Fenwick McKelvey (Concordia U, Communication Studies) will be giving a talk 3pm Friday, Nov. 3rd on “Optimization: From the Arpanet to the Internet”, RCC 202 Ryerson University, sponsored by the Infoscape Research Lab.

“Optimization: From the ARPANET to the Internet”

The US Federal Communications Commission’s landmark ruling on “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” included one notable exception to its ban on broadband discrimination: “in order to optimize the end-user experience, broadband providers must be permitted to engage in reasonable network management practices.” Optimization, in other words, legitimizes a whole set of management practices otherwise prohibited by the order. The term discursively withdraws technical management from a political debate about Network Neutrality. How did this boundary become established? In this presentation, I explore the history of optimization and its particular lineage from the ARPANET to today’s Internet.


Internet optimization is only one example of the growing use of this term and its corresponding technical practices. My presentation situates Internet optimization as part of a larger trend in post-war research known as the Cyborg Sciences that embraced computers and modelling as techniques for social management. Today, optimizations improve the behavioural outcomes of websites, apps and social media under platform capitalism. I conclude by questioning the future of optimization as it shifts from its dominant use as an instrument of liberal social conduct. Recent examples of deliberating misleading computer systems — what designers call dark patterns — suggest a coming era of dark optimization where the desires of late capitalism seek new anti-enlightenment outcomes.

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