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 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.
His records request, passed to me for action by UWM's public records custodian, demanded "a complete and thorough search of all filing systems and locations for all records maintained by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pertaining to Dr. Thomas Haigh." The specific demand was for "all email correspondence - including email attachments - to or from Dr. Haigh containing" words such as Smithsonian, Shiva, and Raytheon. I dutifully searched through my university email account (firstname.lastname@example.org) for matching documents and passed them on to our university records custodian for vetting. The resulting stack of paper was quite large, but conspicuously failed to provide the salacious material Ayyadurai was fishing for. It included a student paper misspelling the name of Siva Vaidhyanathan, numerous job posting emails mentioning the Smithsonian, the annual merit review filings of my school's faculty, and an entire sample issue of History Research spammed to me by its allegedly predatory publisher. (Ayyadurai reportedly favors such journals for his own publications, so maybe he should send his work on email history there.)
When the emails of another Wisconsin historian, William Cronon, were requested by the state Republican Party, Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that
The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment... After all, if you go through a large number of messages looking for lines that can be made to sound bad, you’re bound to find a few.
Legally, Republicans may be within their rights: Wisconsin’s open records law provides public access to e-mails of government employees, although the law was clearly intended to apply to state officials, not university professors. But there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.
Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.
What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.
Again and again in recent times, Republican operatives have used fragments snatched out of context from emails—as they have used fragments snatched out of context from recorded conversations—to smear scientists, scholars and activists of whom they disapprove.
Biddie Martin, then chancellor of the University of Wisconsin--Madison issued a statement noting that in processing Cronon's emails
We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member’s job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.
Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.
When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.
Martin was soon to flee the state herself for the happier world of Amherst College. I agree with her, and with Krugman and with Grafton: requests of this kind are a crude intimidation tactic from the playbook of climate change deniers, designed to scare faculty members into steering away from public engagement or controversial topics and to force us to defer to the interests of the powerful. They've been embraced by conservative activists as a way of curtailing academic freedoms and smearing researchers with whose work they disagree by launching fishing expeditions for phrases that can be misrepresented or quoted out of context. This practice threatens the ability of any research university to function. The recent elimination of real tenure across the Wisconsin system makes faculty here all the more vulnerable to this kind of pressure.
When he was seeking revenge for his firing from an Indian research institution, Ayyadurai campaigned with the slogan "Innovation demands freedom" (innovationdemandsfreedom.com is one of Ayyadurai's many vanity domains). He presents himself as a liberal champion of the underdog, a plucky impoverished dark-skinned immigrant boy fighting for what's right. His most prominent supporters are Noam Chomsky and his business associate Deepak Chopra. He insists that his public relations campaign to brand himself as the inventor of email "isn’t about my wanting glory... It’s about refusing to enact the script that’s been played out for much too long in the lives of people from my background." So it's a little ironic that Ayyadurai is now resorting to an ugly tactic used to erode the freedom of researchers.
It's been a long time since Ayyadurai was a defenseless 14 year old boy. In 2016 Ayyadurai is a wealthy and well connected celebrity regularly featured in tabloid gossip pages, with access to the best lawyers and public relations executives. His own legal complaint against Gizmodo describes him as "a world-renowned scientist, inventor, lecturer, philanthropist and entrepreneur" and insists that being recognized as the inventor of email would have added tens of millions of dollars to his net worth. In contrast I am an obscure scholar who has never appeared on television or in the Daily Mail's showbiz section. Because I have no financial interest in who did, or didn't, invent email my aim has been to serve the public by protecting the accuracy of the historical record. Now that conservatives have declared open season on faculty all over Wisconsin, we might ask why a self-proclaimed liberal crusader has embraced their tactics by, as Cronon termed it, abusing open records to attack academic freedom.