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Historian of Technology Cruelly Crushes Internet Myths


As readers of this blog know, since 2005 I've been teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. One of the best parts of being an academic is hanging out with cool (compared to me), young (compared to me), up-and-coming scholars, some of whom know far more about the history of science and technology than I do. Take, for example, Andrew L. Russell, who joined Stevens in 2008 and is now assistant professor of history and director of the Program in Science and Technology Studies in the Stevens College of Arts & Letters. (See his website here.) Andy is the author of a new book, Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks, published by Cambridge University Press, that challenges myths about the origins of digital technologies, including the Internet. (No less an authority than Vinton Cerf, a creator of the Internet, calls Andy's book "remarkable" and gives it a five-star review on Amazon.) Andy's historical perspective, in turn, informs his understanding of the Snowden affair, net neutrality and other current controversies. To get a taste of Andy's outlook, check out his recent articles for Slate and IEEE Spectrum and—even better--read the following Q&A.

Horgan: You're on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and he asks you to sum up your book in a few sentences. What do you say?

Russell: My book is a history of American information networks--telegraph, telephone, and computer networks. The main characters in my story are engineers you’ve never heard of, such as Bancroft Gherardi, Charles Bachman, and Louis Pouzin, who made technical standards that tied telephones and computers into networks. I'm fascinated by these engineers because they didn’t only focus on technical details; they also promoted distinctive visions of politics, business, and society that often flew in the face of the status quo. Once you understand what these engineers were trying to accomplish, you’ll have a much better sense for why the Internet is such a big deal in the broad sweep of history.

Horgan: I thought the Internet was created by hippy geeks who envisioned a world with more peace, love, happiness and bandwidth. Are you telling me I was wrong?

Russell: Yes! The core technologies that define the Internet--the TCP/IP standards--were sponsored by the US Department of Defense. It’s true that a small number of the people that worked on these defense grants had hippie sensibilities. I suppose that angle has gotten a lot of press and popular attention - hence your misconception. But your version leaves out an important detail: all of the people who built TCP/IP were, by definition, defense contractors. As I say in my book, I think the best term to describe the early stages of the Internet’s growth is "autocratic design." It was overseen by arm-twisting Defense Department managers, not by a decentralized community of hippies!

Horgan: Have you gotten any blowback from the Internet Illuminati?

Russell: No--those folks keep doing new things, and tend not to be too interested in looking backwards. More to the point, most of my book is not about the Internet itself. In most of the chapters in the book, I show how some of the core concepts that we now associate with the Internet--such as “openness" and “consensus"--have deep roots in mechanical engineering in the late 1800s, trade associations in the early 1900s, and telecom and computer networks in the mid-1900s. If anyone is going to be upset, it will be journalists or law professors who have built their reputations on a mythologized version of the Internet’s history.

Horgan: What's net neutrality, and what's your view on it?

Russell: "Net neutrality" is a term coined by Tim Wu, who teaches at Columbia Law School. The animating spirit behind "net neutrality" is the concern that network operators and ISPs could - for whatever reason - slow down or block Internet traffic that they don’t like. I’m sympathetic, of course, but the nice slogan “net neutrality” obscures the complicated underlying issues. I’m skeptical about the remedies that net neutrality advocates are promoting, since they call on Congress and/or the FCC to create new regulations around the Internet. Regulation in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing--I’m no libertarian--but, to be honest, I’ve never met anyone who thinks that our current crop of representatives in Congress are capable of writing a good law in this area. And any rules the FCC passes are certain to be tied up for years in appeals litigation. Internet and telecom companies have lots of lawyers and lobbyists, and both sides of the debate are investing heavily in their public relations and legal campaigns.

Horgan: Do you think the potential of the Internet to foster freedom outweighs its potential to enable oppression?

Russell: My goodness, I hope so! But let’s remember: like all technologies, the Internet is a tool that humans created and use. It doesn’t exist outside of human societies. So, your real question is: "Does the potential of humanity to foster freedom outweigh its potential to enable oppression?"

Horgan: Do you think Edward Snowden should be tried for treason or given a medal?

Russell: Jeez, nobody will accuse you of throwing me softballs. I’m an historian, and we tend to be most effective when we can use a long-term perspective before passing judgment. So, my instinct is to wait and see. I’m sure the story will have more twists, and with these cloak-and-dagger things there is always a lot more going on that we don’t know about. In any case, he won’t be tried for treason as long as he stays in Russia!

Horgan: How did a nice guy like you get interested in history of technology?

Russell: It seemed like the shortest path to fame and fortune, which I’m sure is right around the corner. Right? The short version is that after I graduated from college (I was a history major at Vassar), I found a job at the Harvard Kennedy School working for a group called the "Information Infrastructure Project." This was the late 1990s. I thought the subject sounded boring--the job I really wanted was in the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy--but I had student loans to pay and I couldn’t afford to be picky. It didn’t take me long to realize that this whole Internet thing was pretty interesting! After I worked for a couple of years, and learned a lot, I decided to go to grad school to study American history and focus on the Internet’s history. I started at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but when I finished my MA I moved to Johns Hopkins to complete my PhD in a more focused program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. My friend and colleague Jim McClellan wrote a great article--“Accident, Luck, and Serendipity in Historical Research”--that sums up my story very well. [Horgan note: I recently did a Q&A with McClellan about his latest book.]

Horgan: I hear you're starting a new program in science and technology studies at Stevens. What's the point? I mean, the goal?

Russell: Yes, it’s two years old! We have a great group of faculty, and we offer two majors: Science, Technology & Society (STS), and Science Communication. Our goal is to nurture a community of students, faculty, and staff at Stevens and in Hoboken who think in deep and broad terms about the issues that matter most to us: environmental sustainability and resilience; the future of medicine and healthcare; Internet security and privacy; and directing innovation toward social justice. The best way to confront these issues is to draw on the wisdom and creativity that our humanistic traditions can inspire, and to blend those humanistic sensibilities with scientific and technical know-how. We have a nice diversity of really smart students, and several of them are combining their STS or Science Communication major with another major at Stevens. [Horgan note: See my post on the science communication program here.] This is producing some really cool combinations, for example, STS and Chemical Biology; Science Communication and Biomedical Engineering; and STS and Visual Arts & Technology. Like I said--these students are really smart!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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