How to write the history of a digital object?


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June 10, 2020

This history is a very detailed and focused one and I really love the way most information is documented with links. It is a very useful source of primary and secondary documents. It is centred on PGP as a multiform software and tracks all its versions, the people behind them, and the place where they are published. In this sense, it is very complete, but I lack a broaden contextualization. Who are the people that made this history? Why and how did they act as they did? While a recent history of this kind was much more critical and one-sided, this one seems very neutral and objective (in the sense 'based on objects and facts'). But the history is not as flat as this. What about the competition between versions, the tensions between programmers?

June 10, 2020

N.B. I'm aware that the author's goal was very different from mine. The criticisms I will mention are more addressed to myself than to his work.

This history is an interesting one as it starts with the invention of SMTP in 1981, 10 years before PGP invention, and situates its invention with a 1991 senate Bill 266 to ease electronic surveillance. Major historical events (the release of differente versions of the program, the publication of atlernative competitor (such as S/MIME or OTR), as well as vulnerabilities (e.g. Efail) are mentioned. There are also many criticisms that are mentioned and dated back in time.

However, several elements are missing in my opinion:

  • A clear definition of what is PGP: a software program, a standard, or still something else? Or rather, a historical view of how the script of this object has changed over the year, to become several kinds of things. In this article, it is implicit that we talk about the standard, but the history of the standardiation process is missing and PGP is much more than only a standard for E2E encryption of email communcation.
  • There is also very few information about the people behind this history. Zimmermann is the only contributor to be mentionned. It is important to note the importance of other people, such as Schumacher in Norway the 90s, Koch in Germany since 1999, and others.
  • Very few institutions are mentioned. What roles have the IETF, the MIT, or other organizations/institutions (also national agencies) played in the history of PGP?
  • The types of events that are mentioned could be broadened and more detailed. Release of new versions, discoveries of vulnerabilities, change in the laws or policies, beginning of collaboration with institutions (MIT, Germany's BSI), etc.
  • The infrastructures that underline this technology are also missing in this history. What about key servers for instance? Or the very email infrastructure and its development?
  • The ideologies underlying the work around this technology are also missing: for instance, why PGP was invented at all? Is it important to know that Zimmermann was a political activist? If yes, why? What about the Web of Trust?
  • More fundamentally, I think there is too little emphasis on the mundane and almost invivible work of maintenance that punctuates all histories. Many people are working on or with the standard, with very different goals (only authentification stuff, secure email service providers, and so on. Where are these people? Why don't they have a voice in this history?