Saturday, December 30, 2023

"The Bulgarian Computer’s Global Reach: On Victor Petrov’s “Balkan Cyberia"

Combining a couple threads that appear in this morning's "The Closing of the Bulgarian Frontier". 

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, November 10:

Balkan Cyberia: Cold War Computing, Bulgarian Modernization, and the Information Age Behind the Iron Curtain by Victor Petrov

LET’S PLAY a history game. Imagine it’s the 1960s and electrical engineers and coders are colonizing a golden valley of dipping hills and collective communes. Miraculously, they build a thriving computer industry in what seems like a matter of months. It prospers. This cyber-land comes to occupy the hopes and dreams of the whole nation, especially its youngest generation. Where are we?

Bulgaria. It is not the first place many people would think of. In the popular imagination (and in much economics scholarship), Bulgaria is a poster child for rural agrarianism and underdevelopment. Cold War Bulgaria conjures an even more inauspicious image as one of the most stalwart political vassals of the Soviet Union.

But by the 1980s, Bulgaria was one of the world’s major producers of computers. By conservative estimates, one in every 10 industrial workers was employed by the computer industry. The country held a 45 percent market share of electronic exports inside the Eastern Bloc. Its executives rubbed shoulders with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1980s California and sold the PCs powering India’s IT revolution. Its children were taught coding in communist youth groups, attended computer clubs, and swapped comic books depicting cyborg Lenins and a socialist ChatGPT. The country’s factories built pneumatic robot combines that could automate manufacturing, and its manufacturers supplied microprocessors for the state-of-the-art satellite Interkosmos 22 pinging around Earth’s orbit.

How did this happen? And why on earth haven’t we heard about this cyber-land before? The second question is easier to answer. We haven’t heard of it because it collapsed in 1990, and winners don’t like remembering losers. And because Bulgaria is classed as “peripheral.” It is on the margins of every map: Europe, the Cold War, the global economy, the digital revolution. Policymakers and trendsetting gurus don’t tend to look for answers to big issues in these “small” and unfamiliar places (unless doing so involves a happiness index). This is finally changing. Some of the best history books being written today are turning “to the margins” to find previously unrecognized laboratories of modernity....


Related in spirit:
When France Invented The Internet