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Concordia professor wins the 2019 Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize for his work on internet daemons

Fenwick McKelvey’s research asks important questions about the ‘politics-at-large’ of our network infrastructures
June 25, 2019

Fenwick McKelvey, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, spends much of his time researching “behind the scenes” of the internet.

Now his work on the intelligent bots that run in the background of our networks has earned him the recognition of his professional peers.

On June 5, the Canadian Communication Association awarded McKelvey the 2019 Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize for his monograph Internet Daemons: Digital Communications Possessed.

“McKelvey’s book offers a lucid, imaginative and substantial explanation of highly technical and socially crucial issues of digital automation,” the jury wrote.

Each year the prize is presented to one scholar whose work exemplifies excellence in Canadian communication studies, building off existing work in the field and breaking new ground.

“Internet daemons” refer to the programs running in the internet’s infrastructure — on the routers, switches, gateways and other devices that we don’t see but that get us online. McKelvey’s book, which was published in open-access format by the University of Minnesota Press in 2018, brings important attention to a seemingly mundane topic.

“Internet 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,” McKelvey explains.

“As I argue in my book, these smarter daemons became a touchstone of one of the biggest media debates in recent history — network neutrality.”

Central to the prize-winning book is the question of how to hold these bots accountable. McKelvey has worked with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority to build a national public internet measurement infrastructure, and he argues that crowd-sourcing internet measurement connects to wider questions of high technology and democratic accountability.

“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,” he says.

“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.”

Other scholars in his field agree.

“McKelvey adds an important brick to this body of work by examining the extent to which digital communications are ‘possessed’ by daemons,” wrote Francesca Musiani in a review for the journal Internet Histories.

“This is a book not to be missed by all readers who are interested in the ‘politics-at-large’ conducted via internet infrastructure, and how they affect our lives as internet users, consumers and last but not least citizens.”

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


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