Andrew Russell, SUNY Polytechnic Institute – The Heroes of the Digital Age

On SUNY Polytechnic Institute Week: Those behind the scenes don’t usually get their time in the limelight.

Andrew Russell, officer-in-charge and professor of history, explores this in a digital context.

Andrew Russell is Officer-in-Charge at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, on leave from his position as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Poly. Russell is the author or co-author of several books, including Circuits, Packets, and Protocols: Entrepreneurs and Computer Communications, 1968-1988, published in 2022 by ACM Press

The Heroes of the Digital Age

When you think about how your life has changed during the digital age, the first things that come to mind probably are consumer products or services – slick gadgets like your smart phone, or apps that give you up-to-the-second data for weather, driving directions, or news.  

You’re probably not as likely to think about the cluster of products and services that often are called “digital infrastructure.”  This term encompasses the fiberoptic cables, cell towers, network switches and routers, and people who work—mostly unnoticed—to maintain the seamless, effortless veneer of digital life. And while these technologies and people tend not to feature prominently in histories of the digital age, it takes only a moment of reflection to realize that our digital world could not exist without them.   

One notable characteristic of digital infrastructure is the fact that it embodies breathtaking levels of coordination on a global scale. The technologies that emerged from the waves of entrepreneurship and innovation between the 1960s and the 1990s flourished only when they secured widespread support. In other words: the best technologies didn’t always win out; rather, those technologies with a wide base of adopters and users did. This dynamic is described by economists as “network effects,” a concept that is fundamental for understanding how the digital economy works.


When we look back at the entrepreneurs and engineers who built technologies at the core of our digital infrastructure, we see some characteristics that are common to all entrepreneurs, such as a remarkable level of drive and passion. But we also see some special characteristics, such as the ability to cooperate across national boundaries, and a comfort with technological convergence – in this case, technologies from the different sectors of computing and telecommunications, all converging around new and rapidly changing digital technologies.  


Although it’s true that the brash, egotistical CEOs get a lot of attention – think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos – the underlying truth is that digital networks and services depend on people who are more modest, more collaborative, and more committed to providing reliable user experiences. In other words, you probably will never know the names of the people who are the true heroes of the digital age.

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