Data visionary to join SFU as Canada 150 Research Chair
How does big data research help answer questions of equality and justice? How can this research create methods to address abusive language used online, and cyber bullying? How does data analysis combat the spread of fake news?
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, will join Simon Fraser University as a prestigious Canada 150 Research Chair in 2018 and her research aims to answer those questions. She will hold the Chair in New Media, in the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology, and hopes to develop the coalitions that can create new approaches to digital democracy.
The chairs program, created in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, provides Canadian post-secondary institutions with a one-time investment to attract top-tier, internationally based scholars and researchers to Canada.
SFU News spoke with Chun about her research and how she feels about joining SFU as the new Canada 150 Research Chair in Digital Media.
Tell us about your academic background and research interests.
I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Waterloo, followed by graduate degrees at Princeton University. I have been honored as a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the American Academy of Berlin, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and a Wriston Fellow at Brown University. I’ve also been a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and, a visiting associate professor in the History of Science department at Harvard University.
Most broadly, my research draws from my background in systems design engineering and media and literary studies to investigate the rise of computers as networked media. Fundamentally interdisciplinary, it spans the fields of new media studies, global and comparative media studies, media archaeology, gender and sexuality studies, software studies, science and technology studies, digital humanities, critical race theory, and critical data studies.
What attracted you to this field?
When I started as an undergraduate in systems design engineering at Waterloo, I always intended to take courses in English literature, as well. The Montreal Massacre, which occurred in my second year, convinced me to start taking courses in the humanities because I needed answers to questions about the world around me that engineering could not provide.
I applied for PhD programs in English during my final year in engineering and started at Princeton the fall after graduation, seeking to bring together concepts in the humanities and STEM. In graduate school, I decided to research the Internet—which was just being re-branded as cyberspace and emerging as a public medium. I also started thinking about the similarities and differences between key concepts in the humanities and engineering, such as “control,” “freedom” and “program.”
Increasingly, in order to understand the impact of new media—and to help imagine a different future—I have also been turning back to engineering and trying to create bridges between STEM and the humanities. In order to address the pressing problems before us, we need unusual and vibrant coalitions.
What will your research at SFU involve?
Our research will investigate and develop alternative network models. We hope to create methods for addressing abusive language online by generating counter speech and creating opportunities for engagement.
Drawing from the work of natural language processing (NLP) researchers, political theorists, and anti-cyber-bullying activists, we will help create methods to turn hostile speech into more productive discussions. Starting from the premise that conflict and dissent—but not hate speech or abuse, which is justly forbidden online—is a key part of any democratic process, the group will focus on developing algorithms to determine how to create effective counter speech.
Rethinking the basis for connection is also central to combating the spread of fake news. Instead of focusing on extreme moments, our research will analyze and engage the complexity and majority of human expression to build alternate models of interactivity and engagement.
Please explain the fundamental values of your research. Why is your research important to Canadians and global citizens?
The Digital Democracies Group—a new group at SFU—will integrate research in the humanities and data sciences to address questions of equality and social justice. It will combat the current proliferation of online echo chambers and discriminatory algorithms by creating alternative data literacies and paradigms for connection: from applications and methods for transforming hostile social media exchanges into productive dialogues, to critical analyses of fake news and its historical evolution.
Working with the many centers of excellence at SFU in the areas of big data and engaging communities/civil society, we will help develop the coalitions necessary for producing innovative approaches to digital democracy.
What does becoming a Canada 150 Research Chair mean to you?
This is an invaluable opportunity to pursue my research—to build those bridges between the humanities, STEM, arts and social sciences—in order to prototype different types of networking technologies. More personally, it is an opportunity to return to Canada. I left in 1992 to get a PhD at Princeton in part because I was told that—if I wanted to return to Canada as a professor—I would have to get my PhD elsewhere.
I’ve reached a point in my career where coming back to Canada and helping buttress academia here is one of my highest priorities. Canada is in a great position right now to take advantage of growing difficulties for academic research within the U.S. and U.K.
I am very grateful that Canada welcomed my family in as immigrants from South Korea in 1970, and I am eager to return.
What is the one main point you would like the public to know about your research goals?
That we need to build unusual coalitions across disciplines, schools, industry and the public in order to create vibrant democratic technologies and cultures.