I’m the Officer in Charge at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica and Albany, New York, where I’m a Professor of History and on a Leave of Absence (as of December 2022) from my position of Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. I am also a co-director (with Jessica Meyerson) of The Maintainers.
I write about technology, computing, complex systems, and history. My two most recent books are Circuits, Packets, and Protocols: Entrepreneurs and Computer Communications, 1968-1988 (published by ACM Books in 2022, co-authored with James Pelkey and Loring Robbins) and The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most (published by Currency in 2020, co-authored with Lee Vinsel).
Circuits, Packets, and Protocols tells the story of the engineers, entrepreneurs, investors, and visionaries who laid the groundwork and built the foundations of the Internet.
In the late 1960s, two American corporate behemoths were poised to dominate the rapidly converging industries of computing and communications–the computer giant, IBM, and the regulated telecommunications monopoly, AT&T. But in 1968, a key ruling by the Federal Communications Commission gave small businesses a doorway into an emerging market for communication devices that could transmit computer data over telephone lines. In the two decades that followed, an industry of networking technology emerged that would impact human history in profound and unfathomable ways. Circuits, Packets, and Protocols is a groundbreaking study of the men and women in the engineering labs, board rooms, and regulatory agencies whose decisions determined the evolution of our modern digital communication networks.
Unlike histories that glorify the dominant players with the benefit of hindsight, this is a history of a pivotal era as it happened. Drawing on more than 80 interviews recorded in 1988, the book features insights from now-famous individuals such as Paul Baran, JCR Licklider, Vint Cerf, Louis Pouzin, and Robert Metcalfe. Inspired by innovations from government-sponsored Cold War defense projects and the birth of the modern venture capital industry, these trailblazers and many others built the technologies and companies that became essential building blocks in the development of today’s Internet. Many of the companies and products failed, even while they helped propel the industry forward at breakneck speed. Equal parts academic history and thrilling startup drama, Circuits, Packets, and Protocols gives the reader a vivid picture of what it was like to take part in one of the most exciting periods of technological advance in our time.
Advanced praise for Circuits, Packets, and Protocols:
A marvelous and personal exploration of a poorly documented period in the history of data communication! I lived through it and re-lived it in these interviews and narrative.
–Vint Cerf, Internet Pioneer
Circuits, Packets, and Protocols is full of revelations for me even though I was there. Never had it explained so clearly how my distributed computing strategy was the wrong one for 3Com in the 1980s.
–Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet Inventor
Circuits, Packets, and Protocols is not all about “winners” but includes the story of “losers” as well, and what can be learned from failures as well as successes. If you wonder whether there was a one-time confluence of events that brought us to the Digital Age, or a pattern we can learn from and pursue, this book will help you decide.
–Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler
The key technologies that brought us our modern networked society–routers, packet switching, multiplexers, Internet protocols–were all invented by people in the short period between 1968 and 1988. James Pelkey interviewed these people at that time and recorded their stories. This book is the result: a detailed and up-close personal history of a world being born. Fascinating.
–W. Brian Arthur
The Internet didn’t happen overnight. It was the product of a set of quiet and diverse engineering efforts that took place over two decades long before the Internet became America’s digital Main Street. Circuits, Packets, and Protocols tells that story.
Innovation is the hottest buzzword in business. But what if its benefits have been exaggerated, and our obsession with finding the next big thing has distracted us from the work that matters most?
In this provocative, deeply researched book, Vinsel and Russell tell the story of how we devalued the work that underpins modern life—and, in doing so, wrecked our economy and public infrastructure while lining the pockets of consultants who combine the ego of Silicon Valley with the worst of Wall Street’s greed. The authors offer a compelling plan for how we can shift our focus away from the pursuit of growth at all costs, and back toward neglected activities like maintenance, care, and upkeep.
For anyone concerned by the crumbling state of our roads and bridges or the direction our economy is headed, The Innovation Delusion is a deeply necessary reevaluation of a trend we can still disrupt.
“These last few months [of 2020] have been costly, but they’ve shown us that we can, individually and collectively, change how we work more rapidly than we ever imagined; revealed the importance of essential workers and maintainers; and given us a glimpse of a future that could be radically different—more prosperous, better maintained, and more sustainable—from the world we left this spring. Vinsel and Russell have given us a modest manifesto for building that world.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Challenges] us to ask an urgent question: what if we invested as much in maintenance, care, and upkeep as we do in growth, change, and disruption?”—Adam Grant, “The Fall Idea Books to Teach You Something New”
“There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to reveal how much a society relies on maintainers. The Innovation Delusion offers a vital wake-up call. Stirring, sobering, and brilliantly composed, this book is a must-read for everyone who longs for a radical reinvestment in what matters most.”—Ruha Benjamin, professor at Princeton University and author of Race After Technology
“Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell have taken on one of the tech industry’s sacred cows, showing how the chase for the next big thing has harmed countless businesses, left our roads and bridges in a state of neglect, and drained support for the essential workers who keep society going. By equal turns alarming and empowering, The Innovation Delusion is a send-up of Silicon Valley’s empty promises and a much needed plea for sanity in how we think about technology, profit, and work.”—Dan Lyons, bestselling author of Disrupted and Lab Rats
“Vibrant, sure-footed . . . The authors guide readers with clear and contemporary examples of when deferred maintenance led to either slow or fast disaster. . . . The authors also thoroughly expose the unjust hierarchy that leaves maintenance workers at the bottom of the pay scale. . . . A refreshing, cogently argued book that will hopefully make the rounds at Facebook, Google, Apple et al.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] resounding call for sane business growth. Readers will come away from Vinsel and Russell’s urgent and illuminating primer with a new perspective on the importance of maintenance as well as innovation in business.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“In this caring ode to the ordinary grit of maintenance, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell light a brilliant bonfire of the vanities from carefree innovation-speak. We should upkeep their message, and repair our corporations, communities, and consciousness. This book is more than a conversation starter—it’s a course correction.”—Guru Madhavan, Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and director of programs at the National Academy of Engineering, and author of Applied Minds: How Engineers Think
Some of my other work:
Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age (ACM Books/Morgan & Claypool, 2015)
Publications on Internet history, standards, modularity, maintenance, and more
Teaching: US History, History of Technology, Science & Technology Studies, Research & Innovation Policy