Concordia researcher shines a light on our internet daemons

Fenwick McKelvey’s new book examines how the bots that rule online networks ‘are part of very real global systems of power and control’
November 13, 2018

Debates around how the internet should be governed are raging. Net neutrality, piracy and copyright, artificial intelligence and big data grab headlines weekly.

But what about seemingly mundane issues like buffering and slow connection speeds? Could your internet service provider be capitalizing on its control over your online experience?

Fenwick McKelvey is a researcher and associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science. His new book, Internet Daemons: Digital Communications Possessed, digs into the complex history, theory and policy of these intelligent bots and how they affect our lives.

The full book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is available on Concordia’s Spectrum Research Repository for peer-reviewed scholarly research, as part of the university’s Open Access policy.

The free-for-all of the internet could be better managed by daemons, but to what end?

What is your simplest definition of an "internet daemon"?

Fenwick McKelvey: For the book, it’s really two things. “Daemon” is an old term in computer science to refer to programs running in the background. Your computer has lots of daemons running on it.

I use “internet daemons” to refer to those particular programs running in the internet’s infrastructure — on the routers, switches, gateways and other devices that you don’t see but that get you online.

Why have these programs remained shrouded in mystery? Is it by design or by accident?

FM: I think it is by design. Daemons are designed to just work in the background, and we pay network providers a fee so we don’t have to worry about how our connection works. Media and infrastructure studies, to cite the book’s academic influences, pride themselves in studying boring things, so I think the mystery is just part of what’s being taken for granted.

Fenwick McKelvey: “I want to complicate our sense of technology and infrastructure.” Fenwick McKelvey: “I want to complicate our sense of technology and infrastructure.”

Why is understanding internet daemons and the roles they play in our internet experience important?

FM: Daemons might once have been boring, but that’s not the case anymore. Starting around 2004, the public started hearing more about active network management, typically used to curb piracy, often on campus. As I argue in my book, these smarter daemons became a touchstone of one of the biggest media debates in recent history — network neutrality.

The free-for-all of the internet could be better managed by daemons, but to what end? How should the internet be controlled? Should some networks be prioritized over others? Should some applications be cheaper to use than others?

These questions, in part, are being raised by an industry building smarter technologies, or what I call daemons, and we really don’t appreciate this matter of control in our internet policy. All to say, think of the daemons when you see a web page loading.

Can you talk a bit about the complexity of holding these ‘code-based creatures’ accountable?

FM: Internet measurement is vital to the ways we understand and hold “code-based creatures” accountable. How fast is your connection? What is your latency [delay]? Those home tests we use to measure our connection are actually part of decades-long research into making daemons more accountable.

I’ve had the privilege to watch the Canadian Internet Registration Authority build a national public internet measurement infrastructure to explore Canada’s internet [available to the public to test internet performance]. 

I have long been an advocate for better internet measurement, but I am hoping that the book will help contextualize that interest. I hope, in the book and future work, to connect the ways that internet measurement has succeeded and failed with these wider questions of high technology and democratic accountability.

What remains to be done to keep these programs under control?

FM: There is so much work to be done into looking at the forces configuring daemons today. In the book, I highlight this problem as a matter of optimization — what are the criteria for how well a program or system performs and to what end?

In the five years of writing this book, I have seen new organizations really start to translate academic research into a public debate about the ways we manage algorithms, artificial intelligence and big data.

Their impact has started to shine a light on all sorts of applications of other daemons, to push that metaphor, and the ensuing inequities and discrimination. I am pretty inspired by their intersectional approach that exposes flaws in optimization today and looks for more inclusive ways to govern technology.

What do you hope this book will bring to the conversation around internet daemons?

FM: Daemons are real. I want to complicate our sense of technology and infrastructure to think about its collective intelligence now and the mess of wires and software we’re already in. At the end of the book, I suggest we need to start thinking about the operating systems we’re already embedded in. I think that is a strange enough idea to disturb what we’re taking for granted and look at how daemons are part of very real, global systems of power and control.

We need to critique the so-called sudden discovery of ethics in technology. At its worst, it considers ethics as something new or about individual choice rather than the way we’ve built these systems. Instead, we can point to the work of engineers, designers, poets, writers and scholars who have been working on this ethical question their entire careers.

What is one thing we can start doing today to take control back?

FM: Aside from measuring your internet connection? I look to what’s happening at the Milieux Institute, particularly the Indigenous Futures and Speculative Life, which I think are finding ways to imagine more inclusive futures. As someone who has really tried to get into the nitty-gritty of internet policy in Canada, I think these places are at the cutting edge of imagining better futures and deserve more recognition from policy makers and government.

What is the importance of Concordia’s Open Access Author Fund?

FM: It helped release my book as open access. That is a tremendous achievement and one that usually is not accessible for a first-time author. I am really happy that the University of Minnesota Press would take the risk on me and that Concordia would support the costs. I’m hoping that more people can enjoy the book as a result and that people buy the book to support the fantastic people who made it possible.

Read Fenwick McKelvey’s new book, 
Internet Daemons: Digital Communications Possessed, on Concordia’s Spectrum Research Repository.

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