Open Standards and the Digital Age

Cambridge University Press, April 2014
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How did openness become a foundational value for the networks of the twenty-first century? Open Standards and the Digital Age answers this question through an interdisciplinary history of information networks that pays close attention to the politics of standardization. For much of the twentieth century, information networks such as the monopoly Bell System and the American military’s Arpanet were closed systems subject to centralized control. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, engineers in the United States and Europe experimented with design strategies to create new digital networks. In the process, they embraced discourses of “openness” to describe their ideological commitments to entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and participatory democracy. The rhetoric of openness has flourished – for example, in movements for open government, open source software, and open access publishing – but such rhetoric also obscures the ways the Internet and other “open” systems still depend heavily on hierarchical forms of control.

1. Introduction
2. Ideological Origins of Open Standards I: Telegraph and Engineering Standards, 1860s–1900s
3. Ideological Origins of Open Standards II: American Standards, 1910s–1930s
4. Standardization and the Monopoly Bell System, 1880s–1930s
5. Critiques of Centralized Control, 1930s–1970s
6. International Standards for the Convergence of Computers and Communications, 1960s–1970s
7. Open Systems and the Limits of Democratic Design, 1970s–1980s
8. The Internet and the Advantages of Autocratic Design, 1970s–1990s
9. Conclusion: Open Standards and an Open World



“This book contributes significantly to our understanding of the current state of affairs in information technology and governance, while also making original contributions to our understanding of the evolution of business institutions across the long twentieth century. Drawing on substantial original research, Andrew L. Russell argues that processes for setting industry standards have embodied broadly felt (and often competing) values regarding American governance. He shows how standards-setting has functioned as a central element of American political economy, with a rich history of far greater importance in the affairs of the nation than historians have previously understood. In the process, we come to see how the current enthusiasm for open systems and standards fits in a larger story of American governance. The current situation is neither a radical break nor an idealized state, as much contemporary literature insists and celebrates. Rather, it is a refinement in the face of shifting economic conditions that reflects and draws on a persistent commitment to economic liberalism. This is an important point that will garner considerable attention from historians and contemporary business analysts.”

– Steven W. Usselman, Professor of History and Chair of the School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology


“Andrew L. Russell’s book describes how we got to the twenty-first-century information society, the ‘Open World,’ through focusing a standardization lens on the history of American communication and information technology as it evolved from the late nineteenth century. Russell’s book is the first history of American communication and information technology to focus on standardization and its processes and implications. Understanding how standardization has evolved is critical to understanding our commercial world today, and Russell provides a key contribution by exploring its evolution in the realm of ICTs. His look at how ideologies and critiques of ideologies and institutions drove the evolution of standardization regimes is a real contribution to the literature. He also adds to the field by showing that the notions and values of open standards, open systems, and the Open World have a long prehistory.”

– JoAnne Yates, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and Professor of Managerial Communication and Work and Organization Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

July 2014 – Review of Open Standards and the Digital Age in IEEE History Center Newsletter
July 1, 2014 – Historian of Technology Cruelly Crushes Internet Myths
May 26, 2014 – Into the Intro: Open Standards and the Digital Age
May 21, 2014 – The Internet’s History Isn’t As “Open” As You Think
April 16, 2014 – Stevens Professor Andrew Russell Pens Book on Open Standards and the Digital Age
March 27, 2014 – Interview with Jasmine McNealy on New Books in Technology