Andrew Russell, a Stevens professor of History and Director of the Program in Science and Technology Studies in the College of Arts and Letters, recently published a book entitled Open Standards and the Digital Age (Cambridge University Press, 2014). In his book, Russell examines the historical development of the Internet and other communications technologies and explains the how openness became a foundational value for communications networks in the twenty-first century.
“There’s a great deal of speculation about how the Internet will change our lives in the future, but most people have a very weak understanding of the cultural, political, and technological forces that shaped the Internet’s emergence,” Russell said. “In a society that is racing into the future, it’s important to understand where we came from and how previous generations grappled with technological and social change.”
The language of “openness” – stemming from a rejection of centralized information networks such as the monopoly Bell System and the American military’s Arpanet – was embraced by engineers in the 1970s and 1980s. When they created so-called “open” standards, they encouraged participatory democracy, transparency, and shared technological innovation among those involved with creating new digital networks. While this model flourished, Russell explains that these standards are not so straightforward, as they oftentimes depend heavily on hierarchical forms of control.
“The ideology of open standards came into being in a specific time and place, and it resonated deeply with people who worried – and continue to worry – about the concentration of power in a global society,” he said.
The politics of standardization affect both ordinary citizens and global business in today’s digital society. From a human perspective, standards create platforms that can be used for sharing knowledge and information but, as Russell notes, these same platforms can be exploited by government agencies and global corporations for political control or monetary gain.
“While standards create the realms of possibilities in digital worlds and in our digital lives, they also create possibilities for powerful institutions such as the NSA or Google to watch what we do – or, in some cases, to prevent us from acting in ways that we would like,” he said.
Russell will teach a class this fall entitled “Standards and Society” alongside Lee Vinsel, a fellow professor in the Science and Technology Studies program. The class will utilize Open Standards and the Digital Age to introduce students to the world of standards and the strategic process of standardization in areas such as communication technologies, food safety, state building codes and consumer product safety. The class was made possible from a grant received last year from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
About Stevens Institute of Technology
Stevens Institute of Technology, The Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, more than 6,100 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 350 faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense and STEM education and coastal sustainability. The university is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.