Blog: Black code matters

Published: 19 Sep 2018

Author: Ikem Nzeribe
Blog: Black code matters

It's National Coding Week! Let's roll up our sleeves and get changing the world, one line of JavaScript at a time. Is it quite as simple as all that? Let me explain.

Later this year, my Churchill Fellowship will take me to Nigeria - first to the capital and then out into the environs - to study fractals and how they manifest in West African culture. Now ‘What’s a fractal?’ you may be asking. It’s a self-repeating pattern you sometimes see on the back of seashells in nature. Or projected onto grimy nightclub walls while the bass speaker batters your ringing ears at a rave after dark.

Described in Europe by Leibniz in the 17th Century, they’ve been manifest in West African architecture, clothing and hairstyles for millennia. Could it be that repetition and pattern embedded in this music, art and design creates cultural aptitudes predisposed to computational thinking? Does this deep-rooted propensity for pattern and aesthetic algorithm build bridges toward maths and science, creating novel gateways to communicate complex ideas and invent new ones?

Below: an example of a fractal

A fractal

I don’t know, but this is at the heart of my journey. I’m working in conjunction with academics and researchers at the University of Nigeria in Abuja, and then fanning out amongst the Igbo people in the south east, where such repetitive motifs are commonplace.

The plan is to bring back what I learn and teach it in Moss Side in Manchester, and then the world beyond my local borders. Fractals in hair and hip-hop are culturally-relevant entrées to computer science. Seeing yourself reflected back in the world matters.

National Coding Week was founded with the aim of helping adults to improve their digital literacy in order to fill the growing skills gap. Marginalised people in tech — women, Black people, people with disabilities and others — have less free time to learn these new skills for a few major reasons: dependent care, precarious ‘gig economy’ employment and errands, and pay inequity. The picture is further complicated by a lack of access to spaces - libraries and community centres - closed in the last ten years due to cuts, and by a lack of steady high-speed internet connections in the home or a lack of equipment.

Below: Ikem Nzeribe

Ikem Nzeribe

How can my Fellowship possibly make a difference in the face of such overwhelming odds? Having this opportunity strengthens my personal resolve and commitment to ‘be the change’. I'll be touring Black communities up and down the country in a bid to spark conversations and facilitate engagement. At the least, I shall have a remarkable tale to tell.

Moss Side – and places like it – are left off the map when we discuss where we think the future lies. Futures are born here too, in terraces and youth clubs far away from the sprawling steel-and-glass buildings that Google and Microsoft call home. Under-resourced Manchester districts well beyond the radar of the technorati can give birth to The Next Big Thing – or maybe just to wonderful little things. There’s energy here. We need our own vision, and it’s made in places like this.

Being a Winston Churchill Fellow is both an exhilarating opportunity and a challenging conversation wrapped in the history of colonialism. A wave of de-colonial movements have sprung up in academia amongst young people, notably #RhodesMustFall at Oxford University. The Fellowship shows that a web of complex relationships between disadvantage and legacy can be navigated in a way that is progressive and takes us all forwards, no matter what your background or where you come from.

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