Disclaimer: Not to get too political but I originally wrote this pre-Brexit and since then have been reworking and rethinking a lot of what I was trying to say. It wasn’t until I read Frank Cottrell Boyce’s brilliant article on the meaning of culture in Brexit Britain that I found I had something to say.
The thing is, it’s so easy to feel ignored. There are billions of humans living on this planet, and there have countless billions before us. The Bowies and Curies, the Pavlovas and the Einsteins are the ones in a million, born out of some weird combination of culture, genetics and excellent timing. The rest of us? What can we do? After all, we’re not geniuses, we’re not super creative or…
No, wait a minute. That’s not true.
People talk about the tragedy of the commons, but as a UX Designer, the thing that’s always struck me is the genius of the commons.
I’ve joked with fellow designers that my role is as much facilitator as it is designer. If I can provide a space where people’s ideas and creativity are nurtured and welcomed, then that’s three quarters of my job done. The rest is testing and putting it to paper. To me, user experience design is as much user-led design with me as the observer, the chronicler.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time thinking about big systems, about complexity. Ants are a great example – as a kid I’d be fascinated by these tiny black and red dots that somehow could swarm and gather to create movements that would transport other creatures much much larger than a single one. Driving to our hometown from the airport in Lagos, the roads of Nigeria are flanked by stacks of mud and saliva, built by termites over time and generations, some of them taller than a grown adult. The termite, though much bigger than the kind of ants I’d follow in our English garden, is still tiny compared to the amazing structures they create.
Then there’s the world of physics. Individual particles, with all their fascinating abilities, nonetheless come together to create us. An entangled electron which can travel as both wave and particle, when it is part of a network, a community, creates everything you see around us. The rules on the macroscale are very different from the rules at the quantum scale, and yet our world and the world of the stars and galaxies, is made up of those very same bizarre interactions.
So from science, I learned that small things create really different, interesting things when they’re connected. The same lessons were there in history: despite the way it seems humans as a species don’t really learn from our mistakes, the fact is we have actually changed a great deal in pretty important ways – in how we make things, in what we know, in what we value.
As I moved into the world of design, I took this obsession with me. Like so many of my generation, I grew up in a world determined to remind me that I could be everything but actually I wasn’t anything. On the one hand, I could easily buy what had in previous generations been unattainable luxuries but on the other hand, as numerous protests, marches and riots showed, my opinions, my reality and that of large swathes of the population didn’t matter to my government or any of the leaders of the systems I was part of.
But I also grew up in a world of crowdfunding, of popular movements, of social justice warriors who used blogging to share their truths. I grew up in a world that, as often as it reminded me of my powerlessness, also reminded me that people, small as we are individually, can make a difference when we’re connected. Through this, I am constantly being reminded that the failings of the present aren’t insoluble.
Now, it’s tempting to think that we can either solve our problems by solely looking to the past. Whilst I still think there’s always something useful to be gained from the examples of movements before us, I think it’s clearer than ever that to make things better for us now, for all our divisions and diversity, it’s the progressive, dynamic nature of the fused community that will help us gain ways of breaking through the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. It’s a cliche to say it, but those feelings of fear often do little more than trap us and sometimes that instinct is what keeps making us look to the past, as though our problems are borne because we disobeyed the ancestors. But they were human too – in fact, many of our current crises are born from what they thought were the solutions of their time – and it’s in the dynamism of the jam, the riffing of beats and chords, the mix of prior knowledge and contemporary experience that bring about change.
This is why I jam. I know and trust in the genius of the commons. I know that small things can connect to make much bigger things and I know that we can even become something new and very different as we scale up. Jamming is an opportunity to share this with other people, to connect so that we can take new forms and create new forces to solve the issues of our present time.