Volume 54 Number 2 (May 2019)

Making Messages Private: The Formation of Postal Privacy and Its Relevance for Digital Surveillance

by Efrat Nechushtai

p. 133-158


This article examines the establishment of privacy in mediated communications in the United States. The Post Office Act of 1792, which transformed the informational environment by formalizing a nationwide communications network, banned letter opening, a norm that became the cornerstone of American privacy law. The article analyzes the circumstances that led to the articulation of this norm, contending that it rested on two pillars: a civic rationale that rejected government interference in personal communications, and a commercial rationale that prioritized user trust and market expansion. A comparison between the eighteenth-century discourse and current debates over digital surveillance is offered.

Efrat Nechushtai is a PhD candidate in communications at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her research has been published in Journalism, The International Journal of Press/Politics, and Computers in Human Behavior. Previously, she worked as a business journalist.

Archival Automation in the United Kingdom and the Relationship between Standardization and Computerization 

by Jenny Bunn

p. 159-178


Continuing in a tradition of looking back at the history of the archival profession’s engagement with and response to computers, a story is told of early archival computerization and the development of standards in the UK from the mid-1960s to roughly the mid-1980s. Standardization and computerization initially emerged as separate threads, but these threads started to coalesce in the mid-1970s and soon became intertwined in a project of systematization. This project of systematization took as its focus the creation of finding aids, and archivists ceased to engage with the development of the principles of the new information technology and the ways in which meaning was being structured, represented, and manipulated inside these new "machines."

Jenny Bunn is program director for the Master of Arts in Archives and Records Management program at University College London. Her research activity is directed toward the advancement of the archives and records management community as it makes sense of its ongoing evolution and reevaluation in the light of changing digital technologies.

Information in an Industrial Culture: Walter A. Shewhart and the Evolution of the Control Chart, 1917–1954 

by Phillip G. Bradford and Paul J. Miranti

p. 179-219


This study analyzes the factors that shaped Walter Shewhart's 1924 development of the control chart at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The control chart is a graphical construct that uses probability theory to analyze deviations from expected levels of performance within systems of repetitive action. Although Shewhart's innovative use of probabilistic information focused on monitoring conformity to production standards in mass manufacturing, his basic concepts continue to affect modernity through their extensive application in data analysis in business, engineering, and science.

Phillip G. Bradford is in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Connecticut, Stamford. He holds a doctorate in computer science from Indiana University.

Paul J. Miranti is professor in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at Rutgers Business School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He holds a doctorate in history from the Johns Hopkins University.

Innovation in Search of a Context: The Early History of Lexis 

by Xiaohua Zhu

p. 220-242


Lexis, the first commercial online full-text legal information service, illustrates how the purpose of and the audience for a system were configured by distinct relevant social groups with different goals and perspectives. This article traces the early history of Lexis in light of the social construction of the system and the mutual shaping that resulted from the reciprocal interactions of users and the technology. It analyzes how system users' identities changed from anyone needing free-text search capability to legal professionals in large law firms and government agencies and how users influenced the design and development of the system.

Xiaohua Zhu’s research focuses on digital rights, e-resources licensing, open government data, social informatics, and academic libraries. Dr. Zhu has published her research in those areas in Library and Information Science Research, College and Research Libraries, Government Information Quarterly, and Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.

Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry by Jeffrey R. Yost (review)

p. 243-245

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 376 pp. $37.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-262-03672-6

Sarah A. Bell


In an excerpt from his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, published in the Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari makes a provocative statement: the way to save democracy is “to find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing.”1 Should one be interested in rising to Harari’s challenge, Jeffery R. Yost’s Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry provides an excellent primer on the mostly overlooked history of computer services (from consulting and programming to data analytics and cloud computing), which remain at the periphery of most people’s awareness, in spite of being a trillion-dollar business worldwide with significant political and economic import, as Harari’s provocation suggests. Yost, associate director of the Charles Babbage Institute, has written the first full-length business history of this important sector, highlighting newly available archival materials and oral histories recorded specifically for this project. The historical approach is largely descriptive but provides a foundation of authoritative facts about the key businesses and personnel that established and defined the computer services industry during the twentieth century. The book provides a necessary baseline for future scholarship in this important area.

Weaving the Dark Web: Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2P by Robert Gehl (review)

p. 245-247

Information Society Series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018. 288 pp. $30.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-262-03826-3

Elinor Carmi


If you search the term “Dark Web” you will find the cliché imagery of guys with dark hoodies practicing what seems like the black magic of computing. But is the Dark Web really that evil? Is it just the opposite of the web that we use every day? Shedding light on the monster under the bed, Robert Gehl shows that there are fifty shades of gray to describe the Dark Web and that in fact there is nothing dark about it at all. By doing so, Gehl follows a tradition of scholars such as Gabriella Coleman (hackers), Whitney Phillips (trolling), Jussi Parikka (computer viruses), and Aram Sinnreich (piracy) who examine and challenge our common understandings of deviant media and practices and reveal the power relations that they represent.


Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data by Mariel Borowitz (review)

p. 248-250

Information Policy Series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 432 pp. $40.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-2620-3718-1

Robert D. Montoya


It is no surprise to anyone that data have become a central and immediate concern in our daily lives; we are overcome by data. When we communicate, we most often do so through data channels; data predict what book or movie we might next enjoy; and for social media platforms, data are us. Science has been equally overcome by data streams. Big data. Databases. Data infrastructures. Data politics. Data are powerful and economically valuable. In Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data, Mariel Borowitz examines the global satellite data industry and unpacks open access trends and how, during the last three decades or so, governments and space agencies have attempted to commodify data, only to discover such approaches are not sustainable in the long term. The dynamics of this often-repeated cycle leads Borowitz to propose a high-level model of open access policy development that can potentially be used to articulate new data-sharing policies and predict scientific data’s economic value.

My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File by Katherine Verdery (review)

p. 251-253

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 344 pp. $27.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7081-9

Kalpana Shankar


During her first trip to Romania in 1970 as a PhD student at Stanford University, Katherine Verdery, a leading scholar and anthropologist of Communist Romania, accidentally drove her motorcycle into a restricted area: the grounds of a Romanian weapons factory. Taken in by local police, she was interrogated in Romanian (a language she barely spoke at the time) and then ostensibly let go to continue her efforts to find a field site for her research. In actuality, this incident was reported to the Securitate, the secret police agency of Communist Romania, which began a surveillance file on her. For the next few decades, over numerous trips to Romania (and even back home in the United States), Verdery’s file grew. It came to include photographs of her in intimate moments, reports from her friends and acquaintances (who served as informers), and other evidence of her “espionage” activities.

The full issue can be found on Project Muse