Madeline Carr on world travel, career plans and the politics of the Internet

carrWHEN considering which Aber lecturers could be the most interesting to interview for this month’s edition, Dr. Madeline Carr of the Department of International Politics came to mind almost immediately as a perfect choice. She is well-liked by her students, has travelled extensively, and is a leading academic on issues surrounding the Internet within international politics. The hour and a half we spent talking was devoted to a whole host of topics, ranging from privacy online and the Arab Spring to the wonders of Reddit and what the weather in Amsterdam tends to be like.

Born in Australia, Madeline moved with her family when she was a young child to Canada, where she grew up and attended school. They crossed the Pacific on an ocean liner and arrived in Vancouver with no pre-determined destinations or plans. It was here that her father bought a station wagon and the family began to travel east across the Canadian Prairies. In fact, it was only unforeseen events that led to them to settle in the town of Red Deer, Alberta, at the foot of the iconic Rocky Mountains. She left high school at the age of 17 to travel, instilled from a young age with the same sense of wanderlust that had inspired her parents to travel through Canada.

You really get the sense that her passion for travel is still very much alive simply from hearing her describe where she’s been. She speaks of the importance of aesthetics and beauty within Japanese culture and of the bustling nature of cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. She does seem to have a soft spot for Eastern Asia, specifically the Southeast, and when I ask her about this she explains why.

“Southeast Asia is just the most incredible place. For one thing the people are absolutely beautiful; the most gentle, welcoming and happy people you could find. The food is phenomenal, your money goes a long way, and everyone seems to be travelling there; there’s a whole community of people who are doing the same thing as you. The sheer foreignness of it all is great as well; it’s such good experience to feel outside of your comfort zone.”

The allures of her home country are also clearly important to Madeline. She speaks with great enthusiasm about the dynamism of cities like Sydney and Melbourne, and advises that I take the time one day to visit the islands in the Great Barrier Reef.

Her interest in the Internet is also intrinsically linked to her love of travel. We discuss the ways in which the information age has made the world seem so much smaller, and how this makes travel so much easier through websites like TripAdvisor, Couchsurfing and even Reddit. She explains how she used to find accommodation along the way when travelling, which would often mean spending hours on the phone in a hostel searching for the next place to stay. Nowadays everything is so much easier to find through online means, she says, and the best part is that you can do your accommodation research from a park bench and not a stuffy hotel lobby. Speaking more generally, she had this to say regarding her lifelong compulsion to travel.

“The trips that I’ve had are the things that I remember; they’re the really important things to me. I would spend my last dollar on travel, that’s for sure. That freedom to see the world and to go anywhere, I found that intoxicating then and I still do now.”

In her early twenties and beginning to feel “aimless”, Madeline moved back to Australia to start a typesetting business with her brother. This was at a time when graphic design technologies weren’t so widespread, and so typesetting was much more of a specialist skill. At the time, though, it was very much about using new technology in innovative ways, and to me it’s an indication of Madeline’s tendency to constantly stay one step ahead of the technological trend.

She later became a stage manager for a theatre company, relishing the opportunity to use her organisational skills. After a while, however, she realised that whatever control she had over the process could always be jeopardised by actors failing to learn their lines or to turn up on time. As a result, Madeline decided to go into the film industry in search of that extra modicum of control over what she was creating. It was this at stage in her life that she lived in Amsterdam, spending half of the year there and the other half in Sydney producing social issue documentaries.

It wasn’t until she started a family that Madeline decided she was in need of a bit more stability, and so began to study English Literature at the University of Tasmania. In the beginning of her second year she found that she had stumbled into the wrong lecture; an introduction to political theory. Unable to slip away quietly, Madeline sat through the entire thing and was so compelled that she went straight upstairs afterwards to change her degree scheme (despite never having had an interest in political science prior to that day).

I suppose that moment in a way marks the beginning of the Madeline Carr that us InterPol students would easily recognise. She went on to do a Masters and a PhD at the Australian National University, and taught briefly as a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan before taking up her current position at the InterPol Department here at Aberystwyth in 2012 (somehow finding the time in-between all of this to act as a consultant to the Australian Army and members of the Senate on issues of cyber security). It’s just as she told me: her academic career is really only just beginning.

At Aber she teaches at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level and also co-ordinates the Cyber Connectivity Research Centre, which acts as a hub for research into the Internet and its ever-changing role within global politics. I asked how her job as a lecturer compares to the breadth of other professions she’s experienced, and if she could offer advice to students fretting about career choices and planning their futures.

“I feel at the moment that I have the perfect job for me; I absolutely love it. It has all of the elements I really look for: travel, creativity, contact with people and an organised workflow. I ended up in this job not through planning but by following my interests; my plans really fell by the wayside. I’d suggest trying to stay in touch with what motivates you and what you’re passionate about. There’s a pervasive lack of security in that you never really know where you’re going to end up, but to me it’s absolutely fine to change and to have an incredibly diverse career of different jobs that appeal to you. You can go wrong by pursuing money, prestige or security but you can’t go wrong by pursuing what’s interesting to you. The jobs will follow that.”

Although the path that Madeline has taken to arrive in Aberystwyth hasn’t been particularly straightforward or obvious, she points out that many of the skills she’s gained along the way are integral to doing her job well; organisational skills, communicative ability and media experience amongst others. I think there’s certainly a lot to be said for Madeline’s approach, and I think it could ease many students’ minds when it comes to career angst. I’ve certainly spent far too much time fretting over the direction my life may or may not go in after university.

So what does she make of our beloved Aberystwyth then, having had nearly two years to settle in? When questioned about the remote sleepiness of it all compared to places like Amsterdam and Sydney, Madeline is quite quick to come to the defence of our small seaside town.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful town. It’s right on the coast, it’s incredibly peaceful and happy and yet it’s got a university, it’s got a hospital. I know for you guys Aberystwyth seems a little remote but for me it’s incredibly connected because I tend to think in Australian miles. To be a few hours from an international airport like Birmingham is phenomenal. Moving to the UK was a big attraction to me because I really had to move to the EU or the US in order to pursue the kind of work that I want to do. I need to be at these meetings and conferences, I need to physically be there. From Australia it’s just too expensive and difficult.”

“Plus the opportunity to come to the Department was just amazing. Everyone working in international relations wants to be here, and to me it was so thrilling that it was this department where the discipline began that was the one to begin addressing questions of the Internet in international politics. It wasn’t Harvard, Princeton, Yale or Oxford. Aber is really ahead of the trend here. A smaller university like this one can be brave and edgy, and that’s what I love about working here: it’s complete freedom but with all the support you could need.”

It would seem that Aberystwyth quite likes Madeline too. During her first semester of teaching here in 2012, she was the recipient of the Student Led Teaching Award for ‘Teaching Through Technology’. Having taken an undergraduate module of hers last semester, I can believe this. Every lecture was recorded and uploaded to Panopto without fail, the reading material was entirely accessible online, Blackboard was used extensively for uploading course content, and Turnitin allowed us to self-check for sketchy referencing before we handed essays in. Our seminars were online too, and the Facebook group for the module (though many modules have them) was incredibly active and useful. This, Madeline insists, was entirely thanks to the students, praising it for giving the module’s participants a “sense of community.” In addition, I know that a highlight for many students was the ability to connect with the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia via Skype, to listen in and to table questions to panellists. This was set up by Madeline, and she won an award at the Australian National University a few years earlier for establishing the same kind of link.

I know that to many people, politics simply isn’t something of any interest, and that’s fairly understandable. But given the intimate link between us students and technologies such as the Internet, it’s vital according to Madeline that everyone is aware to at least some degree of internet politics.

“However you engage with the Internet, it’s increasingly important that you understand the political motivations behind the people who control it. It’s not some unregulated free and open network; there are incredibly powerful forces that are at work to shape the way we engage with the Internet. Understanding how that technology is being controlled and shaped and in whose interests is becoming increasingly important. Whether you’re interested in politics or not, you have to be interested in the politics of the Internet.”

SNOWDEN!There are various issues to contend with when it comes to internet politics and I asked Madeline for her perspective on some of the key ones. For instance, putting our personal data online under the assumption that private organisations and governments will be responsible with it has been shaken, arguably like never before, by the revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program by Edward Snowden last May. Is it possible to draw a line as to how much we should share?

“If the company that delivered gas to your house said that they wanted to come in and photograph your cupboards in order to sell your information to advertisers, you’d refuse,” says Madeline. “But we don’t tend to have that same hesitancy about our activity online. Every time you accept updates to your phone, they want more access, to your phonebook or your photos. The questions of why we aren’t demanding more oversight of that is really important and interesting to me.”

Despite these concerns, she herself does not shy away from embracing technology. It’s of course the only way for her to keep up-to-date with her academic research, but even on a personal level the risk of her online data being misused is not a major cause of worry.

“I’m under no illusions that my identity and data are protected online. I do think twice about what I sign up to, because tracking down information online is just not a specialist skill anymore. I think it’s simply about being aware that what’s online is not secure, and asking yourself if you still want it there, all things considered.”

“I’m just not a very paranoid person I guess. My house is vulnerable too, somebody could be breaking in right now while we’re talking, but if you expect never to have anything stolen online (your identity, your credit card details, your data) I think you’re dreaming, just as you could never expect that nobody would ever steal your car or your wallet. You can lock your door and hope, but sooner or later everyone gets robbed.”

On the issue of cyber security and how it’s perceived by many to be a severely underestimated threat, Madeline voices her frustration at the lack of any real global cooperation on the matter. She claims that despite many nations calling out for a collaborative effort to fight cyber terrorism, nothing substantial has happened yet.

There’s also the importance of considering the relationship between the Internet and the developing world. It is, after all, an enabling technology through which people from all corners of the globe can benefit. However, as has sadly been the case in the past, developing nations can actually stand to lose out if they are not careful about how they go about creating an information infrastructure, according to Madeline.

“The pressure on the developing world to allow a foreign company to come in and build an internet infrastructure for them is so great, I think it could be very dangerous. It can allow private companies to monopolise the information sector in those regions, controlling the price of access or choosing which areas to provide access for. I wish there was more work being done on how these vulnerable countries are potentially being exploited by multinational telecommunications companies.”

It’s always helpful to look on the bright side, despite all of the doom and gloom that often comes hand-in-hand with world politics. We can see the potential for a truly interconnected world through websites like Twitter (as a great example). Madeline challenges people who dismiss the social media company as merely for those who want to broadcast their choice of breakfast cereal on any given day.

“If that’s what you think that application is about, you’re never going to get it. It’s not like I spend all day on Twitter, but if something is happening then that’s where I instantly go. It’s incredible to be able to be connected to events in that way. I remember I was on holiday when the protests started in Tahrir Square and had not long been on Twitter. I stayed up all night to watch these live updates; it was incredible to hear about what was going on from random yet completely real people.”

Events like the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its manifestation on social media sites are indicative of how exciting things can get when politics and technology converge. Politics is constant, existing in our everyday lives in all manner of ways, and technology will only evolve and grow at an ever-increasing pace. For academics like Madeline Carr, who can say how this complex relationship will have changed in the next two, five or ten years? Hopefully we at Aberystwyth will be able to keep hold of her for a while longer so that she can help us to work on such difficult questions.