Shiva Ayyadurai really, really wants to look through my emails. Remember Shiva Ayyadurai? The man who has been engaged for five years on a quixotic but energetic public relations campaign to convince the world that he, and he alone, is the true “inventor of email”? Ayyadurai literally wrote the book on internet publicity. His big problem is that you can’t invent something that’s already in widespread use. Ayyadurai said that he “designed and deployed” a prototype in 1980, but historians knew very well that electronic mail had been around since at least 1965 and by the mid-1970s was the main source of traffic on what evolved to become the Internet.
I’m a historian of information technology, working in the School of Information Studies of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. As chair of SIGCIS, the group for historians of information technology, I coordinated the response of the historical community to his bizarre claim. This included creating a report (www.sigcis.org/Ayyadurai) documenting what Ayyadurai was saying and comparing it to what we knew about actual email history. He rarely names me or any of the other historians who have worked on documenting the actual history of email, though his campaign has denounced the members of SIGCIS as paid stooges for Raytheon, revisionists, a cabal, and “sophisticated public relations agents that manufacture and package ‘histories,’ no different than clever propaganda, to perpetuate lies of the pre-eminence of the military-industrial-academic complex.” By this theory the entire academic history of computing community is “unconsciously cutting and copying” the work of Gizmodo blogger Sam Biddle, “believing Biddle’s sensationalistic article to be the truth.” According to Ayyadurai’s recent lawsuit, Biddle’s pesky meddling has cost him at least $35 million. As I wrote in Communications of the ACM, this is a fascinating case with many lessons to teach about public history, modern journalism, and the myths of invention.
Anyway, I guess Ayyadurai has noticed me after all because now he now wants to read my emails. That’s not a superuser perk that you get for having invented email. Your emails are perfectly safe from him. He’s actually invoking the Wisconsin open records laws. These were originally passed in the Progressive Era to make sure that corrupt politicians couldn’t hide their misdoings. Our current crop of politicians have made efforts to rewrite and reinterpret them to exclude themselves from scrutiny, but as the state Republican Party has found them a useful tool for harassing academics who have have dared to comment on political issues they have been left in place for faculty in the University of Wisconsin system.