Biz/TechConcerns about tech are real, McGill prof says in President’s Lecture

druvsareenMarch 18, 20197 min

Druv Sareen, Biz-Tech Reporter.

People should be worried about the prevalence of technology in their lives, said a media and communications expert from McGill.

Taylor Owen, a digital-media scholar and associate professor at McGill University, said at Humber’s final President’s Lecture Series talk of this academic year last Thursday that the concerns about social media and tech go beyond moral panic.

Owen’s lecture, Why is Everyone Mad at Tech?, examined the increasingly complicated relationship between society and tech. The lecture refuted the idea that the growing concerns about technology are misguided.

He broke down the issues regarding technology into three sections: the social costs, structural problems inherent in technology and what can be done.

Professor Taylor Owen, an associate professor from McGill, delivered his lecture on society’s complex, intertwined relationship with technology on March 14, 2019, at Humber College North campus. (Druv Sareen)

In his lecture Owen examined the issues created by algorithms used by Facebook and Google. These issues include targeted advertising, echo-chambers and fake news.

One point of focus was the growing anti-vaccine movement. Owen examined how Facebook’s targeted ads pushed people looking for information about vaccines towards misleading and false sources.

He also examined how social media furthers the divisions in society and compromises the security of democracies. Information in the digital ecosystem is designed to harden and reinforce biases Owen said, referring to the 2016 U.S. election.

In the presidential election, firms like Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s ad targeting system to sway voters towards right-leaning candidates and planned to suppress black voter turnout.

He concluded his lecture advocating for transparency in online advertising, support for journalism and legislation protecting people’s data.

Owen said his journalism background helped fuel his investigation into the  tech industry.

“I got into this whole area, because I was working at an institution studying changes in journalism,” he said. “Journalism was kind of the front end of some of these changes.”

Owen referenced the increasing dependence on social media and the challenges that presents for journalism.

“If I’m a journalist or organization, and all of my audience are on Facebook and [they] all of a sudden say ‘we’re going to crank up the algorithm to promote video’ the incentive for me is to start producing video,” Owen said.

“Then Facebook … they say ‘well, you know, that wasn’t really working, we’re going to to crack that back down,’” he said. “if I’m a journalism organization, I’m like, ‘what the hell? I just like changed my entire business model.’”

Nathan Radke, a Humber professor and member of the president’s lecture series committee, is happy Owen was brought in to discuss the issues around tech.

“I think this subject matter that we talked about today is one of the most important things that we can discuss,” Radke said. “I think that it is genuinely a public health issue.”

Humber’s final president’s lecture concluded the series until next fall. This year saw such notable lecturers as Temple Grandin, Timothy Caulfield and Jennifer Johnston.

Ian Gerrie, another member of the president’s lecture series committee, is happy with how the events have gone.

“We did well this year, I think we managed to tap into some issues that are very current, the kind that people are talking about,” Gerrie said. “When people are already talking about the issues, and then you have a speaker who comes along, who is ready to do that, I think that works really well.”

The president’s lecture series committee is preparing to reconvene and plan speakers for next year. Both Radke and Gerrie are open to suggestion for speakers. All suggestions for speakers should be emailed to  pls@humber.ca.