For Black History Month this year, TechSPARK has teamed up with B in Bath to shine a light on some of the established and emerging Black tech and digital leaders in our community. This time we’re talking to Associate Professor Dr Shawn Sobers.
My name is Dr Shawn Sobers and I’m Associate Professor of Cultural Interdisciplinary Practice at the University of the West of England (UWE), and my work is incredibly varied, no two days are the same. Relevant to this Tech Spark initiative, part of what I do is research into how digital technology impacts our daily lives, and also how new technologies can encourage creativity, civic engagement, and how it can make history and heritage relevant to the present day. I am a member of the Digital Cultures Research Centre, where there are people looking at different forms of innovative use of digital technology, based at the Watershed in Bristol. Much of my work relates to the Black British experience and different aspects of Black history.
Your path into the sector?
I was born and bred in Bath, went to Culverhay school, but I left not really knowing what I wanted to get into, expect I always loved art. I left school at 16 only with 4 poor GCSEs and did an Art Foundation course at the local college. After that I worked for a couple of years in a panel beating garage, which was an extremely racist hostile environment. I left and went back to college to study Audio Visual Design BTEC. From there I got the bug for education and went on to do a Film & Photography degree in Newport. I went on to work for HTV television making programmes and running a filmmaking workshop for young people, and then at-Bristol science centre as Media Education Officer. I then went on to do an MA in Media Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and got the job teaching photography and filmmaking at UWE. Whilst teaching there I got my PhD in Anthropology of Community Media, which I completed in 2010. I continue to teach and also make my own films and photography projects, as well as academic based research into these areas.
What interests you about tech/digital?
My interest in technology and digital is what it can be used for, rather than being interested in the technology itself. For example, as a photographer I hardly knew what the model of my camera was called, and I cannot hold a conversation for very long about different pieces of equipment. My interest has always been more in how devices have been used, particularly by young people, and how it can be an aid for creativity and education. For example, one of my favourite projects was working with two primary schools for a whole academic year, exploring different ways to use technology creatively for learning in all subject areas, not only in arts lessons. Very different to that, last year I did a mini research project where I analysed all the uses of digital technology in a funeral – from the use of the sat nav to get to the church, to photos of the deceased shown on the walls with a digital projector, to members of the family reading their eulogies from a mobile phone. These technologies are all around us, and we take their use for granted, but I feel it’s important to analyse how we use them, and how that potentially changes our behaviours and relationships to each other.
Can you tell us a bit about any projects you are currently working on?
I recently completed a research project which looked at a pianola formerly owned by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, when he lived in Bath from 1936 – 1940, during Mussolini’s invasion of his homeland. A pianola is an automated piano, and is a great example of incredibly intricate mechanical engineering. The Emperor and his family used to play the pianola at their Bath home at Fairfield House, and it became a instance of solace and domestic normality at an otherwise stressful time. I used the example of this antiquated analogue technology music device to explore other uses of technology to provide music in moments of sanctity, and how to use this history to think about the role of technology in our lives in general. I worked with elder members of the Bath community at Fairfield House, as they use the Emperor’s home as their base with the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association (BEMSCA). It’s a project I would like to continue, as it has been slightly stalled because of Covid19. But even during this time parts of the research has continued, as I have seen our elders use digital technologies in ways they never did before, to keep in contact with loved ones using video chat services, watching family funerals from overseas, and also participating virtually in their local church services. Technology always gets used for things in ways their original designers had never anticipated, and both us and the technology and changed as a result.
Do you have any thoughts on diversity in the tech/digital industries?
I think it’s important that Black people are more represented across all areas of the workforce and aspects of society. It needs to be seen as normal for Black people to work in any areas we want to, and to not be excluded because of the colour of our skin. Also important, Black people should not feel put off from entering any profession or area of work in fear that we might be the only Black person and might not be welcomed. Marcus Garvey said, “If you haven’t confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.”
It is important to have Black people working in digital technologies, as for example the algorithms programmed into a whole range of digital devices are culturally biased, and without different voices in the rooms are tech decisions are being made, we will forever remain an afterthought, and even disadvantaged as a result of the technological infrastructures in our societies working against us. This is a same for any protected characteristic, the rooms where decisions are being made need to become more diverse as standard, as without more inclusive representation people and communities will get left behind. Technology is an area where diversity is vital.
Renée Jacobs is a Project Manager at Actual Experience and the Founder of B in Bath. She is passionate about empowering and supporting people from underrepresented backgrounds in the workplace, and she recognises the importance of ensuring diversity of thought and experience in those people who create the technology that permeates all of our lives. Through B in Bath she hopes to enable employers and employees to cultivate a sense of belonging in the workplace; creating an environment where everyone, from all backgrounds, can grow, thrive and belong.