Dale Dougherty: Sharks and Daemons


The following is book review by my friend (and editor and publisher of MAKE) Dale Dougherty.

I spent President's Day offline, finishing up Daniel Suarez's novel, Daemon. I'm back online today but I'm leery, uneasy, maybe even a little afraid. I'm looking at my cell phone and my computer with suspicion.

Daemon is a dystopian novel about a doomsday scenario made possible by technology. The irony is that it's all the same technology that encourages us to think in utopian terms about what good it can do.

Fiction can make us confront fears that may be hidden from us day to day. After reading Peter Benchley's Jaws, people stayed away from the beach the next summer. It was perhaps an irrational response because we faced no greater chance of shark attack on the beach after reading the book than before. The world had not changed but the perception of our own vulnerability changed. I got in the water but I thought a lot about sharks swimming below me.

Reading Daemon made me think that, technologically speaking, we live in a glass house. We have our own private space where we have a sense of being protected and being in control of our own life. We think of it as our castle but we don't really live in a fortress. The glass house is transparent so that anyone can see what we do; the glass that separates us is also quite easily shattered.

Dead Men Have Tales To Tell

I won't give away what happens in Daemon except to say what's on the dust jacket. When Matthew Sobol, a "legendary computer game designer," dies and his "obituary is posted online, a previously dormant daemon activates, initiating a chain of events." The daemon seems to know everyone and what they're doing, partly because so much of what happens to us finds its way immediately online. A daemon created by a dead man is in control.

Daemon has plenty to offer in terms of its own technological twists and turns. Makers will like it: fab labs, autonomous vehicles, geocaching, and extreme home automation. Gamers may like it even more. There is seamless interaction between a networked virtual world and the physical world. It's not clear what's real.

The daemon is described as a "distributed scripting engine" with its components hosted on compromised computers all around the world. Events such as news items appearing in RSS feeds can trigger a scripted set of actions, most of which cause harm. It is a massively multiplayer online role-playing (MMORP) game that everyone's eventually forced to play — or else.

Because each of us is represented by data sets that live on a network, all our data is vulnerable and so are we. In Daemon, a program can change data on the network to change a person's fate. The daemon is like Bernie Madoff who edits his spreadsheets to say what you are worth right now, and everyone believes him, including you! The game designer of Daemon manipulates data and changes the world, even after his death.

The Fortified Web

In Sunday's New York Times, John Markoff writes about the need for "A New Internet?" with the subtitle, "the old one is putting us in jeopardy." The article quotes Nick McKeown, an engineer from Stanford.

"Unless we're willing to rethink today's Internet, we're just waiting for a series of public catastrophes."

Like those featured in Daemon. Or something completely different. The Stanford Clean Slate initiative is trying to redesign the Internet with a goal of improving security. I hope they succeed.

In Daemon, good and bad characters routinely take advantage of unpatched or unprotected servers to break-in and raid data on private networks for their own purposes. Eugene Spafford of Purdue says in Markoff's article that "all of the money has been devoted to patching the current problem rather than investing in the redesign of our infrastructure" and therefore, we're "worse off" than we were twenty years ago. In other words, we are vulnerable. Maybe we don't take the problems seriously enough.

We continue to believe that we're dealing with an acceptable level of risk. What if we're wrong about what's acceptable? Are we like the bankers during the collapse of the financial system who failed to understand that their complex system might suddenly unravel? Are we so optimistic about technology that we fail to appreciate how it might be used against us? Instead of dreaming up all the wonderful things our technology could do, should we devote more time to considering its potential for harm and preventing it? Should we build a fortified web that offers much better security and protection?

We already have numerous bad actors on the Internet. We've learned to tolerate and adapt to spam, malware, spyware, and bots. Read Wired's article on Max Butler and his attempt to corner the market on stolen credit cards. Butler hacked servers to steal already stolen credit card numbers from various international gangs, reminding me of Omar, a character on The Wire who steals the stash of drugs from rival drug gangs. Can it really be that easy to do? And to steal from thieves!

Could the Internet be controlled or overtaken by individuals or gangs — or rogue governments? Are the vandals going to overrun the empire? Is The Decline and Fall of the Internet Age a book to be written by a future Gibbon? My mind started racing ahead of the book. So many of us depend on the Internet for vital communications and for commerce, including our own livelihood. It is our life blood. It is also what makes us vulnerable. I started asking what would happen if the Internet were to go down for days or weeks on end — not just that your Internet or mine went down, but the entire Internet? Is it possible? Not in theory, I suppose, but I expect it might be in practice. It would be a disaster, a Katrina of unbelievable proportions.

Daemon is a fascinating mind game that could have generated less physical damage and still been exciting. My only other reservation about the novel is that the plot goes unresolved, leaving it open for a future novel to finish. I wanted closure. I wanted assurance that it was over. That the story doesn't end makes it all the more unsettling, just like the current financial crisis, which continues to develop with no end in sight. Daemon ends without anyone re-establishing control.

So I'm still asking myself, is it safe to go back in? Can I keep from thinking about what might happen to me if I go out too far? Am I already too far out? So many disturbing questions. See, my daemons are ruining another perfect day at the beach.