Technology is so much a part of our everyday lives that the way it influences people can be hard to untangle. And yet it affects everything from human relationships, to society and its legal systems. These are interactions that fascinate Rhonda McEwen, Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean of the University of Toronto Mississauga, and professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology.
“Social media is a great example,” says McEwen. “The way that social media has affected politics, elections, social anxiety, all of these kinds of things. And you think, how did we get to this moment? No one started a platform thinking, ‘I want to affect social anxiety and depression, and also this election.’ These are the things that come about because they are the consequences of use.”
Human interactions with technology can be small one-on-one interactions with virtual assistant devices like Alexa, but they can also add up to larger problems that emerge, such as unwanted surveillance.
There are also questions surrounding how to make our experiences with technology more meaningful and inclusive.
“User interface has been really in the line of ergonomics,” explains McEwen.
“It kind of came along a way of, ‘hey let’s make it easier for people to use.’ I think it’s very much a different field now because we start thinking about not just making it easier to use, but it actually goes further back into the cognition. How does the brain actually interact with this information? So that brings in philosophy, it brings in psychology, right? So it’s not just about design.”
Beyond her research, McEwen is also an active leader on inclusion initiatives, serving as UTM’s first special advisor on anti-racism and equity, engaging low-income and marginalized youth in STEM, and creating networking opportunities for Black students, faculty and staff. McEwen was also recently named the President and Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. These themes flow into how she approaches her work.
“You kind of step back into those spaces and you think this idea of ‘The Human Being’ being one entity, I think is false and I think all the work we’ve done in diversity in the last little while also should expand into ideas of each human being their makeup,” says McEwen.
“The way you see an object where you see a colour, the way you hear a sound. What sounds you even hear are so different to what I would, so the idea that we can maybe create more customization within some of our technologies, or give the users more the ability to shift and change things so that it actually works for them in a much more meaningful way.”