Nicole Stremlau

Nicole and sonPlease tell us a bit about your background.

My early years were mostly in New York, but my family would travel a lot- primarily in Asia and Africa for my parents’ work. I left the US when I graduated from university and haven’t managed to return to live there since then. I would like to live there again for a period, but the rest of my family are not as enthusiastic. My husband is Italian, and our three children are a mix with the UK and South Africa thrown in.

Our current family situation, as one might imagine during the pandemic, is certainly active and a bit chaotic.  But it has also given me a chance to reflect on what lessons and skills teaching 7-year-olds online have for university education.  I really do admire how our daughter’s teacher has been creatively working to keep the children engaged. Her school leans towards the Waldorf approach so before Covid they would eschew screens, technology and worksheets. Now they have had find a way to navigate less traditional modes of learning and inquiry with online platforms. It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting to see what they have come up with.   

What led you to a career in academia?

After finishing my undergraduate studies in the US, I received a fellowship award to work with refugees along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. Unfortunately, a week before I was to start the head of the project heard he was going to be arrested and fled to Kenya. I still decided to go to Ethiopia with my grant, and I found a job at a local Ethiopian newspaper. Working for the newspaper ended up sparking my passion for media issues and later shaped my PhD topic. I returned to Ethiopia for my PhD research in 2005.  Once again, my plans had to change.  A week prior to my arrival deeply contested elections had been held and within a few months the journalists I had planned to interview were arrested. It was a tense time.  I ended up having to adjust my topic – and I also spent longer in Ethiopia than planned. I was there for a year and a half or so. I loved doing field research, particularly in challenging but rewarding environments, and became more committed to pursuing a career in academia.  During that time, I also started travelling to Somaliland, which developed into an area I have been focused on in recent years.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

My research explores issues around law, society and our digital world. I am particularly interested in questions about the relationship between technologies and conflict and development- whether it is their perceived role in bridging inequalities and digital divides (such as UN’s pledge to connect those without internet access) or the role of online hate speech in conflict.  My work focuses on the global south and I believe if we paid greater attention to what is happening there it would bring many of the issues we see in Europe or North America to the fore.  Cambridge Analytica was sowing disinformation campaigns during elections in Nigeria and Kenya, testing their tools, before moving to the US.  Similarly questions of online hatespeech, or of technology policy, are much starker in places like Ethiopia and Somalia. Looking at some of these shared challenges in what might be considered more extreme cases offers unique insights relevant for addressing issues faced on a global level.

What are you working on at the moment?

Much of my time is focused on a European Research Council (ERC) grant I am leading. This project has a number of different work packages, so it has several souls, but at its core are questions about speech, technology, and conflict. We are, for example, just starting research on AI and content moderation of online hate speech in Africa, which is understudied as much of the attention is on Europe and North America. I am also working on a book looking at law, technology and innovation in the Somali territories. This has been a longstanding passion of mine and the research has been collected over a number of years though different research projects, including work with the United Nations that facilitated data collection in such a challenging environment. Many people are surprised to learn that the world’s most ambitious experiment with mobile money is taking place in Somalia. Despite the absence of state institutions, the country has essentially become cashless because of the war- and it has the least expensive internet data in Africa. I ask how this has been possible and what role various forms of law (especially xeer law, which is intertwined with sharia law) and dispute resolution have in enabling this tremendous investment in technology.

What is the best thing about living/working in Oxford?

When I first moved to Oxford, we lived on a canal boat. We arrived in early January and had to learn quickly how to get the stove working. It was great, but a bit too cosy after a while.  CSLS is wonderfully international - I don't think one appreciates it until spending time at other universities that don't share the same level of diversity. While at Oxford I have become increasingly interested in how universities operate internationally- how to foster real collaborations with universities abroad and how universities become global actors involving the range of communities they serve and engage.

What is your favourite place to visit in the world?

I love northern Ethiopia. I went there as a child and have kept returning- it was also one of the first places I travelled with my husband. Lalibela is magical and the Gheralta mountains, where there are ancient rock hewn churches, are amazing. It has been difficult to watch the region fall into conflict over the last few months.  Closely connected with northern Ethiopia, and I think partly why I appreciate it so much, is Sana’a in Yemen. It is the most beautiful city I have been to, although it has also been shattered by war over the last few years. Both claim the Queen of Sheba as their own and these two regions are bound together in many ways.

More recently, however, it has been easier to spend time in Buse- a small village way up in the mountains on Lake Como. It is far from the glamour of the Lake but my husband, who is from northern Italy, has a family house on the mountains. It is quite remote (it used to be a shepherd’s cottage) and wonderfully refreshing. We have always returned whether for peace to write, to spend time with his family, or for hiking with our kids.

Photo of Nicole's daughters with their neighbour's cats.Do you have any pets?

Technically no, but in practice yes. Our daughters love cats, and they adopted our neighbour’s cat. She lives with us (mostly) and we often forget she isn’t actually our cat. It is sometimes like she is a secret agent- on one side of the fence she goes by the name Twilight and on our side of the fence our daughter calls her Rosie. In this photo our daughters are with another cat they befriended and followed around the village of Moncalvo, tracking its life story through conversations with the villagers and shopkeepers.