Geek Speak: Richard Smith, SFU communication professor

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      Richard Smith has been a professor in the school of communication at SFU for more than 17 years. During his career, he has focused his research on the complex relationship between technology and society, with particular interest is issues such as privacy and surveillance, new media, online communities, and education.

      Since 2011, Smith has been director of the Centre for Digital Media, a joint initiative of SFU, UBC, Emily Carr University, and BCIT. He lives in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

      The Georgia Straight reached Smith by phone.

      In a nutshell, what is the focus of your academic research?

      At the largest level it would be technology and society…. Because I’m a communication professor, I focus on communication technology and society and, in particular, for almost my entire career, Internet technology. So that of course is a constantly evolving thing, from web pages to blogs to Twitter to mobile phones [which] nowadays are really just a face of the Internet.

      And then society, of course, is a pretty big topic, so I’ve tended to focus on groups, [or] sub-groups, I guess. I’ve looked at older people, younger people, rural people, aboriginal people. I try and look at…how their participation in society as a whole is either enabled or impaired by Internet technologies.

      How does the pace of change in digital media and technology affect your research?

      The pace of change means that you have to be constantly on the lookout for new things and considering how some things are just here today, gone tomorrow, and they’re ephemera. And other things, they stick. A good example of something that sticks might be Twitter. It didn’t exist at one time and then it’s here, and then you have to try and figure out how is it going to fit into, as [Marshall] McLuhan used to call it, the communication ecology. Is it going to displace something? Is it going to augment something?

      I also try very much in my work, across almost everything, to take a historically aware take on things. Often…you look at something and go, ‘Wow! That’s completely new. We’ve never had anything like that in the world,’ but in fact it’s not. And Twitter is a good example of technologies that human beings have created in the past for themselves, going back to telegraphs and even before; short messages that you send to other people is not something completely new. I always try and look: is there an antecedent technology that might help us understand this and how its impact might take off?

      For someone with your interests, what’s it like being based in Vancouver?

      This is a great place to be doing digital media. We have lots of organizations doing stuff…. This is a good place academically, but it’s also a good place in terms of a community. Digital media is recognized and respected. It may not be as big as, I don’t know, mining or something like that, but it is a big deal here. So you feel like you’re part of the buzz. And it’s growing and vibrant.

      There’s occasionally stories about such-and-such a company is leaving or moving, and the digital-media industry is much more volatile, I guess, than say banking or something, but overall it’s just getting more and more exciting. And I think overall it continues to grow. It’s a great place to be doing this kind of stuff.

      How big a role does digital media play in your personal life?

      Probably too much. But, you know, I’m an avid user of all things digital. That’s how I happen to have @smith on Twitter. I try and keep a little bit of detachment so that I can be reflective and not completely immersed in it, but as you probably saw, I have gotten immersed in (an augmented-reality videogame) called Ingress, recently. I think it’s the kind of thing that, for me, it aligns with other parts of my life.

      I like spending the evenings with my wife. I like walking my dogs. I like being out and about in Vancouver. So a game that aligns with those things is a much better fit than, I don’t know, Doom or Halo or something like that, which I’m not that inclined to play at all. I don’t even have an Xbox or whatever. So I actively engage in almost all Internet technology, social media, that sort of thing, as a research activity….

      The other thing that I do with digital media in my life, which I think is not that uncommon, (is) I keep track of my walking and my weight…. They call it the quantified self: you keep track of yourself with your gadgets, and I find that kind of fun and interesting.

      Every other Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Thomson on Twitter.



      Keith Smith

      Jun 22, 2013 at 3:33pm

      Great article- and why not? Richard is my son!

      Joy Smith

      Jun 22, 2013 at 9:56pm

      Great interview. We are a great fan of our eldest son.


      Aug 12, 2013 at 9:23am

      Downvotes?! Wouldn't you be proud of your son?!

      Disappointing Georgia Straight crowd.