One of my favorite television shows is The Americans, which tells the story of two deep cover KGB agents working in Washington, D.C., posing as a husband and wife. It details the happenings of the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, which just so happens to be the final hurrah of the Soviet Union right before it collapsed and became a non-entity. One of the passions I have when watching the show is observing little things that I wonder if they got right, based on the time period where the story takes place. The other week, I was watching one scene where a covert agent was in a room with a bunch of telephones, and I started to wonder “when did the push button phone come into being?” According to a Wiki article, the push-button phone was starting to gain popularity in 1979, which means the show got that one right as well, as there were mainly rotary dial phones, but on the shelf there were a few push button phones. That sort of continuity and clarity constantly intrigues me on a show like this.
What I discover is that they get more things right than I’ve been able to figure they got wrong. But one thing that has been bothering me is a central premise of the whole show, and that’s that the secret stuff the KGB was after might not have been on the radar as much as the show would like us to believe. An example of this is the Internet, or better known as Arpanet back then. The thing about Arpanet is that while it was the forerunner of what was to become the “Internet”, at the time of its creation. For some clarification, the Arpanet started out as a four placed link between the University of California, Los Angeles, Stanford Research Institute’s Augmentation Research Center, the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah’s Computer Science Department. Over the next few years, it reached the East Coast of the United States by linking to a bulletin board network (BBN) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March 1970 and then in 1973 it made its first connection to the Norwegian Seismic Array. In 1975, it was declared operational when the Defense Communications AGency took control of it to handle advanced research. This is kind of where The Americans come in, as in 1983, the U.S. military developed (as a part of Arpanet), the Military Network (MILNET), which handled mostly unclassified communications.
The part I’ve had a problem with The Americans during this part of their focus is that I really don’t think even up to this point anyone took Arpanet all that seriously. Sure, we know what it is today, and the world couldn’t possibly turn again without the realization of how important the Internet is, but even in the 1980s, the people who were “embracing” the future Internet were mostly geeks who were experimenting with a different form of entertainment. The whole beginning of the Internet was a lot of bbs operations with little understanding of how this was going to lead to business, globalization and the future of immediacy politics. The birth of the Internet is the desire of computer scientists to link their networks with each, and until it went mainstream, there was little understanding how this was going to change the world.
Which is why I have a hard time believing that the Soviet Union was jumping in on the rise of the Internet back then. Even our own country didn’t know what it had until it was way out of its own control.
The other “technology” that The Americans have dealt with is “stealth” technology, which is what eventually became the invention of the stealth bomber and fighter. While I can see how the Soviets might have been interested in such a technology, it is important to point out that this technology was first introduced in 1945 when it was revealed that the German U-boats operated under “diffused lighting camouflage”, which is the introduction to dealing with this kind of technology, although the later versions tended to veer more towards fooling radar than people on the ground. As a former intelligence agent myself, I have to say that the one part of the equation that The Americans kinds of glosses over is how difficult it would have been for an operative to understand what he or she was seeing when dealing with this type of technology. Basically, you would need a physics master or an engineering trained agent to be able to recognize what it was he or she was looking at before he or she could figure out if it was ever worth stealing. Chances are pretty good that two scientists staring at the same evidence might have come up with completely different conclusions as to what it’s purpose actually was. We kind of run into the same thing today when we hear “weapons of mass destruction” and a nuclear scientist looks at a chemical weapons dump and thinks it’s relevant, but because of specialized training, he becomes the expert they rely on and he hasn’t a clue what he’s looking at. Same kind of thing.
One thing the show does get right is probably the opposite of what I just said a second ago. There was a great moment where the Soviet spies were looking at schematics and basically were clueless as to what they were looking at. More stuff like that would make the show so much more believable, but they went from that moment to somehow recognizing everything they saw as critical and I kind of lost that great feeling of seeing something done extremely well.
So, I guess my question I’m left with is whether or not we’re reinventing history when we see shows like this, because one thing I’ve noticed in historical narratives is that the narrator often wants to make the characters of his story appear much more knowledgeable about the subject than they might have been. Having dealt with the intelligence field, I can tell you that quite often people don’t get it. They make clueless conclusions because they try to fit everything to a paradigm they already understand, and quite often when dealing with these subjects, you have to go in with a blank slate and tabula rasa everything. But people don’t do that. They want to feel like they have the answers, and they’ll pretend to know until they’re proved otherwise, and sometimes even after that they won’t admit they’re wrong. That’s kind of the problem with science in general and why we have people to this day who still think the Earth is the center of the universe and everything else revolves around it. We think that because we rely on the science of an age when people didn’t know better, and there are too many people today who should know better but never will.