussing were several years out of date. They knew nothing about what was happening with computer networking in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and they had little idea about the real situation involving international communication.
Sasha, although uninvited, intervened by summarizing the state of affairs as she saw it. The Institute’s Director reacted sharply and emotionally to her description of the existing situation. He declared that real telecommunications was still impossible. He challenged Sasha to demonstrate that it was possible for him personally and for his institute to start using electronic communications right away. Sasha replied that VeGa was prepared to give him this opportunity, and gave her personal word that it would be done.
This emotional confrontation in front of a large audience began the Institute’s involvement in international communication. The Director accepted her challenge and he too expended a lot of energy in seeing that communication lines were in fact established.
Shortly thereafter, in December, a member of the VeGa staff went to the Institute to install e-mail. He was optimistic about the prospects. He found that the Institute already had several computers, so they only needed to be supplied with a modem. He also received an enthusiastic reception from the Deputy Director and he discovered that a competent and motivated staff member of the Institute had been assigned the task of postmaster. As he put it, “Even though this is a humanities person, he has a technical bent :-).” He also noted that during the time he spent at the Institute, word of the new facility spread and people came by to ask if computer mail was now working. This initial session ended with the postmaster sending several test messages, including one to me announcing the appearance of the new connection.
A month later the institute’s postmaster wrote to Sasha and me to report that he had established contact for the Institute with scholars from several universities in the US and other countries. In these initial messages he had pursued the possibility for exchanging the Institute’s journal for journals from other countries, in view of the fact that Institute had no money to pay for foreign journals.
Another interesting fact about this Institute’s introduction to e-mail was that the Director started using the facility within the first week of its existence, contacting an important American scholar who had long-standing contacts with the Institute: again, he focused on exchange of scholarly information, asking for suggestions for how to constitute an international board of editors for the Institute’s prestigious journal.
In February, 1992, two months after e-mail contacts had been introduced into the Institute, VeGa, with the support of the Institute’s Director, organized a large meeting there, open to all of its staff, to discuss the possibilities of using the electronic network and the initial results from the network’s use. The VeGa staff were asked a lot of questions by the participants. Some of the staff members directly expressed their disbelief that open communication, controlled neither by the administration of the Institute nor Russian security forces could possibly exist. Others said that before long, those who used this open access would pay— not with money, but, more seriously, with their scientific careers, if not worse. And there were also voices expressing skepticism about the good intentions of Carnegie, VeGa, and my laboratory. The Director of the Institute, the postmaster, and those who had begun to use the network were in the minority in this discussion. But there was one important, positive, fact about this situation: an open discussion about telecommunications was possible in this Institute.
During the following week, the staff of VeGa followed up on the general meeting. They worked closely with the postmaster and those Institute staff who were prepared to learn about the system and establish contacts. Sasha met often with the Director to discuss the many problems that arose and his interest grew steadily. In the ensuing period VeGa maintained close contacts with the postmaster and together they tried as best they could to solve any technical and organizational programs which might interfere with the regular and effective use of e-mail.
Despite these efforts, in April e-mail use came to a halt at the Institute owing to the convergence of several problems—the computer used for e-mail had broken down, the person in the office where the e-mail computer was housed decided it was a nuisance and had demanded its removal, the Director was involved in a struggle over leadership of the Institute, and while there were other computers at the Institute that might have been used for e-mail, no one was willing to have their computer used for this purpose. The postmaster urged the Director to hold another general meeting to ask what should be done about e-mail use, and asked VeGa to send staff. Sasha responded by attending the meeting with three staff people.
This meeting lasted for several hours and led to a new level of international use of e-mail at the Institute. The Institute prepared and distributed an announcement of a bibliographic data base covering their area of specialization. LCHC helped the Institute distribute this announcement through the network, as a result of which they found several interested partners in other countries.
But at this point, when it appeared that problems of e-mail usage at the Institute had been solved, the postmaster went on a two month trip to Western Europe. His absence had no impact on those who had become independent, individual users. But those who had been used to getting assistance with sending and receiving mail floundered; they gave diskettes with material to be uploaded, but nothing happened. The substitute postmaster was overwhelmed and instead of turning to others (including VeGa) for help, he simply sat on the problems, failing even to answer urgent messages from the first postmaster for contact with his colleagues back at the Institute.
As it turned out, one of the messages that went unsent was written to me by the Director of the Institute. Since we had corresponded previously, and he knew me to be reliable in responding in a timely manner to e-mail correspondence, one might have thought he would make inquiries when no response came from me for several weeks. I learned of the problem when the original postmaster returned home and forwarded a message that had been written two months earlier. When Sasha questioned his hesitation to make inquiries, the Director said that he would have said something sooner, but he was afraid that I did not consider it necessary to respond to e-mail if I didn’t want to.
In the Fall of 1992 an extraordinary event gave another boost to e-mail use by the Institute and simultaneously revealed the enormous difficulty that my Russian colleague had in understanding my involvement in promoting their use of e-mail. The precipitating event was the publication of material that had been highly secret in both the US and the USSR, which continued to pose dangers of a serious kind. The Director wrote to me about my opinion of the matter, and not being an expert, I redirected the queries to others who could comment more adequately.
There ensued an extended, intense, and emotional discussion that drew in large numbers of Institute staff, many non-Russian scholars, and VeGa staff. Some time after this affair was concluded in a manner that the participants seemed to find satisfactory, I received a note from the Institute’s postmaster that made clear his, and his colleagues’ puzzlement about my behavior. He thanked me for my help in the development of e-mail in general and in dealing with the sensitive issue of publishing here-to-for secret materials and concluded by asking me, “from our side, how can we help you with your plans?” Put differently, what everyone wanted to know were my real reasons for providing them with so much assistance. My attempt to explain that by engaging in joint scientific activity through e-mail they were doing what I was seeking was no more believable than my behavior.
It is worth mentioning that even after a full year of e-mail use at the Institute there were still several staff members at the Institute who continued to use VeGa’s public access node, which we had renamed Comm-Pub to mark the transition to involvement with the entire set of Academy humanities/social sciences institutes. Some continued using Comm-Pub because they had begun doing so before their Institute obtained e-mail and it was convenient for them. We supported their activities in the name of free choice, although it was clear that they were offering no help to their local colleagues. Others used Comm-Pub when they sensed some sort of organizational barrier or technical difficulty at the Institute might delay their messages. One person openly declared that he did not want to use e-mail at the Institute because his colleagues were sure to steal his foreign contact or the administration would forbid access. It took more than a year to convince this person that neither fear was justified and he finally switched to using the Institute’s facilities.
As the first year of e-mail use at the Institute came to a close there were elections for Director of the Institute. The only one of the candidates to make the spread of e-mail one of his programmatic promises was the existing Director. The election was a virtual tie, but a different Director was eventually selected. This change somewhat modified VeGa’s relations to the Institute, but did not appreciably slow the development of telecommunications usage. The new Director, despite his indifference to e-mail when he took on the job, discovered that its use had become essential to the Institute’s work. He, like his predecessor, became an advocate.
An important factor in maintaining the momentum of e-mail development was that it had come to be accepted as essential to the work of the Institute by the staff itself. This change in orientation is indicated by an occasion when the Institute’s modem broke. A VeGa staff member came and took it out for repair, but people could not tolerate its absence. To get through the “crisis” a member of the Institute staff brought his own modem from home for general usage.
This changed attitude provided one important new condition for the continuing development of telecommunications work at this Institute, but as the number of active users grew, and the range of activities they wanted to engage in grew as well, the lack of resources of various kinds created difficulties. We tried to help by providing a new computer for e-mail use, but our help only partly relieved the pressure. Overcrowding of offices, bad telephone lines from many offices, and high demand for computer access of all kinds meant that people had to find a way to share essential facilities.
Despite these problems, at the start of the second year of telecommunications activity in December, 1992, there were 16 active users, most of whom went on-line once or more a day. By the summer of 1993, despite the fact that many people were away on vacation, there were 30 regular users. By the end of October, there were 45 regular users, and by the start of the third year, one-third of all staff members were active e-mail users. By this time there were two VeGa-sponsored accounts at the Institute, doubling its access capacity and four formal postmasters were aided in their work by many staff members who had mastered the activities well enough to assist others.
Not only did the number of users increase—the range of activities for which telecommunications was used increased as well. The Institute’s prestigious journal routinely used e-mail to conduct its business, not only with foreign colleagues, but internally in Russia as well. A number of collaborative projects were initiated with foreign partners that garnered badly needed financial support.
An important new use of e-mail that grew up during this period pointed up one of the paradoxical effects of our introduction of e-mail into the Institute. As a result of their heavy involvement in international communication, an unusually large number of members of this Institute had been able to obtain coveted invitations to spend time in foreign institutions. This situation produced an ambivalent response. On the one hand, everyone recognized it was normal and even essential for these scholars to develop international ties and to find a way to survive the severe economic difficulties they faced at home. In this frame, e-mail was a god-send. But in so far as e-mail was the cause of a brain drain, it evoked suspicion about our project’s motives.
Positive or negative, the presence of a large contingent of Institute staff abroad and their need to be in e-mail contact with colleagues at home revealed an important difference in the conditions and norms of e-mail use in Russia and abroad that was the source of misunderstanding in all of the Institutes with which we worked. To those working in Western Europe or North America, where computers are plentiful and telephone lines reliable, there are no logistical barriers to daily use of e-mail and hence rapid response times (whether or not individuals care to avail themselves of the opportunity). In Russia, however, as we have indicated, resources are scarce and sharing is a necessary norm (this is still true in early 1996, although the situation is a little better than it was in 1992-1994). Quite apart from considerations of e-mail usage, Russian scholars often go to their institute offices only once or twice a week. In addition, Russian scholars have had to supplement their inadequate salaries by moonlighting which makes their appearance at their institutes even more rare.
As a consequence of all these factors, non-Russian scholars often feel that their Russian colleagues respond inadequately to their efforts at communication. Russians at home believe that they are actively using e-mail and do not understand why their participation is seen as inadequate, often attributing something akin to fanaticism on the part of their Western partners because of their hyper use of e-mail. What the experience of Institute scholars who spent time outside of the Institute revealed was that we were not dealing here with a national personality difference, but the concrete conditions of access and use; Institute scholars abroad were appalled by the slow, and “inadequate” work of their colleagues at home when they communicated from abroad.
Our interviews with staff at this Institute reveal that telecommunications has now become a foundational part of the Institute’s infrastructure. There is genuinely open access, subject only to the limitation of computer resources, which have become progressively more abundant with the passage of time.
Information about the existence of e-mail came to Institute #5 from contacts between its Director and the Director of Institute #2 which had established e-mail contact through VeGa during the Fall of 1991. However, the Institute #5 Director was given to believe that e-mail access was exclusively the privilege of Institute #2 as a result of its “special relationship” with the Carnegie Corporation. As a favor, Institute #2 allowed a few people from Institute #5 to use their account.
In November, 1991, when Sasha held a meeting of the Directors of all the Human Sciences Institutes at the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, the Director of Institute #5 obtained his initial first-hand information about the possibilities of using e-mail at his institute. He approached Sasha to see about getting on-line. When she responded favorably, he said he would call within the next few days.
When the Director did not call, Sasha called him and invited him to come either to the VeGa lab at the Institute of Psychology or to her home. He chose the latter alternative, having heard that the Director of Institute #2 had been invited to her home. He brought along his deputy Director, and the two men were quite excited by the demonstration of how e-mail worked and the possibilities it offered for interaction with partners from different countries.
Following this meeting, which lasted several hours, two members of the Institute began to use e-mail at Psy-Pub. In January, 1992, e-mail was installed at Institute #5 and the Director sent a message to me and Sasha outlining three major themes he would like to pursue through e-mail, focusing on the organization of conferences, the publication and exchange of scholarly materials, and the development of joint research programs.
Initially use of e-mail at the Institute was restricted to only a few people who did not communicate with each other or their colleagues about the presence there of e-mail. As a means of opening up access, Sasha organized a meeting at the Institute for the entire staff of the Institute. She invited four visiting scholars, two of whom had been sent by Carnegie to report on progress in the implementation of the project, and two of whom were in Moscow to attend a conference at the Institute of Psychology. Sasha gave her standard talk about the fact that VeGa was providing free access as a way of introducing e-mail, but that VeGa’s support depended upon the provision of open access to all within the Institute. Each of the visitors gave a brief account of the ways in which he used e-mail as a regular part of his scholarly activity. This set of presentations produced several questions and a good deal of discussion, encouraging Sasha to believe that the use of the e-mail link would be markedly increased.
One circumstance indicated that matters would not be so simple. In the informal discussion following the meeting, three people approached Sasha individually to find out how they could get access to e-mail from home for private use. She gave them the phone numbers of telecommunications advisors and invited them to call VeGa if they needed more information. These people made no effort to support e-mail access at the Institute.
In May, 1992, the Institute was connected to Freenet, one of the service providers competing for users. But technical difficulties, including severe difficulty finding an open line to Freenet, made usage too difficult.
In June a member of the Institute came to Psy-Pub to send e-mail to a colleague abroad. Curious about why someone would travel across town to send e-mail when such a facility existed at her own Institute, the VeGa postmaster asked what was wrong at the Institute. She was told that a complicated situation had arisen. It seems that an additional computer had been donated by some Americans, but there were technical difficulties. The Director and postmaster were on a trip, and it seemed that no one was looking after the e-mail facilities that VeGa had set up. As a consequence, while there was heavy demand to use e-mail, no mail had been sent or received for some time. She herself had decided that it would be quicker and simpler to travel to the VeGa lab than to try to send mail from her own Institute.
For the time being, the VeGa staff decided there was no point in pressuring Institute staff. The preconditions for success were not present. There were, to be sure, individual successes—the postmaster sent and received mail for himself. But when he left, no one who remained at the Institute knew how to use the facility.
In February, 1993, a member of the VeGa staff visited the Institute to assess the situation. She looked for the person assigned to be postmaster with whom she had been in contact by phone five days earlier. He had promised to provide a report of e-mail use at the Institute, but he was not there. It turned out that he had gone on a trip for two months. When, subsequently, the VeGa staff member contacted the Director of the Institute, the Director said that he thought there were two postmasters. But neither person so designated was fulfilling the postmaster function and it was not possible to discern whether or not e-mail was being used at all. (We could not check on usage because Freenet did not provide records to access providers.)
A few weeks later the VeGa staff member returned to the institute in search of either of the two putative postmasters. No postmasters were there, only a young assistant. When asked about e-mail, the assistant said that“in this institute people used faxes. ” He had been led to understand that e-mail was cheaper, but, he explained, they didn’t know anyone’s address.
He directed the staff member to a notice about e-mail on the bulletin board where announcements of activities were posted. There she found a small notice which read:
The Institute has been provided with an electronic mail system by the International VeGa laboratory (paid for by the Carnegie fund), so it is possible that your message will be read by the staff of the VeGa Laboratory. For further information see Ms. L.
When the VeGa staff member went in search of Ms. L to inquire how such misinformation got distributed, she could find neither Ms. L nor anyone else with relevant information. Follow-up phone calls to an acquaintance at the Institute didn’t help. The acquaintance, who wanted to use e-mail herself, reported that the room where the computer was housed was always under lock and key; no one entered or left the room so far as she could tell.
The following week the VeGa staff member went in search of the Institute Director. Her fieldnotes follow:
I went to the Director’s office to talk to the Director. The secretary said that the Director would not be in that day. I told her I was interested in finding out about e-mail use and asked her to tell me the number of L’s office, since the office indicated in the notice on the bulletin board had been closed for two days. The secretary said she didn’t know anything about a Person L, that there wasn’t any such person in the institute. Right then there was a man who said that the electronic mail was at his center, but that they were probably going to give it to someone else. He said that his name was S, and that he was a scientific consultant for the institute’s journal. S was vague when I asked him where the e-mail terminal was to be put. He said that this would be the Director’s decision. He said that he himself was against getting e-mail from the very beginning because in Eastern Europe there was no e-mail and members of the institute were particularly interested in contacts with those countries. I asked S how he knew that. He said that they had offered to correspond with their partners by e-mail but they had received no replies so they decided their partners did not have e-mail.
I told S that the staff at the institute couldn’t find the postmaster at his work place and they were saying that the door was constantly locked. S stood up and answered angrily that the institute staff was inclined to be badly informed and that the door was open from 10 to 6 and that someone was always there. After listening to me talk about VeGa, and about how we need to know about e-mail use in the institute, S said that e-mail was essential and that they needed it. Then he suggested that we set up a trial period for the institute (approximately 2 weeks) and have VeGa’s staff inspect the site’s work so they would see that it was functioning normally.
Two weeks later, by prior arrangement, two staff members from the Institute came to the VeGa lab. They had encountered Sasha by accident and she had suggested that they get help from her staff. They told the staff that the person designated as postmaster was away so often that someone else had been designated to take his place. But the replacement postmaster never came to the Institute. They asked, and received, help about how to find out the addresses of institutes and scholars in Europe with whom they wanted to establish contacts.
Faced with these difficulties, VeGa suggested that the Institute appoint someone as postmaster who would actually carry out those duties. A group of postmasters was put together and VeGa provided training and consultation to help them deal with their tasks. Difficulties also arose because Cyrillic capability had not been installed on the e-mail computer which was placed in one office while the postmaster worked in another office. Despite these difficulties, e-mail usage began to take place at a modest, but steady rate and in March, 1993 the Institute opened a second account with RELCOM, a major service provider, giving them two gateways to the world of electronic communication.
In April, 1993 VeGa, in collaboration with the Science Committee of the Russian Duma, organized a large public meeting of all social science and humanities institutes in the Moscow region about telecommunications and science. In the course of organizing this meeting, Sasha discovered that Institute #5 had put forward a proposal for support of telecommunications on the grounds that it had absolutely no access to international communication through e-mail! She was, to say the least, surprised by this initiative. Instead of causing a scandal, she and the staff at the Duma decided to work collaboratively to figure out what the problems were and to solve them as best they could.
Over the course of the next two years, the VeGa staff held periodic meetings at the Institute to explain again the possibilities for using e-mail and to counter the misunderstandings that seemed to crop up regularly. Sasha kept in contact with the Director of the Institute who took no direct role in these developments, but continued to express his support for the expansion of telecommunications activities. VeGa staff also provided consultation on request. E-mail usage at the Institute expanded in several directions. The public access e-mail node continued to struggle, but despite many setbacks, it became an independently functioning facility that is supported in a modest way by the Institute’s budget and by a subsidy from RELARN. In addition, special, internally funded projects have been initiated which have involved the heavy use of telecommunications.
When direct, on-line internet access came to the Academy of Sciences building housing the Institute, a project from this institute was one of the first to go on-line. Characteristically, however, this project involved only three staff in one laboratory.
Our first contact with this Institute dates back to our attempts to create a communication subcommission in the Spring of 1986 when a member of the Institute’s administration was included in the planning group. Although the subcommission never came into being, Sasha kept the Director of the Institute, who also held an important position in the Academy of Sciences, informed of the progress and problems of VelHam. In this latter capacity, he was immediately informed about the open communication node, Psy-Pub, at the Institute of Psychology, in September, 1991.
Despite this promising history, the Director was not the initiator of telecommunications from the Institute. Instead, in the only case of its kind, the initiator was a member of the Academy’s foreign office, who was interested in starting a program of collaborative research with a corresponding organization in Western Europe. He proposed a highly qualified staff member of the Institute as the person on the ground to initiate the project.
In November, 1991, after a discussion between the foreign office staff member, the Institute representative, and Sasha, an account for the Institute was opened. They used an Institute computer supplemented by a modem from the VeGa lab.
Not long after their introduction to telecommunications, Carnegie sent a small group of experts to evaluate the real possibilities of e-mail use by scholars in Moscow. One of these experts took a personal interest in supporting the developing contacts of this Institute, leading to a period of intensive growth in international interactions, which VeGa and LCHC actively supported by forwarding mail and seeking out specific contacts in relevant professional associations in North America and Western Europe.
This intense effort provoked a big response from abroad, which induced its own “growing pains.” The work of this Institute required accurate translations but facilities for transmitting Cyrillic were still being developed, requiring scholars on both sides to struggle for accuracy in their translations. VeGa supported the development of the use of Cyrillic and helped track down difficulties in responding to mail when the Institute’s uninitiated users had difficulties with addresses.
Very quickly the scholars at the Institute formed three distinctive groups with respect to e-mail use:
1. The Director and his deputy.
2. The “vanguard group” which included the person from the Academy involved in a special project, and participants in two other relatively well articulated projects.
3. The non-computer users.
The Director and his deputy displayed a combination of good will and skepticism toward e-mail use by Institute staff. They supported the exploration of the potential of the new form of communication, but took a “wait and see” attitude toward the eventual outcome.
The vanguard group worked actively and progressed quickly but it did not try to inform the employees of other Institute groups about their activities and results. Initially this group created some misinformation about the availability of e-mail which were straightened out by the visiting experts from Carnegie and information provided by Psy-Pub users associated with the Institute.
Within three months, a crisis arose in the use of e-mail at the Institute because of the vanguard group’s successes. New users sought access and the vanguard group began actively to maintain their de facto monopoly. The Institute Director called a meeting of all interested staff to which he invited VeGa staff as active participants/consultants. At this meeting his attitude toward telecommunications had clearly changed: he too was interested in developing a number of specific contacts. After a stormy meeting, the vanguard group agreed to divide its powers with several other interested groups in the Institute. At the same time, a new postmaster was appointed. This person worked for the staff member who had implemented the first, highly successful, e-mail project at the Institute.
There followed a period of greatly expanded e-mail usage. Judging from the reports of the original postmaster, it appeared to us that e-mail usage had become generally accessible to Institute staff. But VeGa experienced difficulty contacting the new postmaster, whose computer experience was minimal. For several months the original postmaster made contact with Sasha regularly and when asked about the new postmaster urged that VeGa not get too involved: “You’ll just frighten people and make the Director think that you are trying to exert control over him.”
In the Fall of 1992, VeGa conducted a workshop for postmasters from all the Institutes then being supported and this time insisted that the new postmaster from the Institute participate. The new postmaster’s report of events at the Institute was a distinct shock. It turned out that she was experiencing a lot of difficulties. At the same time that she received no help from her colleagues she was instructed not to seek assistance from VeGa. The problems were of many kinds:
- Many people wanted to open mailboxes, but she did not know how to do this.
- People were interested in teleconferences, but did not know the etiquette or technical protocols for using them.
- Foreign contacts failed to understand that they had only one really functioning e-mail computer for the entire institute, little paper to print on, no diskettes, and only primitive knowledge of how the system worked. People did not bring her uploads to be sent on diskettes, but written on paper expecting her to act as secretary-typist, greatly slowing interactions and dampening her interest in the job of postmaster.
- The Director used the system himself, but failed to provide facilities for others. Thus, while other machines could have been provided, he saw no reason to do so.
The VeGa staff were uncertain about how to deal with this information. Sasha started some discrete inquiries to see if she could figure out what was going on “from the inside.” All she encountered was mutual recriminations of various parties, one against the other, so she decided to play for time in order to get a better understanding of how to intervene productively. When the opportunity arose, VeGa staff interacted with different parties, seeking to figure out ways to help overcome the internal disputes. The original vanguard group continued to consult with VeGa about how to expand their contacts and my group at LCHC continued to forward potentially interesting information to the Institute on the assumption (incorrect as it turned out) that the information was being democratically distributed to everyone.
It is important to note that by late 1992, when these events were occurring, the economic situation for Russian scholars had become increasingly desperate. The dire situation was revealed in many ways. For example, late in the year VeGa became concerned that many presumably open nodes were, in effect, closed because people could not gain entry to the buildings where they were located (this problem was particularly acute for those institutes housed in the large new Academy building on Gagarin Square). When checking out the situation for this Institute, which was housed in a once-elegant mansion not far from the Kremlin, a VeGa staff member reported that a significant part of the Institute’s space had been rented out to a commercial enterprise as a way of trying to cover its expenses, causing severe problems: “… a room which to me always seemed very crowded, and was literally stuffed with cabinets, shelves, boxes and people, must now house 58 people! Of course all they have to do is simply stop coming to work.” There was no problem gaining access to the building. The receptionist did not stop anyone from entering. But getting access to e-mail once inside meant braving a terribly overburdened system.
In December Sasha accidentally obtained more information about the situation at the Institute. A friend of her son’s attended a birthday party at her apartment and it turned out that the friend was married to an internationally prominent academic who worked at the Institute. During the evening she started to recount the impossible situation her husband was working in: he was deeply involved in international issues but the Institute had only recently installed a fax donated by foreigners three years earlier, international mails were not working, and his work was being severely damaged.
At Sasha’s urging, this scholar called her the next day. He had heard nothing about e-mail in the Institute. She told him to go to his Director and the postmaster. He went to the Director who denounced the postmaster as the guilty party and suggested that the postmaster be fired. The professor reported all of this to Sasha and then went on an extended visit abroad.
So, a year after the Institute became connected, the situation was a lot more discouraging than it had been a month after it opened. The initial enthusiast-postmaster was prospering—her contacts had expanded enormously with a good deal of assistance from VeGa, LCHC, and the Carnegie experts. But the postmaster was not active, ordinary users were more or less excluded from e-mail unless they worked through VeGa’s own public access node, and the Directorship of the Institute was disgusted with e-mail. They touted their newly functional fax machine as the preferred instrument of communication.
In early 1993 matters became even more critical at the Institute. The postmaster came to VeGa for advice on how to expand existing projects in light of the lack of support from the Institute’s administration. Sasha directed her toward IREX, suggesting that she submit a proposal for an independent project on the basis of extensive and successful past experience. In the middle of this initiative, which was well received by IREX, she was fired from the Institute. This unexpected turn of events led to a totally new situation for the project. We had to deal with the fact that while the Institute wanted to continue e-mail use, the initial postmaster had landed a much better job at another institute which now sought e-mail connections support by the VeGa!
Use of telecommunications at the Institute languished. A few scholars continued to engage in international communication, but often they preferred to use VeGa’s public access node. When VeGa and the Moscow Duma’s Committee on Science conducted the first general, open discussion of problems of telecommunications use in May of 1993, none of the scholars from Institute #6 came. Instead, their former colleague and postmaster spoke from the perspective of her new institute, providing a clear standard of high level and successful usage for others to emulate if they could.
Following this meeting, VeGa decided to stir the pot at the Institute. They made several inconclusive contacts with the Director, who asked for more time to straighten things out. But a visit from a VeGa staff member indicated that the modem remained unconnected. In June Sasha and her colleagues decided to force a crisis in order to see if they could get the process of expanding participation in international communication back on track. Sasha called the Director and announced that she and her staff were coming over later in the day to check things out to see if there was any point in continuing support of the Institute’s telecommunications node. Fieldnotes from a member of the VeGa staff provide a good feel for what ensued:
Today I raised a big stink. The Director preferred not to get involved himself—he stationed his deputy out on the front line. The latter tried to explain that “we are moving the computers into another room.” They have been moving them since January! And they had expressly hired a person to work with computers and electronic mail.
I said I was on my way over to their institute and that 40 minutes from now I would pick up this new postmaster and take him to Comlab, so that he could start working on his own the next day. The deputy was worried because the future postmaster [a young woman] was at lunch and might be delayed or unable to make it. …I said no sweat, if worst came to worst I’d take the custodian or whoever I ran into, so that whoever it was could write TODAY, June 1, about what was going on in e-mail. I was playing around a little, of course, but it took some nerve.
The new postmaster was in fact brought over to Comlab for training that day. It turned out that she was a senior majoring in “industrial electronics” who had been hired the week before, shown the computer and modem, and left to figure things out for herself. She encountered a computer with no cables and a disconnected modem. She had no idea about telecommunications.
On the way from the Institute to the VeGa laboratory, Sasha explained as best she could about what e-mail was and what a postmaster was expected to do. To give her at least some feel for what was involved, the VeGa staff demonstrated how the equipment operated and got her to write a note to me, which I answered the same day. Sasha also wrote to her through e-mail and we forwarded materials of potential interest to a variety of Institute staff.
Over the course of the next several months, it became clear that while the technical situation at the Institute was considerably better, the overall situation vis-a-vis e-mail use was not. On the technical side, a new staff member with a high level of technical skills began to interest himself in promoting e-mail use and for a while it appeared that at last involvement in telecommunications might become a general activity at the Institute. Before long, this new staff member took over as postmaster and judging simply from the level of usage, matters had indeed progressed considerably.
Unfortunately, a pattern soon developed where the new postmaster seemed to be actively avoiding contact with VeGa. He participated in a training institute run by VeGa to introduce them to work on the internet. But he said he knew nothing about any international projects being conducted at the Institute, nor was there any evidence that the circle of users was expanding, although his own level of activity was skyrocketing. VeGa decided to wait a while before inquiring directly about the situation, since the postmaster more or less regularly contacted them to tell them that everything was normal.
Reality, however, turned out to be quite different. Many months later, when Sasha wrote to the Institute asking for a summary of recent achievements as part of her need to provide a progress report to Carnegie, the postmaster did not respond. She noticed that the Institute had not participated in a special e-mail discussion that they, themselves, had asked to be created. When Sasha looked into this situation, she discovered that the new postmaster had set himself up in business. He was charging Institute staff to use e-mail and had succeeded in convincing them that the fees he was charging were demanded by VeGa!
At present, e-mail still exists at this Institute. But nothing resembling normal procedures let alone a culture of open access to communications, has developed there.
From the introduction of telecommunications at this Institute in February of 1992, there began a persistent misunderstanding concerning who had access. The dominant belief held by members of the Institute was that access was provided by Americans (Carnegie) only to Americans (who worked at the Institute either on a long visit or for graduate studies). In fact, VeGa had nothing to do with the visiting Americans. VeGa tried hard to undo this misunderstanding, but it remained unshakable for a long time.
When I began writing this account, a certain portion of the Institute’s employees had been swayed. But this conscious or subconscious misunderstanding was exhibited and supported even by S, the Vice-Director of the Institute, who headed the division where the young American’s were working. An environment of closed access persisted despite VeGa’s long-term, uninterrupted work with the Institute.
Early on, Sasha organized two general meetings to explain everything in great detail. Sasha and her staff took detailed fieldnotes relating their interpretations of the situation among the employees and among the management of that Institute. The first meeting was held with about 30 supervisors in July of 1992. Members in attendance turned out to be either intimidated by the technology or unprepared to grasp the basic tenets of open access. Some of the confusion can be attributed to the introduction of this particular, relatively new technology during a period of immense social change (likely unique to the Soviet dissolve). In a note of July 13, 1992, a VeGa staff member described some of the managers’ inquiries:
The attendees asked a variety of questions. One person asked: “Are we going to be guinea pigs?”—and a discussion unfolded on this subject. When Jim (a VeGa staff member) was telling them about (tele) conferences, one person exclaimed: “That’s too bad that the messages get sent to all the addresses!” Jim explained that a conference is created for the very purpose of making it possible for participants to discuss various subjects (as a group).
This meeting proved ineffectual. People left without a comprehensive understanding of the use and function of telecommunications which VeGa explained with care. According to M, who regularly consulted with the VeGa employees via e-mail about technical questions, in January 1993 there were 15 users. By March 1993 there were 7 (by that time the American graduate students had left), but in fact not a single user (aside from the Americans) had their own mailbox or was a regular user.
It appeared to VeGa staff that M either did not understand or did not accept the goals posed for him by VeGa. He did not distribute any information to Institute employees. He passed the information received from VeGa only to the management. He did not try to help people who wanted to use e-mail. He said he was not interested, and his only duty was to send and receive mail. Access remained limited, and those participating were infrequent users.
In March, 1993 Sasha spoke with the vice Director K, who said he was uninformed about the situation. Sasha requested that K deal with the situation. K turned to the manager of the information department, R who called Sasha. R said that if e-mail were set up in his office, he would make certain it was used in a manner consistent with VeGa’s open access requirements.
VeGa puzzled over what to do. They were convinced that they were not going to be able to reform the Institute’s administration; M’s initial node was going to be used to further the Institute’s ties with Americans and in particular, to be a drawing card for further American contacts. VeGa decided that they would set up second node at the Institute to see if R did indeed put together a real public access node.
In May of 1993 Sasha held another meeting at the Institute to inform “the masses” about the current state of e-mail possibilities. About 25 of the Institute’s 400 workers came. At this meeting, the Institute’s academic secretary attributed the failure of most Institute members to use e-mail to managerial preferences for faxing (“At the last meeting a year ago, we had made a mistake: the people we invited were mostly managers of subdivisions and all the information was hung up at the level of the managers. Meanwhile the managers have not been using e-mail, since they use fax.”)
Sasha publicly announced the installation of a second e-mail link, but for some in attendance, the revelation of the existence of the first site was itself surprising news. A VeGa staff member who wrote about this meeting reported:
AV (Sasha) was talking about the possibilities of telecommunications when there was a question from the audience “So do we have electronic mail now?” The question came from a young man. We should note that the majority of the people at the meeting were young employees of the Institute. AV said that the Institute has had e-mail for over a year, and for over a year VeGa has been trying to get the Institute employees interested in using it. One of the women present said “What sort of ‘use by all employees’ can you be talking about, when the computer is standing in S’s office?”
The man asked a question again “Why don’t we know about the fact that we can use electronic mail?” AV said that this is really an interesting question, since a year ago there had been a meeting with about thirty people present, and there had been quite a few explanations about the electronic mail and the possibilities of its usage.
About two weeks later, in June, VeGa installed the second e-mail site in the Institute, and trained a new and hopeful postmaster, G. The immediate turn of events from here were among the more ironic and humorous that occurred at the Institute. Over the course of a few months, this second site traveled from the Information Center to the Library, then later it turned up in the office of another Vice-Director at the Institute. Finally both computers with modems found their way to the desk of the Director’s secretary! The users were very few, partially because this atmosphere created around telecommunications made it impossible for organizers or Institute members to grasp what was occurring. Here is a clear case in which the Institute’s administration was successful in recreating centralized control over communications using e-mail, despite our attempts at decentralized access.
As for the new postmaster, G, she did not stay long. She soon became one of the Directors of an international project and began traveling on business trips to distant cities, connecting and providing computer education for users. VeGa’s postmaster training clearly prepared her for continued computer networking. The effects of training postmasters, or having them at all, is far more ambiguous in its effects than G’s “success story.”
Later that year, someone gained unauthorized access to one of the two nodes used by the Institute. VeGa, in collaboration with the staff of the network provider, tried to locate this person and to understand in what ways and for how long this person would continue to break the law, to say nothing of VeGa’s trust. The Institute closed this node and the Americans carted their computer back to the US.
Closing the first node did not solve the problem. The mysterious user continued to work in the network a great many hours a week and bills kept coming to VeGa. The Vice Director of the Institute wrote to the culprit, requesting a response and identification, as did Sasha, the postmaster, and a network representative. They received no response. The institute knew that this person was somehow connected to its regular staff, to the postmasters, or to the Americans, but either they did not know who it was, or they would not tell VeGa directly. Every institute had a mystery case of some sort; this was the shape the mystery took at Institute #7.
The experience was not altogether negative from Sasha’s point of view. She commented that “The situation with the mystery user somehow brought us closer together with the Vice Director of the institute, who was feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps some renewal will take place even among the regular users. Perhaps September-October, the beginning of the academic year, will show us what the new stage is like.”
VeGa’s first contact with the Institute occurred in November, 1991, when Sasha presented a summary of the possibilities of using e-mail to the Directors of the humanities and social science institutes of the Academy. Institute #8’s Director came up to Sasha after her talk, gave her his business card, and said he had heard about the existence of e-mail from a fellow Director in another institute. However, he had thought that only that institute had permission to use e-mail, and he had been told nothing about VeGa.
In early January a VeGa staff member called Institute #8 to follow up on the Director’s expressed interest and had a conversation with the Institute’s Academic Secretary. The Secretary was very friendly. He said that the Director was interested in e-mail, but indicated that his colleagues were showing little interest. A few staff were using the e-mail facilities at a neighboring institute, but access there was limited. VeGa’s public access node was across town, and no one at the Institute deemed e-mail important enough to want to make that journey. At the time, VeGa had no extra computer available to provide the Institute, and their level of interest did not seem to demand extraordinary efforts to provide one.
Toward the end of the month, a computer became available to VeGa and Sasha considered placing it at the Institute. But when a staff member checked with the Academic Secretary to see if there was sufficient interest to provide e-mail directly in the Institute, she was told that no one was interested because everyone used the fax machine. When the staff member asked the Academic Secretary if he knew what e-mail was, he said that he had seen it, but had not used it and had no desire to use it.
When I learned of this interchange, I suggested that it might be interesting to find a foreign scholar whose interests closely corresponded with the interests of the Academic Secretary to see if such an initiation brought about a change of attitude. But VeGa was not in a position to take on any extra work, so we allowed the situation to develop on its own.
The first indication of interest in e-mail from the Institute came a few weeks later when Sasha received a phone call from B, an eminent member of the Institute, with many high level foreign contacts. He had been given a computer and modem by Americans with whom he habitually interacted and he asked VeGa’s support in getting on-line from his apartment. Given the Institute’s apparent indifference to e-mail, Sasha thought this an interesting stimulus to the Institute. Before VeGa could take action, the Institute’s Director called her at home insisting that the Institute, too, be given access. Sasha decided to create two nodes simultaneously.
Several months later neither node had begun to operate. When VeGa staff called to find out what the problem was at the Institute, they were told that there seemed to be technical problems with the connection. A follow-up visit indicated that there were indeed technical problems; the Institute was using Macintosh computers, and in the Spring of 1993 there were still a variety of difficulties obtaining adequate communication software for Macs in Moscow. VeGa spent a good deal of time straightening these problems out. But there were also what might be called “social/psychological” difficulties. On his way out of the building on one of the trouble-shooting visits, a VeGa staff member overheard some staff members commenting on e-mail. He asked what they knew about e-mail. “Its something like a fax, but more expensive” he was told. These same staff members were baffled about what it took to get their Institute hooked up, and had never heard of VeGa.
The explanation for B’s failure to use e-mail from his apartment was much simpler. It seemed that he had gone on vacation not long after e-mail was installed, and had not gotten around to trying it out after he returned.
In the early summer, there were two more indications that Institute staff were beginning to take an interest in e-mail. On the unpleasant side, perhaps inspired by the node given to B, Sasha received a phone call from a staff member at the Institute demanding to be given support for getting connected with e-mail from home. He insisted on coming directly to Sasha’s apartment to discuss his demands. Her message about this encounter conveys the flavor of an unusual, but by no means unique, attitude that VeGa encountered in their work:
. .. his desire is understandable, but his general attitude was not. He aggressively/presumptuously demanded our support, arguing that we are obligated to spend the money we “got from Soros” not on the “rotting corpse of the academic institute or weak associates, who never saw a keyboard and don’t mind spending time at the institute,” but on the most productive and creative individual (that is, him) to provide conditions of maximum comfort.
He accused both me and Spartak, who came to my aid, of accepting Communist ideology, inadequate methodology (poor Spartak!), and a twisted interpretation of the goals and wishes of our American “sponsors.” He used the word “questionable” to describe the channels through which “money from the Americans” has made its way to me at VeGa and expressed distrust in my ethical position. He brought me a letter from the Institute’s director saying that he (this associate) “is enthusiastic about furthering e-mail at the Institute and has demonstrated a high level of activity and results in the use of the institute’s e-mail ( while, in fact, except for K whom we have all been trying to help, we know that no one at the institute has shown any interest or involvement in e-mail at all)….
This man told us “It was a big mistake on the Institute’s part to chose your organization to hook them up to international communication. It was a big mistake for the Americans to entrust you with money for our communication. Its immoral to worry about the collective good; you have to cater to the strong and talented.” He said a lot of stuff of this kind….
Spartak says “This is terrific material for your analysis—you could never dream up this kind of result, so continue with your experiment! I realize that Spartak is right, but I can’t just experiment like this (June 1, 1993).
On the more pleasant side, K, a scholar at the Institute who wanted to engage in joint research with a French group, began to work through the Institute’s node and to assist VeGa in working out the communications problems that ensued. When the VeGa staff saw that K’s work demanded a high level of usage via Macintosh computers, which used communication software incompatible with the IBM clone used for the general Institute node, they gave him his own account.
When people began returning to work after the summer, e-mail use and more sophisticated forms of computer-mediated interaction began a period of expanded usage that continues to the present day. In September Sasha was contacted by another eminent scholar, L, who was in charge of a special center in the Institute. Among other reasons for wanting e-mail, L’s center published an important journal which required constant communication with foreign scholars.
The astonishing thing is that L told Sasha that he had been given an official directive by the President of the Academy, Osipov, ordering VeGa to provide a communication node in the Center. It turned out that this official directive was in the form of a letter from L to the Academy President saying that he needed e-mail access and would like to obtain the support of VeGa. The President scrawled a note on this letter: “To A. Belyaeva. Please hook up. Osipov.”
Sasha didn’t at all like being told she had to provide access either by L or President of the Academy. She tried to explain to L how VeGa worked and that there was no need for her to get special support from the Academy hierarchy; VeGa stood ready to help any serious applicants. When Sasha looked into the situation at the Center she discovered that there was indeed a legitimate need for L to obtain a separate node owing both to the high volume of the work and the special need for extensive international coordination. A fourth node was therefore opened at the Institute.
Not long after this fourth node was installed, Sasha stopped by the Institute with a group from IREX to see how things were running. She was pleased that although she had arrived without careful forewarning, all the nodes located at the Institute were buzzing with activity.
Late in the year VeGa ran a large workshop for postmasters and users. K came from the Institute, along with one of the Institute’s postmasters and a younger scholar who had recently become a user. Not long afterward, both the postmaster and the younger scholar left the Institute and obtained much higher paying work owing to the knowledge of telecommunications they obtained at VeGa’s workshops. VeGa’s training was having an effect, but a good deal of this effort was lost to the institutes that it was trying to help.
As might be expected, over the ensuing years there have been some difficult moments in the growth of e-mail usage at the Institute, at which times VeGa has been called on for assistance. One ongoing problem, which speaks to deeper difficulties in the Academy’s general organization of electronic communications for its constituent institutes, concerns the provision of direct access to the internet (and, presently, the World Wide Web). Despite support from VeGa, and promises from the Academy, the Institute has not been provided such access for its general node. But this Institute is not alone in experiencing such difficulties which are well beyond VeGa’s capacity to affect.
Other difficulties concerned the provision of competent postmasters. Fieldnotes following the Fall of 1993 have periodic references to the appearance of new postmasters. VeGa ran training sessions for postmasters and other active users at all of the Institutes it supported, and in all of them a common problem was that after people had been sent for training, they used their knowledge to take new, higher paying jobs. One postmaster turned out to be competent but dishonest. While L was out of the country, he took L’s modem and software home with him and from all appearances used massive amounts of connect time on his own business. The errant postmaster declared that the modem had disappeared on its own. When L returned to a denuded communication facility, he sought VeGa’s help. “After all he said,” you haven’t forgotten that by order of the President, we were the first to gain access to telecommunications.”
In subsequent years VeGa went on to become heavily involved in supporting the growth of networking by Libraries in the FSU but in the Spring of 1991, when Sasha made contact with this Library, the staff had not yet heard of computer networking and e-mail. Computers were just being introduced into library work for record keeping and archiving.
The initiation of this project came from an American scholar, T, who had been on the exchange program in 1962, and with whom we had kept up contacts. T had an ongoing, officially sanctioned project with a bibliographer at the Library. He also had extensive contact with a large group of scholars in his field living in Moscow who shared his scholarly interests. He was excited by the possibility of accelerating the work through the use of telecommunications contacts and for gaining better access to his colleagues. In June he went to Moscow to work with his partner and I put him in touch with Sasha. The next day, he and Sasha met to talk about the potential of starting to use e-mail for the existing joint project. On June 25 he and Sasha met with the director of the Institute and a bibliographer who had experience with computers, G (G had been identified by T’s partner as the person who would deal with computerizing their communications for her). T provided the computer and modem for the project; the next day VeGa initiated the hookup through the RELCOM computer network.
Thus, at the start there were three main “players” at the library: T’s partner, U, who was happy to have e-mail become a part of the project, but did not intend to get her hands dirty or to change her pace of work, G, a combined bibliographer and (relatively speaking) computer expert, and the Director of the Institute.
In the beginning, none of these players understood what they were getting themselves into. In a note sent later, in reflecting on these events, Sasha noted that despite their unclear ideas about what was involved, all three were interested because the project promised to help them fulfill a scholarly task that was important to them and they realized that their work required joint work with T, so participating was in their self interest. U was most interested in the precise content of the work. G was most interested in developing the technical side of the project. And the director, was, as Sasha put it in a note, ” Gently-abstractly in a project that was both required by the logic of the work and brought prestige with it. He had no special interest in either the content or the technology.”
The most important consequence of the project was not anticipated by any of the three key players; the beginning of a large and rapid flow of professionally competent requests, proposals for new kinds of collaboration, and useful forwarded information that was routinely distributed by Libraries in the West. This flow began as soon as T’s scholarly community learned that e-mail contact with the Library was possible. The deluge of messages was of no interest to T’s partner, the bibliographer, who concerned herself only with the small part of the flow of personal interest to her. But it was a big problem for both G and the Director.
G was, in effect, the postmaster for the Library. In this capacity she would receive, read, and organize incoming mail. Its contents made her feel obligated to do something further with this information. Intuitively she felt that some message writers needed to be answered quickly, or at least should be answered at some point. She made it a point to pass on information to various groups within the Library, and attempted to explain to people that it was proper to make some kind of reply. This seemingly straightforward process created all sorts of interesting problems.
In cases where the incoming information was addressed to the Library, G would hand-deliver these messages to the official personages who were supposed to take care of the issues at hand (the Academic Secretary, or the Deputy Director responsible for international communication). The official personages, though they knew about the existence of telecommunications at the Library, thought this channel was only to be used for the “agreed-upon” project with T. But G was bringing them “un-agreed-upon” information, which, according to the rules and the official personages’ reasoning, should have been brought to them with signatures from the foreign office or the Presidium of the Academy, or the Ministry of Culture, or even Intourist—but not from the bibliography automation section, not from G, the “computer girl.” It was not her place to see or to know that kind of information!
Sasha reported that the official personages experienced a serious shock from G’s activities. G was passing on to them information that people high up in the Academy did not receive (or lost). Things were difficult for G in her role as mediator, but she got through this period with tact and patience.
The Director occupied an ambiguous role. On the one hand, he did not delve into matters deeply—he did not try to find new ways to carry on his own activity (either personal or directorial activity) by using the network. It seemed to G that he sometimes forgot entirely that telecommunications existed in his Library. Thus, no active support or development of new forms of interaction was forthcoming at the directorial level. On the other hand, the Director gave passive support to this connection with Western partners, and to contacts with VeGa without expressing either reservations or doubts.
The combination of these factors (positive qualities of the G, mediator, support from the Director, and the relatively normal general state of affairs at the Library as an organization overall) contributed to growth in telecommunication use over time. In addition to T’s special project with U, the board of Directors of the Library and the Academic Secretary used the node for their organizational-administrative correspondence with foreign organizations. All networking activity on behalf of this administration group has been carried out by G personally. (As an indication of their orientation, it is interesting that the administrators bring G their messages in “hard copy” with signatures, and she sees that they are typed into the computer and uploaded.)
Thanks to G’s efforts, another group of specialists at the Library got involved rather quickly in the International Book Exchange group. Their activity had always been structured and motivated on the basis of contacts with foreign libraries and “book organizations.” That is, the quality of community among the “book exchanges” had always been present. The new technology gave their contacts increased speed and a much wider scope. Thanks to G’s unobtrusive and attentive help, the associates of the book exchange division started supplementing their customary contact procedures here and there with new, less formal steps and “communicative acts.” So intense did their communicative activity become that in June, 1993, VeGa added a second node to the Library for the book exchange division. At about this same time, G’s work load became overwhelming and she started to receive help in carrying out the postmaster duties.
By the middle of 1993 G had succeeded through her practice of open, facilatory communication, in making the use of telecommunications a basic part of the Library’s operation. The number of projects centered in the Library grew. Not all of these were supported by VeGa. For example, IREX sponsored one project focused on archival work that initially used the Soviet-American teleport facility at IAS.
In January, 1994, the Library’s involvement in telecommunications was taken to a new level when G, with help from VeGa started a teleconference for libraries in Russia and the former Soviet republics. The next month VeGa conducted two large training seminars for librarians interested in becoming involved in telecommunications. Librarians from all over the country paid their own ways to come to these training sessions. VeGa made a videotape of the training sessions, which they gave copies of to the attendees to carry back home with them.
The Library is an especially interesting case because the introduction of e-mail became so central to its functioning and the dynamics of development are so clear. The initial contact was based on an ongoing project that would benefit from the enormous savings of time that the network afforded. But the Russian partner was not interested in working more rapidly, and not interested in learning about using computers, so she involved G, who had a deep interest in the technology and ethos of networking. Because G acted as if the distribution of e-mail-based information to appropriate recipients was her duty, and because she fostered timely responses to potential Western partners, the flow of highly valued information increased. (I need to add, that the role of the Director was also essential here; he could have taken a bureaucratic hard line and inhibited G’s initiatives, but he did not.) The result of all of this was a transformation in the work of the Library and its rapid inclusion into the world of international, electronic, communication.
The Public Access Node, Psy-Pub
As I noted in the introduction to this section, in the period before the August, 1991, coup, our efforts at providing a node to the Institute of Psychology (IPRAS) were floundering. As a means of demonstrating the kind of activity we had in mind, we opened a public access node at the VeGa laboratory. On September 10, 1991, we distributed an electronic mail announcement to several prominent world-wide networks about the opening of a public access node for Russian/CIS psychologists. The announcement declared the availability of two kinds of assistance in establishing communication between Russian/CIS psychologists and the international psychological community. First, it was possible to write in search of an individual psychologist, even if the person’s address and institutional affiliation were not known. Second, it was possible to write asking for psychologists interested in particular topics of interest. This same announcement was made in Moscow with respect to help that LCHC would provide to Russian psychologists and posted at the entrance to the Institute of Psychology.
The response from the international psychological community was immediate and distributed geographically to an extraordinary extent. One of the important lessons we learned was how rapidly information can be disseminated through existing electronic networks when it catches people’s interest; the original message was forwarded spontaneously from one network to another. We later heard from people who had no idea of where the message had originally appeared.
During the first 10 days of operation, 67 messages were received by Psy-Pub and by the end of the month there were 100 requests for individuals and opportunities for interaction around selected topics. The following month 127 messages were received at Psy-Pub.
The response from Russian/CIS psychologists was much slower to develop. During the first 10 days only three psychologists ventured to use Psy-Pub, and by the end of the month, only four had availed themselves of the opportunity. Two and half months after Psy-Pub opened, 10 psychologists had sent messages to foreign colleagues and a total of 13 had responded to messages from abroad.
During this period both the staffs of VeGa in Moscow and of LCHC in San Diego were actively supporting the efforts at communication flowing in both directions. In cases where psychologists knew that they wanted interaction around a particular topic, we sought out colleagues who might be interested in pursuing topically-oriented cooperation. In many cases where psychologists knew the work of a colleague by reputation but did not know how to reach him/her by e-mail, we made phone calls or sent letters to inform the person of the interest/possibility of un-censored, supported communication.
In addition to acting as facilitator, we carefully documented the reactions evoked by this new mode of international communication. On the Russian side a phone call announcing that “You have received an electronic mail message from Dr. X in the United States” was often met with a combination of wonder and concern. Most Russian psychologists had no knowledge of computer-mediated electronic communication and assumed that what was being talked about was some sort of teletype; they also needed assurance that such contacts were legal. Despite doubts, they almost always responded over the phone for transmission by VeGa staff to the initiator and in most cases followed up themselves later. The same general reaction occurred on the American side, although there was somewhat better grasp of what electronic mail was all about and no particular concern about possible negative political ramifications.
A major difference between the support efforts on the two sides resulted from the relatively primitive technological situation in Russia/CIS. Very often the VeGa staff had not only to send the messages for their colleagues, but to type them from handwritten versions. In the interests of removing all artificial barriers to communication, the VeGa staff carried out this arduous chore. On the American side the corresponding extra chore was translation, since so few outside of Russia read Russian.
In addition to person-person electronic mail, Psy-Pub made printed versions of various teleconference discussions and the electronic journal, PSYCHOLOQUY (which includes articles, invited commentaries, and job announcements), available in printed form for members of IPRAS and any other psychologists who cared to read them. The editor of PSYCHOLOQUY specifically invited interested Russian/CIS psychologists to send articles and commentaries to the journal. Announcements of international meetings and grant competitions were also made available through Psy-Pub.
Although the volume to mail and number of participants in Psy-Pub from Moscow grew slowly, it did grow. By the middle of November, about 20 psychologists were engaged in interaction with foreign partners and the anxiety that had greeted our earlier activities had decreased noticeably, although it had by no means disappeared. The time had come, we believed, to try to reintroduce the idea that the Institute of Psychology should take over responsibility for its own electronic mail once again. There were several motives for this decision. First of all our workload had increased enormously because we found ourselves involved in introducing electronic mail to a very large number (20+) of institutes of the social science and humanities division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The staff of VeGa was staggering under the load. Second, a number of people who had participated in Psy-Pub seemed to have caught on to the spirit of the enterprise and had received sufficient training from VeGa personnel that they could plausibly take over its functions. Third, at this time the Institute of Psychology (IPRAS)and other Russian institutes were already desperate for funds and were under orders from the Academy to find foreign partners and to fend for themselves. Fourth, Psy-Pub had burst its original boundaries of serving psychologists and was now, de facto, acting as a public access node for scholars from many disciplines whose institutions either did not know, did not care about, or actively rejected, the use of electronic mail.
Hence, in February, 1992, by mutual agreement, VeGa provided the Institute of Psychology with the necessary equipment and a subsidized e-mail account and a new address, postmaster@IPRAS.MSK.SU appeared in the international electronic networking world. In the first month IPRAS received 70 messages and originated 50. Within a few months the traffic had increased to approximately 100 messages received and 75 sent per month. Real collaborations came into being, along with joint projects that brought foreign research money to Institute researchers.
From this time forward, Psy-Pub and IPRAS operated simultaneously and in parallel. They functioned in one building, but on different floors. Volunteer members of the Institute began to take responsibility for the Institute node. One was a former member of VeGa and the most experienced telecommunications person in the Institute, which greatly assisted the development of the Institute’s node.
Psychologists were allowed to choose for themselves which node to use. Moreover, if there was any problem with the Institute node, its users could always count on Psy-Pub as backup, which we eventually came to call Com-Pub indicating that it was there as backup for any humanities/social science scholar.
During the early years of our attempts to introduce more scholars to the use of e-mail, we encountered certain barriers of a psychological nature with considerable regularity. One set of difficulties was associated with inadequate understanding of the technological characteristics of computer-mediated communication. The other concerned Russian users’ notions about the nature of international communication.
Two extreme and contradictory examples illustrate the kinds of barriers I have in mind here. On the one hand, some people were convinced that, in principle, it is wrong to create international communication “from below.” These people believed that any form of international communication had to be part of an officially sanctioned project of the Academy. Otherwise, as several people put it, “no one has a right to breath a word.” At the other extreme were people who believed that to find a Western partner and e-mail address were “no problem and no work.” All one had to do was to press a button to be hooked up with an international information system that would provide the needed information in the needed language!
Another source of misunderstandings arose among some of the people VeGa contacted because they were being asked after by foreign colleagues. These people were shocked by the fact that some “boy or girl” at VeGa was carrying out such international work routinely. They demanded to know “who assigned this important work to you if this is such an important project? And if this is not such an important project, what business do you have dragging my name into it?
A final problem that VeGa encountered was the inflated expectation that some people had concerning the effects of engaging in international communication through the network. Some people expected that they would immediately be given grants, computers, and fellowships to visit the United States. Sasha reported that when this didn’t happen right away, some became angry with VeGa and Cole for misleading them. (At the same time, a great many people who got involved in international e-mail exchanges did indeed reap such tangible benefits.)
The main problem we encountered from the American side was that people were likely to have an unrealistic view of the conditions under which Russian psychologists worked. They assumed that everyone had a computer at home, plenty of paper to print out long messages, and command of English. They became disenchanted when communication was slow and their partners less than fluent.
Despite these difficulties, Psy-Pub and then Com-Pub served an important function in initiating scholarly contacts in the first years following the demise of the Soviet Union.
The Activity of Com-Pub
In working with academic institutes during 1994-96, VeGa experienced two shifts from previous activity. First, VeGa began this phase by supporting more than 60 organizations (about 80 accounts and 100 users). We didn’t try to increase this number; on the contrary, we aimed to move more advanced and “stronger” institutes to a new level, less dependent on VeGa’s help and more responsible for their everyday telecommunications. This also meant a gradual decrease in financial support from VeGa. The second shift was toward a closer connection between VeGa’s work with the functioning of institutes and Com-Pub. It should be underlined that this took place spontaneously, reflecting the natural logic of development, rather than by a priori plan.
As noted earlier, Com-Pub widely expanded the range of users beyond psychologists to humanities scholars and social scientists in general. We noted a marked increase in the number of disciplines represented by users, which was a surprise for us. We had forecast reduced Com-Pub activity after many institutes and organizations in Moscow became connected. Although some of the scholars began to use electronic sites in their own institutions, the need for the services provided by Com-Pub did not decrease.
An analysis of Com-Pub by the number of users and the regularity of usage shows that the numbers of both constant and irregular users increased. The overall number of people who used Com-Pub from October 1994 to September 1995 totaled more than 130. Seventy of them are rather regular users, and about 10 of them began to elaborate their own projects in interaction with VeGa—which cannot be called simply “client-service” or “user-consultant” interaction, but represents a more deep and interested collaboration.
Internet and communication concerns form the core of these projects. One example can be found in a joint subproject of the Moscow University of Culture, the Library described in the previous section, and VeGa on the preparation for and implementation of a course on “Internet For Librarians.” The course is based on the use of Internet through Com-Pub, at the initiative of the University of Culture (a regular user of Com-Pub) and by the request of authorities of these organizations. A Historical-Ethnographic project with the conditional title “The Cultural Legacy of Russian Jews” can also be mentioned here. Another project is related to the problems of Oriental villages—mainly in the Caucasus and Kirgyzstan—where field investigations are being performed. Methods of oral history and life history are being employed in this project and lend themselves to the use of telecommunications technology. These and other projects are being conducted at Com-Pub by Russian investigators who have worked in the US, and currently have American scientists as research partners.
Men use Com-Pub twice as much as women. This difference has remained consistent over the entire period of Com-Pub’s work. People aged 30 to 50 are the most numerous and active group of users. An increase in the number of young users (up to 30 years) was also noted during the last year. This is due partially to the information that young people receive at the American Center (Foreign Language Library) about the free communication opportunities offered by VeGa and Com-Pub. The spread of information about the effectiveness of telecommunication usage by young people has also had an influence: several post-graduates who used Com-Pub began their study abroad last Fall.
In the previous stage of VeGa’s work, Com-Pub functioned as an open access site and as a consulting and information center to support contacts among scientists. This year, a substantial part of Com-Pub users received education and training, and developed a greater familiarity with Internet resources. Users requested support from VeGa consultants to carry out specific tasks and answer questions involving their scholarly activity. VeGa consultants helped them to use Internet through Com-Pub to find solutions to their problems. Com-Pub is preferred by specialists from different Moscow scientific and educational organizations, including Moscow State University. During the year, Com-Pub was used by specialists and students of the Departments of Psychology, Journalism, Philology, and Institute of Asia and Africa at MSU, as well as by users from natural science departments, such as mechanics, mathematics, biology, geology, chemistry, and zoology.
Among the other educational facilities that used Com-Pub are the Ministry of Education of Russia, Higher Financial-Economic College, Moscow State University of Culture, State Academy of Management, Russian State Humanitarian University, Moscow State Pedagogic University (Departments of Geography, Psychology, and Board of Zoology and Ecology), Russian-American Center of Continuing Education, Music Schools etc. Technical disciplines were represented by Moscow State Technical University, Institute of Radio-electronics and Automatization, Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, and Moscow Energy Institute.
In our previous work, we tried to divide the humanities users from other users, especially from technical and natural science researchers. This year we shifted our position. We gave access to the network through Com-Pub to everyone who asked us for help. We tried to investigate their requests, training needs, and the reasons they could not use e-mail in their own organizations (and therefore used Com-Pub). This is the reason we have a group of users from non-humanities/social sciences institutions. They came from Academy institutes as well, including the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytic Chemistry, the Institute of Technical Means of Education, the Institute of Chemical Physics, the Central Institute of House Ecology, the Institute of Tire Industry, the Geology and Economy Center, and others.
Com-Pub has also been used for telecommunications and networking purposes by representatives of the Ministry of Social Defense of Population (Department of Social Service for Family and Children), the Foundation “Women to Children,” the associations “Social Initiative,” “Russian Political Encyclopedia,” “Space to Human,” “Computer Technologies in Medicine,” and the Institute of Physics of Logos.
Medical users who received training, consultations, and access to the Internet through Com-Pub, include people from the Institute of Pulmonology, Moscow Medical Academy, Russian Medical Postgraduate Academy and Center for the Practice of Psychotherapeautics. Representatives from publishing houses and editorial boards were also among the newer users at Com-Pub this year. They included the Literature’s Union of Moscow, “Drugije Berega (Other Shores) Magazine,” and publishing houses inside and outside of Moscow. “Psychology Journal” and “Voprosy Philosofii” continued to use Com-Pub as before.
Visitors from scientific and non-governmental organizations from other regions of Russia and the FSU form a separate group of Com-Pub users. Most of them use Com-Pub during visits to Moscow (sometimes only once), but some of them have discovered an ability to use e-mail from their home cities with direct and indirect VeGa support (e.g. North Osetia State University, Philosophy Department; Center of Education of Talented Children in Tashkent, etc.).
Finally, a large group of users of Com-Pub came from the usual Academy humanities institutes: the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language, the Institute of World Literature, the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Institute of Comparative Politics, the Archeographic Commission of RAS, and others.
We would like to note two more examples of Com-Pub users. First, users from part of the above-mentioned organizations tend to work at Psy-Pub not alone, but in groups of two to eight persons. Second, some people from at least five institutes where VeGa supports one or several sites of open telecommunication nevertheless prefer to work through Com-Pub with the help of VeGa assistants. All these tendencies continue to develop during 1996 as well: the number of users grows and their requests become broader in scope.
Some Preliminary Lessons
The individual case histories that make up this chapter represent only a small portion of the entire set of institutes, libraries, and other organizations with which VeGa worked. We cannot claim that they are a random sample. Rather, they are the sample for which we have the richest archives of fieldnotes. The presence of just these nine cases reflects the willingness of at least some part of the institution’s staff to engage in telecommunications. We happened upon them in a variety of ways—through prior contacts, through the presence of someone at one of the many meetings and workshops put on by VeGa staff, or by word of mouth.
Despite this obvious selectivity, certain patterns emerge from the individual cases that I believe to be broadly representative of the process of change in academic, international communication through electronic mail.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous response of Russian scholars to the introduction of e-mail was one of deep suspicions, tinged with fear. The suspicions were of several kinds. One general suspicion can be summarized in the proverb that cautions “Beware of strangers bearing gifts.” So far as I can tell, there was only one case where those who got into e-mail use early on believed that we were genuinely interested in promoting open-access communication. It was easy to conclude that VeGa was in it for the money. But what was Cole in it for? The most plausible conclusion was that I was an agent of Carnegie, a big capitalist agency. And, of course, this was true.
A closely related source of suspicion fits better with the proverb that “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” This was expressed in fears that we were reading people’s e-mail (I never saw e-mail messages sent on Psy-Pub or from any of the institutes unless VeGa or I were the address). This suspicion was nicely summarized in the announcement on the board of Institute #5, warning potential users that their mail might be read by VeGa staff, who were assumed to be agents of Carnegie.
These and related suspicions were connected with a general fear of communication with foreigners that repeatedly found overt expression. If VeGa was not reading the mail, most people were pretty certain that the KGB was reading it, and that when the political tide turned, when “order was restored,” those who had engaged in open telecommunications would be severely punished.
At the same time, when a person began to understand the enormous potential of using e-mail, it became very attractive. To a Russian academician being paid a pittance and cut off from world science, e-mail was the yellow brick road. Some responded to the new opportunities for international contact by seeking out and cultivating contacts abroad on their own. Many of the people we helped get involved in e-mail in the early 1990s have subsequently traveled abroad, created joint projects that in fact bring them an income, and are currently greatly advanced in the conduct of international science. Their successes seem thus far to have had a mixed impact. In cases where this activity was carried out openly and in a collegial fashion, it had a positive benefit beyond the individual cases. But many, as we have seen, grabbed a hold of, and hid from their fellows, access to this road. Their behavior, bread of egotistical desire, reinforced those who viewed the introduction of e-mail as yet another way in which the privileged abrogate power and resources to themselves, and feed suspicions about the subversion of Russian science and culture though interactions with Westerners.
Our experience demonstrated clearly that barriers to the introduction of e-mail into Russian scientific practice are far more than a technical problem. In no case can we attribute to technical factors alone the failure of institutes to take up or fully exploit the opening we provided, although technical problems abounded. Rather, the dead hand of Russia’s past, like the mud and ice that slowed and eventually stopped prior generations of Western invaders, can be seen operating at every step. E-mail use is now almost certainly an irreversible feature of Russian academic life, although it has by no means penetrated Russian scientific practices the way it has in the United States. How deeply the principle of open access will penetrate the Russian system remains to be seen.
The Institutionalization of the Project
In the previous chapters my narrative focused on the preparatory work and implementation of the initial ideas discussed by Velikhov and Hamburg as well as efforts to apply the lessons learned to promoting and studying academic computer networking by Russian scholars.
In this chapter I shift my focus. I will assume that the reader has acquired a reasonable feel for the overall development of the content of the project. Using this knowledge as background, I will focus on the changing institutional structure of the project.
The reader will note immediately that this narrative is focused primarily on the Soviet/Russian side of the project. I neglect the American side because the American participants from the outset assumed the activity was to be carried out by a network of already-existing research units that would continue their independent existences during and after the project. When the project terminated, they would continue as before to pursue their research agendas. This is in fact what has happened. It was organization on the Soviet side that was most problematic for the project so I will concentrate on it.
Stages in the Development of VeGa
When we began the project in 1985 one of the urgent tasks confronting Sasha in her role as project coordinator for Velikhov was to find an institutional home for the project. This institutional home needed to obtain money and equipment, to sponsor foreign guests, and in general to coordinate the resources needed for implementing the Moscow side of the project.
Between 1985 and 1994 when my involvement in the project came to an end, Sasha came up with a series of changing institutional “solutions” to the problem of finding a durable home. Each “solution” corresponds roughly to a stage in the development of the VeGa Laboratory as a research organization.
I have divided my account into three broad periods, each of which is characterized by a distinctive source of institutional legitimacy and form of activity. The stages within a period mark significant turning points in the process of development. I recognize that such periodization runs the danger of oversimplifying the dynamics of developmental change, but it provides a handy way to summarize changes in the way the VeGa Laboratory was organized and points to periods when important confluences of simultaneously changing contextual factors occurred.
Period 1: Seeking a Home in the Academy of Sciences
Three different substages characterize this first period of institutional work.
Stage 1: Laboratory of Communication, Institute of Psychology
At the outset of the project, the de facto home of the project was Sasha’s laboratory in the Institute of Psychology. The initial staff of the project, Sasha and Alexander Kharitonov, received their salaries from this source, used the existing agreement between IREX/ACLS and the Soviet Academy of Sciences as the bureaucratic justification and support system for exchanges of people, as well as the warrant of scientific respectability. However, this arrangement provided only a starting point. The VelHam project required interdisciplinary cooperation which meant inter-institutional cooperation.
Stage 2: Omega: A Temporary Collective
While they were useful as a starting point, the resources of the Laboratory of Communication could not sustain the project. There was no special budget in the five-year plan for this work. Moreover, a good deal of what was needed lay outside the bureaucratic control of the Institute (access to schoolchildren and international telecommunications facilities, for example). So some way needed to be found to bring together the needed resources. Alexander Kharitonov suggested, and Sasha implemented the creation of a temporary collective, sponsored by Velikhov that was housed, for bureaucratic purposes, within the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences.
Omega brought together the leading players, who in principle, should have been able to carry out the project: Ailamaizan, whose Institute was part of the Council on Cybernetics, Sasha from the Institute of Psychology, Vlad from the Institute of Automated Systems, Alexander Uvarov from the Ministry of Education, and Rubtsov from the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. However, as recounted in Chapter 3, this structure did not congeal as an active entity. Sasha and Vlad continued to cooperate, but Uvarov was never more than formally involved and he failed to arrange for access to schools although he was in a position to do so. Rubtsov left the project in frustration.
Stage 3: A Still-Born “Virtual Entity: Psychology + Cybernetics
When it became clear that the Omega Temporary Collective could not function properly, Sasha sought to create a new entity to bring together Omega and the Shkola Collective in a productive way. She proposed the creation of an interdisciplinary laboratory that would bring together the Institute of Psychology with the Council on Cybernetics. (Recall that the Council on Cybernetics was the home of the Shkola Collective.) She proposed to Lomov that the laboratory be called the “Laboratory of Cognitive Process in Telecommunications Media” and that the Institute of Psychology be the lead partner. She supported her proposal with a letter from Velikhov requesting that Lomov back this plan. For reasons that are not clear to me, he did not acquiesce. So in the Spring of 1988, Sasha took her idea to the Shkola collective, but this time with the proposal that the Council on Cybernetics take the lead. Shkola was changing. Ershov was gravely ill and his position as Director of Shkola had passed to Alexei Semyonov, who had been actively involved with attempts by Seymour Papert to create a joint project. Semyonov shared responsibilities for Shkola with Uvarov and Leonid Vishnyakov, the Academic Secretary of Velikhov’s branch of the Academy of Sciences.
Had it been accepted, Sasha’s proposal for a mixed-venue laboratory would have brought together the VelHam project’s emphasis on telecommunications-mediated cooperation with Shkola’s emphasis on in-classroom interaction. This proposal would have created a strong platform for the project we started to outline in Velikhov’s office in October of 1985. But the platform was never built.
During the summer of 1988, while Sasha and Spartak were on vacation, the Shkola collective created a new special program, inside of the Council on Cybernetics, called “Communication and Education.” This program was headed by Uvarov and moreover, it was to be carried out jointly with the Kurchatov Institute, where E. P. Velikhov was the Director and Sasha’s husband, Spartak, was Deputy Director.
When Sasha returned from vacation, she found that Uvarov’s Shkola project was occupying the site where the new joint laboratory was supposed to be based (a youth club associated with the Kurchatov Institute). He had created a computer center using computers that Velikhov had promised to VelHam. The text of Uvarov’s description of this “Communication and Education” program read suspiciously like the texts Sasha had produced for the Omega collective, in which Uvarov had been a participant. Familiar as he was with the past history of our work, Uvarov even dipped into the spacebridge past, and referred to his project as MOST. It is important to note that Uvarov carried out this program with support from Velikhov. They had, so to speak, erased Omega.
These events were, of course, devastating. For more than two years Sasha had been struggling to create an adequate research team on the Soviet side, seeking legal and workable locations for the project in the Academy hierarchy, and corresponding funds to support all of the work. It appeared that all the work she had done was for naught. To me it appeared that these events might well bring an end to the VelHam project.
Period 2: VelHam in the Bosom of the Human Potential Movement
Sasha was not ready to give up. She began by explaining to Velikhov that something had to be done or his collaboration with Hamburg was at an end. Uvarov had never sought to interact with the project and he had his own ideas about partners.
I had no interest in continuing involvement under such circumstances. The challenge was to come up with a way to repair the damage.
Stage 4: The Birth of VeGa
As an immediate administrative measure to continue the project’s existence Sasha proposed to Velikhov that she create a joint laboratory of the sort that she had proposed to Shkola,  but this time it would link the Institute of Psychology and the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Physics. Velikhov supported this idea and signed the necessary documents.
As an immediate practical move, Sasha set up the VeGa Club in her living room in the Fall of 1988. Understanding that move as part of VelHam’s organizational crisis provides insight into why Sasha began the VeGa Club at that precise moment. In Chapter 4 this event was explained as necessary to provide the American participants with a counterpart in the USSR. This was not inaccurate: almost three years had gone by, and except for the brief experiments in the summer and Fall of 1987, parallel, coordinated work between the two sides had still not taken place. Continued delays would almost certainly have led to defection of the remaining Americans interested in the project, and with it, support of the Carnegie Corporation. What my account in Chapter 4 left out was that Sasha needed just as badly to demonstrate to her Soviet colleagues that the project continued to exist, despite the obvious setbacks she had experienced.
We can now also appreciate why Sasha chose the offspring of Velikhov, the people at IAS, and a few willing friends from the Kurchatov Institute as her initial group. The children really liked these activities and so did the parents. Given that their own children were engaged in up-to-the minute activities with computers, including international communication, there was less of a chance that they would deny its existence.
But satisfying the need to provide a continuing group of Russian children with whom American children could interact and having a formal Academy structure as its warrant for existence still did not solve the problem of resources. Whatever resources Velikhov had obtained for the development of work with children and computers from the Academy and the Ministry of Education had gone to Shkola. Where was he to get money for VelHam? His answer—include it in the International Foundation he was setting up.
[An interlude The International Fund]
I need to pause, briefly, to describe the International Fund in some detail because it played a central role in the evolution of efforts by American non-governmental organizations to interact with counterparts in the USSR/Russia. In an important sense, the Fund grew out of the VelHam project, and in an equally important sense, at first it fed on its progenitor. Later the last Director of the fund, Dan Matuszewski, became the Director of IREX. These linkages are important in interpreting the events that transpired.
Recall from Chapter 4 that the idea of creating an international cooperative foundation had been floated in the preparations for the large international forum on avoiding nuclear war that Velikhov staged in February, 1987. At that time, the stated goals of the Foundation were broadly defined in terms of global problems that threatened humanity’s survival and well-being. Proposed projects included measures to reduce the menace of nuclear weapons, the danger of widespread famine, and illiteracy. There was also an emphasis on programs to promote understanding between peoples, improve the functioning of large organizations and encourage the establishment of international peace keeping arrangements for bilateral conflicts.
By the time Velikhov reached the Carnegie Corporation offices in May, 1987, these topics had been more fully codified. In the document he provided Hamburg describing the Foundation, the main five programmatic lines were education, health, culture, bureaucracy, and religion. Under education, the VelHam project was given pride of first place. Velikhov’s document also included a section on ideas for fund-raising initiatives. These included the creation of “Goodwill Spacebridges” on such topics as festivals of popular music, developing ecological sensitivity, health, the meeting of older and younger generations, discussions among the joint chiefs of staff, sporting events, and several ideas oriented directly to the peace movement. Most eye-catching was a proposal to create a “Crystal Monument of Peace” in Moscow which people around the world could participate in (contribute to) by sending $10. for cut-glass cubes with their names engraved on them to be used in building the monument. Mechanisms for allowing the Foundation to receive hard currency from abroad and to use it for its programs were also elaborated.
In May, 1987, Velikhov organized a meeting of an initiating committee in Trieste that included no Americans, but did include representatives from West Germany, Iran, and Pakistan. Ruth Adams of the MacArthur Foundation, Hamburg, and Wade Green from The Rockefeller Family Associates were listed as members of the advisory committee. The minutes of this meeting record an agreement on seven issues deserving of Foundation attention: education, health, religion, environment, disarmament, and open global science. The summary of the education project read like a mixture of VelHam and Shkola.
In September, 1987, at a second meeting of the initiating committee for the Foundation, Velikhov proposed a number of projects that roughly paralleled the document he gave to Hamburg in May. His priority projects were listed as: Children in the World of New Technologies, Disarmament, Ecology, and Bureaucracy and Innovation. A filmmaker proposed to make films to promote Foundation ideas, an architect proposed a competition for the design of an international city in the 21st century.
This second meeting was attended by an impressive array of Soviet scientific, medical, and cultural figures. It was also attended by an impressive array of Western scientists and foundation representatives, including Frank von Hipple, then president of the Federation of American Scientists, Jerome Weisner, former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and science advisor to John Kennedy who, as a Board member, was representing the MacArthur foundation, Wade Green representing the Rockefeller Family Associates, and Hal Harvey representing the Tides Foundation. Fritz Mosher from Carnegie did not attend the meeting, but was present for meetings of the participants with Velikhov following the formal session.
It should be clear from the forgoing narrative why Velikhov and other Soviets participated in this venture. But what was it that attracted Americans and others? I can offer no definitive answer to this question, but certain factors stand out:
- Many American foundation people endorsed Velikhov’s basic concern that the survival of the species was in danger and they also agreed on what were some of the most critical threats: the nuclear confrontation, widespread and devastating poverty, ethnic conflict, environmental degradation, and so on.
- These same people were sympathetic to Gorbachev’s efforts at reform and saw the Foundation as one mechanism for offering support for his efforts.
- Several non-Russian participants hoped that an independent, private, philanthropic organization operating on Soviet soil would become the nucleus of an “independent sector” that was “just like us,” growing there, strengthening “civil society.”
- These foundations had accumulated some experience in trying to put together joint projects with the USSR and they had all encountered severe bureaucratic and legal problems. Organizations with which they could cooperate did not exist. Hard currency could only be sent to highly controlled government entities, the very entities they sought to avoid by interacting directly with Velikhov.
Carnegie staked out a middle ground with respect to the Foundation proposal. David Hamburg expressed sympathy for the need to address the set of problems that formed the core of the Foundation’s concerns, but he carefully circumscribed the areas of Carnegie interest:
The most valuable of your documents from our viewpoint is the one labeled “Basic Characteristics of OSS (Open Science Sector).” It conveys the essential orientation of the fund and seems to us a worthwhile statement, consistent with the missions of the U.S. foundations participating in the talks. On the other hand, the document labeled “International Advertisement and Profit-making Projects” is essentially outside the scope of the foundations’ mission and not appropriate for us. The other two documents (International Humanity and Survival Fund; Fund Projects) fall somewhere in between (June 18, 1987).
Hamburg noted that while arguments could be made for Velikhov’s broad-based approach, experience to date on their joint project involving computers and elementary school children had run into a lot of problems despite the good will on both sides and he went to considerable length to distinguish highly focused joint scientific projects from other forms of cooperation that center on the friendly contact among people. Without disparaging the latter, he made it clear that Carnegie was not interested in providing programmatic support for such efforts.
By January, 1988, when the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity was officially created with its headquarters in Moscow, the number of prominent American individuals and organizations involved had increased significantly to include, among others, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Susan Eisenhower, and Robert McNamara. Velikhov had also garnered extraordinary support from the Soviet government. The Council of Ministers granted the Foundation status as an international philanthropic organization with tax-exempt status. Executive committee members were given what amounted to diplomatic privileges, including exemptions from customs inspection, taxes, and immunity from arrest.
Despite this auspicious beginning, the Foundation had great difficulty fulfilling its functions from the very start. While the Swedish Executive Director sought to bring a semblance of order and international supervision to the implementation of a grants program, Velikhov and the Russian staff sought to use the Foundation to support the projects they had already identified. Foundation money was spent, but it went primarily to creating and equipping the Moscow headquarters and international travel of board members to hold meetings at which policy issues were argued.
By 1990 the Western sponsors of the Foundation and Velikhov were in such serious disagreement with each other that the initial Executive Director was forced out of his position. Many issues were in dispute, among them the question of whether and how Foundation projects could engage in profit-making activities and whether Velikhov should be allowed more authority to approve grants. At this point Velikhov and his staff proposed that the Foundation be divided into two halves, one internal to the USSR which could spend rubles for projects it approved without coordinating with the Western half, and a second half which would be used for projects that required hard currency.
Deeply concerned about the course of events, the American sponsors of the Foundation sought a new Director who had deep knowledge of the Soviet Union, was a tough negotiator and an experienced administrator. They chose as their candidate Dan Matuszewski, an American scholar who had worked with IREX for many years. As a means of shielding Matuszewski from Soviet pressure and insuring that he was not committing professional suicide, Carnegie arranged to hire him as a member of its staff and second him to the Foundation as its Executive Director.
Matuszewski spent two years seeking to guide the Foundation through the vast changes accompanying the collapse of the USSR. But in the end, he was unable to broker acceptance of a set of practices that would have answered Velikhov’s needs. In the Fall of 1992 he returned to IREX as its Director and the Foundation came to an end.
Stage 5: VeGa as Part of “Children of the 21st Century”
For several months, VeGa made do with the informal comfort of the Belyaev’s apartment. Members of Sasha’s lab served as staff. Their efforts were supplemented for a while by Peg Griffin from LCHC who spent time during her Fall, 1988, visit to help the VeGa staff design their version of a 5th Dimension, including how to use telecommunications as a part of the work.
The initial VeGa Club was a very domestic version of the VelHam project. The children felt, and were in fact, “at home.” Despite its informality, this arrangement, as we have seen in Chapter 5, produced many examples of interesting developmental activity involving the children and sufficient interactivity to energize the international VelHam program as a whole.
When seeking to expand her meager material resources, however, Sasha was notably limited. She had no more places to look within the Academy structure for those resources; Velikhov had allowed those bridges to burn. Thus began a new phase in the development of VeGa which rested heavily on just that part of Velikhov’s resource-gathering activities that we didnot want to participate in: the child-child exchanges and the human potential movement.
The Kurchatov Youth Center where Uvarov had his computer center and where Sasha had planned on housing the VelHam project was the home to a large confederation of Velikhov-sponsored projects that had been dubbed “Children of the 21st Century.” This organization, in which Natalia Velikova, Velikhov’s wife, played a leading role, included an enormous range of projects ranging from summer camp exchanges of children, to a rock and roll program and ongoing computer literacy classes for children in Moscow. It involved a broad range of institutions familiar from the initiating meetings of the International Foundation including film makers, the Pioneer Palace, Institute of Architecture, and so on. It received some of its resources from the ideological apparatus of the Government as well foreign partners. As the Kurchatov side of the Institute of Psychology/Kurchatov Institute Joint Laboratory, Velikhov used the Youth Club and placed the Soviet half of VelHam in the 21st Century project.
This plan did provide Sasha with some resources. The VeGa Club was moved from her living room to the top floor of the Youth Club. She was able to obtain a few computers which came to the 21st Century project from various international sources. But she did not have adequate additional monies to pay for a research staff and the 21st Century project itself was constantly faced with a shortage of resources.
Initially Velikhov believed that he could use the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity to provide money to the 21st Century enterprise. Certainly the two enterprises were thoroughly merged in his thinking and in Foundation documents. (The first printed brochure about the Foundation had a picture of Velikhov with children at a computer summer camp on the cover). However, as we have seen, he did not have control over the Swedish executive officer of the fund, who was seeking to make the Foundation’s procedures comply with what he and many of the board considered international norms. Velikhov could not arbitrarily dispense money. It was conflict over this issue that Sasha encountered in the Spring of 1988 when she was expecting support for VeGa from the Foundation.
An entirely different kind of difficulty setback Velikhov’s plans to use the International Foundation as a source of resources for the “Children of the 21st Century” organization. This organization’s Director, who was also Mrs. Velikhov’s nephew, became involved in a murder and the scandal threatened to overwhelm the entire undertaking. Funneling money from the Foundation into the “21st Century” enterprise ceased to be an option, even if the Board approved money for VelHam.
As a way around this barrier, Velikhov arranged for certain key VeGa staff to be directly hired as employees of the International Foundation. In this way, after a long and roundabout journey, VeGa ended up where Velikhov had been saying it should be placed since the Spring of 1987—in the International Foundation. However, by this time, he had mixed VelHam together so well with his other enterprises, that no one in Moscow could figure out what activities with children and computers were a part of the VelHam project and which were part of Velikhov’s other initiatives involving the same elements. VelHam was just “another kids and computers” program except that Belyaeva and Cole kept talking about research. No one else was wasting their time on such matters and no one could see the point of invoking science as we did, except Carnegie (and Velikhov, on those occasions when the mantel of science suited his purposes).
Period 3: VeGa Becomes an Independent Research Organization
This period is divided into two stages, the first of which began in 1990 and continued until 1992, after the collapse of the USSR. The second began in 1993, at which time VeGa attained full legal status as an international, non-profit research organization and my active participation in the VelHam project came to an end.
Stage 6: VeGa as a “Small Enterprise.”
In June, 1990, the Executive Committee of the International Foundation finally agreed formally to support the VelHam project by creating the VeGa International Laboratory and providing it with a one-time grant to establish itself as an independently functioning research entity.
However, there was a great deal of uncertainty about just what sort of research entity it would become. The Foundation took the position that its obligations vis-a-vis VeGa were now fulfilled. Sasha was told that the specific manner in which VeGa established itself was not important to the Foundation. However, it was made clear that the Foundation would be especially pleased if VeGa could find a way to become a money-making enterprise and repay its grant.
Sasha’s search for a new organizational form was shaped by the fact that during 1989-1990 the advocates of perestroika succeeded in introducing new laws that allowed for the creation of capitalist-style small enterprises as a way to stimulate economic growth. The International Foundation took an interest in this initiative and actively promoted the formation of small enterprises. They suggested that VeGa start a small enterprise, although the laws for creating such an organization were confused and often contradictory.
After studying the experiences of several such organization and consulting with Carnegie, Sasha came to the conclusion that the status of a small (business) enterprise would not be suitable for VeGa. Profit was not her motive, she wanted to do scientific research as a member of the Institute of Psychology. Moreover, she felt that the project’s unique characteristics would be degraded if profit became the leading motive.
In the process of wrestling with these issues, a more appropriate possibility called a “public organization” that was similar in some respects to a non-profit organization was suggested. Sasha explored this route which, although uncertain, was more attractive than any of the dead-end alternatives she could discern. In the end, she settled for an organization that, so far as I can tell, was part small enterprise, part non-profit public organization.
I do not pretend to understand the legal foundations of this organization. Laws were changing very rapidly in Moscow and I was focused on daily coordination of children. I really could not follow all the twists and turns of the legal constitution of VeGa which I left to Sasha, Fritz, and the lawyers of the Carnegie Corporation. What I do know is that both small enterprises and public organizations needed sponsoring institutions. The sponsors of the VeGa International Laboratory were an interesting lot: The International Foundation, The Moscow Regional Government’s Education Department, and the University of California at San Diego. ( A letter from then-Chancellor, Richard Atkinson, bearing a paper gold seal of approval was part of the dossier of supporting documents that Sasha submitted.) The Director of this organization was Sasha, elected by a board that included Velikhov, Dan Matuszewski (representing the International Foundation) and myself.
I cannot report further on the development of this stage in the organization of VelHam, because at this point, history intervened, and the USSR came to an end. The laws concerning research organizations and almost everything else changed dramatically. The foundation was set for the current stage of VeGa’s development and the end of the VelHam project.
Stage 7: VeGa Achieves Independent Legal Status as a Non-Profit, International Laboratory
In the months before the coup that led to the end of the USSR, VeGa was continuing its mixed existence as a wanta-be-non-profit small enterprise closely associated with the International Foundation. Our work with children had been relegated to the background and VelHam monies were no longer allotted for that purpose. Instead we focused our resources and attention on the few initial institutes we had invited to get involved in e-mail. Our plan for the coming year was to see if we could make contact with a few additional institutes in order to figure out what kinds of barriers to open communication would emerge.
The August, 1991, coup brought about big changes in our plans, just as it brought about big changes in Russia and the world more generally. For one thing, VeGa needed to re-establish its legal status. The International Foundation had been established in Russia by a decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. Following the coup there was no Council of Ministers and no legal authority for the Foundation. However, the new government quickly began passing laws that, for the first time, permitted the formation of philanthropic foundations and non-profit organizations. As the Foundation sought to reconstitute itself in the new reality, so did VeGa. The Foundation came apart owing to disagreements between Velikhov and the Western Board members, but after a long period of intense work involving arcane legal maneuvers, VeGa became a self-sufficient, legal, non-profit entity in April, 1992. For the first time VeGa had the right to receive dollars from abroad in a special bank account and exemptions on taxes for direct grants. However, the ongoing issue of sources of support for VeGa remained.
The need for a change in legal status coincided with a marked shift in the content of the work, and as we saw in Chapter 6, this change in content, in conjunction with the fall of the USSR, resulted in a quantum increase in scale in our efforts. By the Spring of 1992 our plans for work with five institutes had mushroomed to work with more than 30 institutes. This required, and we obtained, increased support from Carnegie for the basic computer+modem setup we provided to participating institutes plus money to pay the additional telecommunications costs and a modest budget for VeGa staff. My main roles in this aspect of the project were to help Russian and American academics make contact with each other, act as an information bureau for Russian psychologists and other social scientists (about data banks, possible funding sources, etc.), as well as to store, record and translate fieldnotes written by VeGa staff preparatory to a comparative analysis of change in the different institutes.
But VeGa’s involvement in introducing, supporting, and recording the spread of e-mail use in Academy institutes was only a part of their overall effort. They also took an important role in creating support for telecommunications in the Academy of Sciences.28 Our experience with a wide variety of network providers and their policies, reinforced by work with the initial institutes we contacted, brought several networking-related concerns to the fore.
VeGa saw itself as a neutral party “between” all of the contending network factions, which viewed events from the perspective of our goal of open access. There appeared to be an unpleasant picture emerging in which a monopoly over telecommunications access and pricing policies might be achieved by one or two of the Russian organizations that were then competing to be service providers. Monopoly over the conditions of access, we feared, could have potentially devastating effects on Russian science as a whole and, thereby, on the possibilities of Russian-American scientific cooperation. In response to these concerns, and at VeGa’s urging, a special project bringing together experts from Russia, Europe, and the United States with key academic users was created to come up with a policy which would secure access at reasonable rates to the academic community.
In the late summer of 1992, Spartak Belyaev brought together all of the key networking players for discussions about how to create a cooperative arrangement for the provision of electronic communication for the wide variety of demands of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The initial project included questions of technical and engineering infrastructure, agreements on certain equipment and protocol standards, special needs for training and educational work, and coordination of international connections.
In September, 1992, I accompanied Fritz Mosher and Dan Matuszewski (who had become the Director of IREX) to Moscow. One purpose of this visit was to assess the overall state of our work with the Institutes. I took advantage of the fact that our visit overlapped with a visit from David Hamburg to meet with David, Dan, Sasha, and representatives of more than 20 actively involved institutes to get their assessment of their progress in telecommunications-mediated work first hand. But our major goal was to evaluate Spartak’s efforts to create an expert commission to broker the creation of a central facility, a backbone and a set of services, that could present the needs of the Russian Academy to possible Western funding sources in a unified manner.
The timing was auspicious because the Ministry of Communication (which controlled the telephone lines) was threatening a massive increase in rates for data transmission that was beyond the means of even the richest and most powerful Russian science institutes. We met with several top institute Directors from the physical sciences in Spartak’s living room (scene of Sasha’s initial children’s club), and the following day with the Minister of Science and Technology. Nothing conclusive came from these conversations, but what did emerge was news that Spartak had taken concrete steps within the overall “expert project” to address one of our main concerns—the need to find subsidies for the impoverished social science and humanities institutes to support their use of e-mail. Carnegie could not be expected to support these efforts in perpetuity and since the scale of activity was increasing rapidly, they could not even in the short run be considered the sole source of support.
Out of this effort, grew RELARN (Russian Electronic Learning and Research Network), which obtained subsidies for Academic users of RELCOM sufficient to cover the costs of communication within the budgets of the social science and humanities institutes. The subsidies came partly from the government, partly from RELCOM. This program of subsidies is still in place.
Subsequently, George Soros’ International Science Foundation (ISF) took an interest in the issue of Russian academic and commercial communication. At an early point, Soros became a shareholder in the SovAm Teleport venture, and with the opening of ISF’s massive program of aid to Russian science at this time, it was natural for Soros to take an interest in questions of a common infrastructure. ISF supported Steve Goldstein, from the National Science Foundation, to survey the scene in Moscow and to sift through the various efforts at coordinated action to come up with an ecumenical solution. Unfortunately, despite heroic efforts on Goldstein’s part, competing groups within Moscow could not agree on a common plan and to this day, there is not a unified backbone and program of user support in Russia.
VeGa’s Current Status: A Joint VeGa-IREX Venture
As a member of the IREX staff in the 1980s and Director of the International Foundation, Dan Matuszewski had often acted as my sounding board for ideas about how to expand IREX’s use of telecommunications to organize exchange activities with the USSR. He had been a supportive presence during his tenure at the International Foundation, and with the news that he would be taking over at the head of IREX, we intensified our discussions about the future of telecommunications and IREX. IREX administered the planning grant that Carnegie provided for the experts’ project, and during the September, 1992, visit to Moscow, Dan and I spoke extensively with Sasha about a partnership between IREX and VeGa in which VeGa would be the partner of IREX in developing communication in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union.
It was clear by this time that my usefulness to the project had come to an end. The process of developing open-access telecommunications practices in the Academy of Sciences had grown to the point where it became a practical impossibility to study via our old methods. The scale of activity was already overwhelming, even before direct internet access and the World Wide Web came to Russia. Besides, VeGa staff really had no time to be writing up fieldnotes. They were too busy traveling to far off parts of the former Russian empire and to different parts of Moscow where help in creating communication infrastructures was critically needed. Nor did I feel I had anything particularly useful to add to efforts like RELARN or the experts’ project, which were beyond my competence to fully understand or influence. The scale of network activities now far exceeded anything I thought I could make the object of research.
Sasha, Dan, and I met in Moscow in September, 1992 to discuss the future. We spent part of our time pursuing the possibility of creating a single center where different foundations could have offices and share a central telecommunications facility that could be used for training as well as provision of other services. With respect to the future, I made it clear that I wanted to reduce drastically my involvement in the project, leaving it to VeGa and IREX to work out the development of the achievements we had managed to accumulate over the past few years. My plan was to focus once again on psychology. I proposed that I continue with the project for one additional year to see if it would be possible to set up an e-mail conference for American and Russian psychologists and work with the new IREX staff who would be taking over my prior role.
Dan moved ahead vigorously to develop the telecommunications capacity of IREX. He hired a local staff that went right to work, starting with a project called “Modems for Democracy” that involved provision of modems and access to people in a broad range of non-government organizations not only in Moscow but especially in the provinces and in former republics of the USSR. (See Fick, 1993, for a summary of this work.)
In February, 1993, Sasha came to the US for meetings at IREX and Carnegie. I flew East to meet her, to hold my own conversations with Dan and the staff at Carnegie, and to assess how the new IREX-VeGa partnership was developing. I came away with a mixed impression.
On the positive side, Dan and I agreed that it would be most useful for me to devote my energies to developing a network for IREX alumni that could act as a support group for their counterparts in the Russian Academy of Sciences. This fit with my plans to focus on psychologists where I had a head start; my successes and failures, I believed, could be used by others as they got organized.
On the negative side, Sasha confirmed a suspicion that had been growing from my reading of correspondence involving VeGa staff and IREX staff in Moscow: they were having difficulty getting along together. Part of the problem appeared to be figuring out a division of labor and there were also conflicts of style (at least) in areas where their mandates overlapped.
Also troublesome to me was the fact that Fritz Mosher was re-assigned to a new program within Carnegie. Fritz had been deeply involved in our work, and had taken an active role in helping to guide our efforts.
Sasha, Dan and I traveled together from the IREX offices in Washington up to Carnegie where we met with the new staff members assigned to the Avoiding Nuclear War program. In those discussions we laid out our plans for continuing to cooperate in the development of communications on the assumption that I would workthrough IREX and IREX would work with VeGa. Then I would withdraw completely. This plan seemed acceptable to all. For their part, the Carnegie staff indicated that, unlike Fritz, they planned to take a hands-off approach to the project; it was up to us to work things out.
Initially the idea of a joint Russian-American networking project linking IREXNET on the U.S. side with scholars on the Russian side moved ahead briskly. IREX sent questionnaires to American alumni and some 200 scholars responded positively. A database of these scholars was constructed and distributed by IREX. A preliminary plan for embodying that database in e-mail forums in the different disciplines was agreed to with VeGa and the first stage of implementation was scheduled for Fall 1993.
VeGa and LCHC both made their postmasters available as a help system for IREXNET, following our previous model. In addition, VeGa began HUMANET to promote interaction among Russian specialists in the different disciplinary areas of the humane sciences as an equivalent counterpart to IREXNET.
In collaboration with VeGa, LCHC created XFSU, a discussion group sponsored by the International Affairs Committee of the American Psychological Association. We treated XFSU as one model that scholars involved in IREXNET-HUMANET might follow in developing their interactions.
Unfortunately, during my involvement in the VelHam project, IREXNET never really took root. XFSU did function, and continues to function, as a bulletin board where psychologists from Russia, the US and other countries post information they believe will be of interest to their colleagues. I routinely use XFSU so solicit manuscripts for the Journal of Russian and East European Psychology which I edit, and I post job announcements and abstracts of translated Russian articles there. Other psychologists post information about conferences, interesting new books, etc., as the spirit moves them.
In recent years the scope of IREX’s networking efforts have continued to grow along with the organization itself. Recently IREX implemented a modern version of the IREXNET scholars network on their web page, and they have adopted the ideas of public access nodes. VeGa, on the other hand, has grown smaller. At the time of this writing, VeGa is collaborating with the Institute of Ethnography in Moscow and the Conflict Management Group (Cambridge, MA.) in a project using computer networking to reduce the danger of ethnic conflict, applying the lessons learned in its decade of work.
Reflections on a Decade of Living on Two Continents Simultaneously
As I write these lines it is almost exactly 35 years since I first traveled to Moscow as a brand new Ph.D. psychologist. The world seems a very different place. In early November of 1962 Sheila and I would gather in the evening with Cuban students in our Moscow University dormitory room listening to our short-wave radio (forbidden to Soviet citizens) for news about the missile crisis. Soviet and American rockets were positioned to ensure mutual destruction, with Cuba as the pawn in a deadly chess game.
Although American enmity toward Cuba remains, Soviet and American rockets are no longer targeting each other. The whole question of who America needs to think of as “the other” has shifted, and is shifting, in dynamic and unpredictable ways. For the moment at least, Russia is no longer that “other.” It is not the heroic opponent of Fascism that animated my parents’ admiration. Nor is it an evil empire, poised to attack the United States. Rather, it is a new recruit in the movement toward post-industrial capitalism.
The story I have told here spans this historic transformation in Russia and in Russia’s relationship to the United States as well as the community of world nations. In the pages to follow, I offer some reflections on my experience of seeking and promoting joint research between Soviet/Russian and American psychologists. It is my hope that my experience and these reflections will be of more than strictly personal interest.
The Robber’s Cave, Revisited
As I indicated in Chapter 1, my post-doctoral experience working with Alexander Luria served as my model of international cooperation in scientific research. Within the context he created it was possible for me, as a visiting American post-doc in the Fall of 1962 to leave aside the enormous hostilities and pressures that infected Soviet-American relations and be allowed to participate as a member of a research collective on more or less equal status with other lab members (allowing for my heavily accented and amusingly constructed Russian). Within that context, jointly authored articles were sanctioned and published as if it were a perfectly normal practice. Outside of that privileged context the world was quite different. Americans at Moscow University were rarely allowed to forget the inquisitive hostility of their social environment.
Following Alexander Romanovich’s death, when I became the subcommissioner in Psychology for the exchange program, and had to deal officially with the Soviet psychological hierarchy, the rarity of the environment he created was brought back to me in a new way. When I went to visit the Institute of Psychology and had the temerity to walk down the hallway to say “Hi” to colleagues I had known for years, it caused panic. When I arranged for exchanges of delegations, I had to deal with the fact that the same Soviet scholars kept turning up on all the delegations and that those I found most interesting were conspicuously absent.
The VelHam project held great interest for me in part because it seemed to promise a way to tackle these long-standing problems of collaborative research in a productive way. I knew from my local experience that it was possible to use telecommunications as a medium within which to do interesting collaborative research at a distance on children’s learning and development.
My brief venture into spacebridging confirmed my intuitions that modern telecommunications technologies make possible the qualities of cooperative joint activity that I sought. I believed it would be possible to arrange a project with a confederation of research on each side with genuine interests in interacting with each other. But the degree to which I underestimated the difficulties of organizing and sustaining such collaboration in the context of the VelHam project makes Candide appear a genius of foresight in comparison.
I was able to anticipate some of the difficulties. I knew that getting clearance for Soviet participants to engage in a joint project would require overcoming some formidable legal/bureaucratic barriers in the USSR. I also knew that it would be difficult to assemble a Soviet team that would be both interested in the broad, symbolic goals of the project and the mundane, everyday work of the project. This concern motivated my concerted efforts to promote the formation of a Communication subcommission as a part of the official exchange program, and to have Velikhov create an inter-institutional committee with its own budget as the coordinating body on the Soviet side. But in many respects, my imagination failed drastically to match the complexities of reality.
My plan was based on the premise that it would be possible to embody the metaphor of the Robber’s Cave experiment by creating research groups on each side which, while heterogeneous in their composition, would provide for a balanced, and mutually enhancing system of joint activity. But several kinds of asymmetry constantly intruded on our efforts.
One of my most egregious errors, and one that I shared with a great many other people, was to believe that the Soviet side was capable of holding up its side of the bargain by providing the infrastructural requirements of the project: access to telecommunications, salaries for additional personnel required, as well as domestically produced computers and software. Over time, at great cost in time and effort on our Russian colleagues’ part (and support from Carnegie to pay for minimal equipment and connect time), telecommunications access improved dramatically. But the fact that for quite a long time after the project began we were restricted to very little access time for a small number of Russian participants meant holding the potential American teams in a state of continued, suspended animation that eventually destabilized an already volatile set of arrangements in the US. As it turned out, the Soviet Union never did succeed in mass producing a computer for use in schools, forcing our Soviet colleagues to scramble to find a way to put together the minimal technical conditions for the project to proceed. At least as importantly, the bureaucratic work and salary support needed to implement the project were never made available to Soviet participants.
This basic problem of resources was exacerbated by the different entering conceptions of the project’s originators. I knew from my earliest meetings with Velikhov that he and Hamburg had vastly different expectations of the project. Hamburg was thinking small and symbolic, Velikhov was thinking large and resource-generating (although he never forgot the importance of symbolic displays of cooperation and he always seemed to enjoy participating in them if children were involved). I believed it would be possible, in principle, to trade Russian expertise in science and mathematics education for American experience in the use of computers and telecommunications in educational settings. But, I did not imagine that we would be dealing with a situation where the Soviets had
no computers. Nor did it enter my head that Velikhov could not pull together the salaries of a few people to coordinate the work.
The reality my meager conceptions failed to grasp explains many of the twists and turns at the beginning of the project. Velikhov hoped/expected that the project would provide a large boost to the Soviet efforts at computerizing schools. Carnegie was one potential element in a solution to that problem. But despite his best efforts before and during the existence of the International Fund for the Survival and Development of Humanity, no really large donations of the kind needed to launch a major international foundation (and his domestic computerization aspirations) appeared. For our part, and despite the fears of those who oversaw the embargoing of computer technology to the USSR, we never provided the high level of material support assumed to be forthcoming by Velikhov and those he sought to include in the project.
The relatively modest scale of the project we proposed and my focus on the centrality of communication as the necessary medium for collaborative research also undermined Velikhov’s plan to conduct the VelHam project inside of the Shkola collective. Outside of that collective he had little in the way of financial resources, and nothing in the way of an organizational home, for VelHam. Consequently, he had to improvise. His use of contacts through the human potential movement and his choice of Ailamazian as a project participant and Pereslavl as a venue for organizing the actual kid-kid interactions were reasonable responses to his dilemmas. Unfortunately, they were not reasonable from our point of view. We had different priorities: we sought year-round interaction with other researchers and children. We did not want to be involved in sending children and their families back and forth between the two countries, and we had a strong research interest, as psychologists, in the content-specific forms of the activities that we organized for the children.
We did, after a long struggle that cost me the good will of a number of colleagues, succeed in putting together a project with the needed balanced and reciprocity. But our success came at the cost of drastically narrowing the project and locating it during the afterschool hours when it was, relatively speaking, free of the many bureaucracies that had hemmed us in for the first two years. I was never able to achieve full participation of the psychologists whose contributions I thought necessary to ensure that the project maintain the principle of full reciprocity. As a result of all the shifts in venue and participation to avoid harm’s way (and the new restrictions we thereby took on), the project was marginalized.
Another enduring mistake I made was to underestimate how deeply embedded our project was in the broader, international (“track 2” or perhaps it was “track 3”) diplomacy conducted by the human potential movement. As much as we tried to wrap ourselves in the neutral grey mantel of science, we were perceived by others, and were indeed, part of the larger movement to seek a reduction in world tensions through engaging in mutually valued joint activity.
All the time that he was dealing with us, Velikhov continued to develop ties with the human potential movement manifested in the earliest spacebridges which his political sponsorship made possible. This was more than a strategic necessity for Velikhov. Among his many responsibilities was the inter-institutional committee on Consciousness, my model for what a Soviet organizing entity for VelHam might look like. This committee was interested in understanding human consciousness in part because of an interest in changing and expanding it, goals held in common with American human potential organizations like Esalen. Moreover, he personally enjoyed interacting with children at summer camps and international festivals.
It is important to realize in this regard that involvement with the human potential movement was not restricted to Velikhov and some of his associates. Not a few of the officials in other American foundations with which the Carnegie Corporation cooperated (for example, in supporting the International Fund) were deeply involved in the human potential movement in one way or another
In this connection, I find it something of an irony that we at LCHC and the Carnegie Corporation worried about the fact that Velikhov and his helpers in the International Fund mixed straightforward philanthropic activities with money-making schemes and efforts to promote small businesses. While the particular projects they chose to support and particularly the ways in which they tried to implement their support could be legitimately criticized (some seemed patently illegal and evoked fear of a scandal at the Fund), the strategy of mixing money-making and philanthropy in the International Foundation seems to me now to be a harbinger of frontier Russian capitalism and the business activities currently engaged in by many Western organizations operating in Russia.
We were simply failing to foresee and understand the rapid penetration of market forces into Russian life. In this respect, we were, so to speak, “impeding history.”
Turning to the second major stage of the project, a different set of lessons strikes me in reading over the earlier chapters of this report. I am impressed, for example, by how important it was for the US to support a generation of scholars to take a serious interest in Russia and its allied states. When I first began to pursue the opportunities to open the Academy of Sciences to computer networking, it was those already-established networks, held together through the darkest days of Starwars and talk of evil empires, that provided the essential points of contact.
The impact of scarcity of resources in this case reflected a different kind of naiveté on my part than in earlier phases of the work. I assumed that given the opportunity, Russian social science and humanities scholars would make widespread use of the opportunity to open scholarly contacts with their colleagues in the West. I was partially prepared for the paranoid reaction that access to e-mail evoked. After all, I had lived long enough in the USSR to believe firmly that if you were not paranoid, you simply didn’t understand what was happening. But I was not fully prepared for the many ways in which Russians who chose not to engage in e-mail-based communication acted out their paranoia by denying their presence at meetings, denouncing those who chose to use the resources, and so on. To this day, many with whom we worked closely over a long period of time continue to believe that only greed or ill-will could have motivated VeGa and Carnegie to make telecommunications facilities available on an open basis.
It is important in this regard to recall the reaction of Russian scholars who were first introduced to e-mail in Moscow and then went abroad, which I discussed in Chapter 6. The typical response of these people was distress and disbelief at the inappropriate ways that their colleagues in Moscow were using (and not using e-mail). We were not dealing here with an immutable “national character” expressing itself, but with a particular pattern of behavior that emerges in conditions of extreme scarcity and participation in bureaucratically controlled communications environments with the threat of state sanctions always lurking in the background. Russians proved themselves perfectly capable of open communication when conditions made it appear to be
It is impossible, of course, for me to assess the actual course of the changes involved in introducing e-mail into Academy institutes as they really occurred “on the ground. ” I have no way to judge independently what transpired when Sasha gave presentations to gatherings at institutes or her assistants responded to users’ requests or paid visits to institutes to assess progress, or lack thereof. As the emissary of a powerful Vice President of the Academy of Sciences and wife of one of its influential members, not to speak of the valuable resources at her disposal, Sasha could not have been a neutral figure when she appeared in plenary meetings and Directors’ offices. Quite possibly her location within the Soviet/Russian academic power system contributed to the confusion and resistance that often greeted her efforts.
What most impresses me about the slowly evolving use of e-mail in the institutes of the Academy of Sciences is how variable the individual cases are in the face of the over-riding, Doesteyevskian patterns that we repeatedly observed. The fact that Institute #3, virtually from the outset, adopted the ethos and practices of open access communication provides an important grounding point for all of the other patterns we observed. Our approach could work, given the right combination of people. But it could also go terribly wrong and take a long time to right itself.
An important lesson from this stage of the work was how difficult it was for me to work with my VeGa colleagues in contrast with the two years when we were collaborating intensively on building educational activities for the children. In the work with children, we were able to implement, despite the difficulties, more or less balanced groups and equivalent core activities in the US and the USSR. But when we began to focus on the institutes, all of the “subjects” were Russian. “We” were observing “Them.” But “They” could not observe “US.” It took a tremendous act of faith on the part of Sasha and her coworkers to believe that I would not betray them by publishing accounts of their work at the Institutes using real names, thereby sewing hatred toward them. The form of my writeup of Chapter 6 is my attempt to make good on our understanding. No personalities, no “persons” appear in that chapter. No part of the patterns that emerges is attributable to the personalities of individuals, unlike other parts of this report. Rather, by tracing multiple cases in their particularities over time, we gain a picture of a social system in conflict with itself, where technologies and practices of communication are central to the painful process of change.
Thanks to the VeGa staff’s efforts, despite their misgivings, and their persistent reporting through e-mail, it proved possible to show clearly how a totalitarian, information-controlling society begins to change when the social virus of open access communication comes into its midst.
I also learned some lessons about the difficulties of institutionalizing change and the precarious role of the innovator. When Sasha started the child-centered phase of VelHam and made communication a centerpiece of her activities, she was considered eccentric, at best, by colleagues at the Institute of Psychology, the Ministry of Education, and Velikhov’s Shkola group. But once they caught on to the fact that telecommunications really was central to that effort, they deftly appropriated the idea and did their best to put her out on the street. That she retreated instead to her own living room, and regrouped using domestic resources, speaks well of her resourcefulness. It also reveals the special circumstances of her position in the power structure, and therefore the idiosyncratic and “domesticated” way the project was located in the Soviet system.
Her colleagues at the Kurchatov Institute in the Demos collective who eventually started RELCOM were equally dismissive of her efforts. But they vied to send their children to the 5th Dimension and when they caught on the central role of communication in what we were doing, they created Russia’s largest networking enterprise.
I am not particularly sanguine about institutionalization of VeGa as an international laboratory exploring new ways to use computer networking to promote scientific cooperation and joint research. Having originated as a non-profit organization to mediate activities between two Academies of Science, VeGa must find its way in the highly competitive world of international telecommunications. VeGa’s partner, IREX, has moved vigorously to expand its telecommunications training and support facilities as part of its overall, expanding, involvement a broad range of commercial and other non-governmental, exchanges in the post-Soviet era. This expansion is paid for by American sources, not Russian.
Consequently, while VeGa has played an important role in the expansion of academic networking in the USSR and its successor states, to become institutionalized, VeGa must fit within the current Russian system of doing science. How Sasha will accomplish this is unclear to me, but she has proved resourceful in the face of difficulties more than once, as this narrative has amply demonstrated. From my perspective, many of the tasks we set out to accomplish have been completed. Many of our ideas have been absorbed and taken up into normal practice. In that sense at least, VelHam has succeeded.
With respect to institutionalization, my policy of creating balanced organizational structures with common goals and a division of labor that places the fulcrum of power mid-way between the interactants has a distinguished record of failure. However, as a method for finding out how power works in the process of social change, this utopian methodology has produced quite gratifying results.
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 This program was initially known as the Interuniversity Committee on Travel Grants. In 1968 the functions of this group were expanded in a new administrative entity, the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX).
 According to an account by Stanley Krippner (1980) in his book, Human Possibilities, Joseph demonstrated the ability to cure 12 stutterers in front of an audience of 800 at a prominent Moscow theater by creating a specially supportive, dramatic environment.
 In an article Sheila wrote about her experiences with the families she had been introduced to by Joseph, she reconstructs the history of contacts between the American and Russian human potential movements. Her article is reprinted in its entirety in the Appendix to this volume. I draw briefly upon her work in this context because the affinities she identified turned out to play a continuing role not only in the unfolding of Soviet – American interactions in psychology, but in a broad spectrum of Soviet-American interactions in waning years of the USSR.
 A good indicator of Volodya’s perspective is provided by his autobiography, in which the account of spacebridging begins with the first spacebridge conducted with Phil Donohue (Pozner, 1990). An account of the earlier, non-commercial experiments in spacebridging can be found in Keyssar and Pozner, 1990.
 Calls in either direction required callers to convince central operators that there was a genuine “media emergency involved.” American operators tried to be cooperative, but delays of 12-24 hours were common.
 This work was carried out on the Italian side by Sandro Duranti, who spent an incredible amount of time and energy making the arrangements for what was, at the time, an unprecedented use of telecommunications through computer networks.
 I could generally tell when Vlad acted as intermediary because he used a distinctive style of writing transliterated Russian — it was not possible for some time to communicate in Cyrillic via e-mail.
 One other aspect of the Communication sub-commission visit in February is worth noting because it indicates clearly how intertwined our efforts at developing computer networking were with the human potential movement, and that both were intertwined with video. A few days before I left for Moscow, I received a call from Joel Shatz of the Arc Foundation who planned to be in Moscow at the same time as our delegation. Joel had been working through Murray Turoff and EIES, and naturally wanted to see Turoff during their co-presence in Moscow; this would allow them to press their own agenda for networking. That was OK by me, but I was not anxious to allow the Velham project to be the vehicle for the human potential movement. I thought that by hugging the mantel of science around me tight enough, I might be able to ward off the political traps of attempting joint activity with the Soviets.
We did arrange some overlap time. Joel, accompanied by Joseph Goldin, met John Boyer and me at the Intourist Hotel where they were attempting a slow scan video experiment back to the U.S. We got a peek at slow scan. When we left their room I experienced one of the few occasions during the Velham project when I felt that the KGB was standing right behind my shoulder: As we left the room, two men emerged from the neighboring room snickering, looking us over, and making a point of observing and listening to what we were doing.
 An interesting outcome of this visit which I did not become aware of for several years was that a few months later, Lomov used it as the basis for a successful proposal to create a new international program of research on the psychology of communication focused on computer networking to the executive board of the International Union of Scientific Psychologists (at which he was the vice-chairman).
 At one point we arranged for Volodya Pozner to participate through e-mail, so that he could react to the ongoing discussions which were about intercultural interaction, as much as they were about the specific medium of computer-mediated interaction. Volodya was promoting Spacebridging, but faced an asymmetry with respect to audience which was just the reverse of what we were experiencing using computers as the medium: The Soviets had a ready audience for international spacebridges but they could not survive in the media market in the U.S. where they were ghettoized in the world of Public Television. By engaging Volodya in discussions of this kind we were continuing the hope that something like a Communication Commission could start to operate on the Soviet side.
 The entire strategy involved in the Forum, and the international fund that grew out of it provide an interesting case study in the USSR’s desperate efforts to the provide international support for Gorbachev’s efforts at reforming the USSR. ( I say more about this effort in Chapter 7.)
 At the time of this work, Moscow phone lines were in terrible shape and dialin service to IAS did not, so far as we know, exist, making leased lines necessary. IAS was doing all it could to improve the situation relying heavily on Joel Schatz and the people from the ARC foundation, now incorporated as the “San Francisco-Moscow Teleport” for technical support.
 As described in Chapter 7, the entire ethos of the International Fund was steeped in this same strategy, which harks directly back to the earliest spacebridges, and Joseph Goldin’s fantastic schemes for saving humanity through massive popular culture projects.
 The following colleagues participated in San Diego: Sylvia Weir, Child Bruce, Sarah Michaels, and Chris Hancock from Cambridge; Denis Newman, Paul Reese, and Pedro Pedraza from New York. Judah Schwartz from Cambridge and Seth Chaiklin from New York worked actively with us from their home locales on the teleconference we shared with the Russians in Pereslavl. The team of researchers in Moscow included members of Ailamazian’s group, Sasha’s group, and one person assigned by Rubtsov, who was away from the country at the time.
 For more than a month after we returned from Moscow there was no activity on the Pereslavl account. Then strange things began to happen. Someone changed the password and asked for passwords to other accounts. But Ailamazian’s co-workers, when queried by Sasha (they did not answer our messages) denied using the accounts at all. We were not prepared for this kind of difficulty. Whoever was using the account was not running up large bills, and we did not cut off the account because it would have entailed, ipso facto, removing Pereslavl from the project unilaterally, which we did not feel we could do without undermining Sasha.
 Papert and I had several discussions about how to make our efforts complementary. Sasha’s group and LCHC spent a good deal of time helping him coordinate his visits because neither he nor his partners were involved in telecommunications work, the most reliable means of coordination. He and Weir returned to Moscow in the spring to hold additional workshops, but in the end nothing came of this work.
 Two papers describing the work on Pond have been published in English (Griffin, Belyaeva, & Soldatova, 1992; Griffin, Belyaeva, Soldatova, & the Velikhov-Hamburg Collective, 1993), My description of this sub-project draws heavily on these sources.
 About this time we began to refer to Sasha’s laboratory as “VeGa,” as a short version of VelHam. I will use this name, which played on the fact that many new Russian projects gave themselves Greek-sounding names and that Hamburg in Russian is pronounced Gamburg, to refer to Sasha’s research collective.
 The one institute for which we have rich materials, but which we do not include here, is the Institute of Psychology. It would be impossible for us to write about this institute anonymously. Happily for our narrative, there were no processes at work at the Institute of Psychology which we did not also observe in one or more other cases, so we are confident that no important information was lost by this omission.
 The grounds for attaining the new position were interesting– expertise in e-mail and access to many foreign partners. An especially telling point in our colleague’s favor was the fact that she was so influential that she “even had access to the Clinton-Gore list server,” a unique and rare window on American political processes. Lost in these claims to fame was the fact that I had forwarded the information about the list-server to Moscow, and that anyone with access to e-mail had access to it and a lot more.
It soon became clear that the postmaster had little interest in promoting open access. Rather, from conversations with the staff there, it became clear that an atmosphere of secrecy surrounded the postmaster’s special contacts, which were to be valued, not questioned.
 Uvarov initiated the parallel Shkola project, which garnered support from the Copen Foundation. They implemented various pilot projects with a set of Moscow schools that were linked up with schools on the East Coast of the U.S. The projects carried out by this group were of the sort that our laboratory and many other groups had experimented with for some time such as the production of a newsletter, project to preserve the environment, and so on. It functioned for a year and half and then faded from view with the demise of the USSR (Uvarov, 1992).
 A number of technically sophisticated reports about the history of networking in the USSR and subsequently Russia and the CIS have been published, relieving me of the burden of trying to give a detailed account of these important developments. For an overview of the forces in play and VeGa’s role see G. Cook, 1992 and NATO Report, 1994.)