“I love the work I get to make. But I wish it didn’t seem so kooky”: Google Creative Lab’s CD Tea Uglow on the friction between culture and digital tech

12 April 2017
Reading Time
7 minute read

Tea Uglow is creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. In an article penned for It’s Nice That, she explores the constantly fluxing relationship between technology and culture.

Across the arts and throughout the history of philosophy and the humanities, we find every great question unpacked, played with, and explored. It’s what artists do. They address questions about “tomorrow”, often in baffling ways that don’t make sense. Until tomorrow.

Technological innovations are transforming our world today, and they often solve very immediate problems, and in doing so open up new questions about tomorrow. The focus on the need for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) to achieve this has led to many notable voices arguing that our current passion for STEM in education needs an “A” for Arts. To involve the experiences and wisdom of artists in our wonderful digital revolution. To provide a skillset that can provide perspective, ethical discourse, a level of self-critique and an appreciation of the irrational, the intangible. Express the inexpressible. You know, all the stuff that makes us human.

I think we argue for an A for Arts because STEAM is catchier than SHTEM. But really we need all the Humanities. Yes, the digital revolution has brought education, enlightenment and one-click trolling into the palms of our hands, but we also need to provide spaces for different kinds of talent to deviate from the blueprint.

My team works with many sorts of culture makers, exploring and describing the human relationship with information, and technology. Trying to help find a voice to reflect the reality we have, and the futures that we perceive from all the many billions of human perspectives. To do this we sit on the other side of the world, out of sight, a small offshoot of Google’s Creative Lab, based in Sydney. We make plays, or books, interactive films or strange magical objects.

We explore our attitudes and our capabilities to ‘play’ and create with technology and culture. Over the last decade that has seen us move from a very open web to increasingly sophisticated tools relying on complex engineering principles like machine learning and neural networks.


Google X Visual Editions: Tea Uglow, A Universe Explodes


Google X Visual Editions

Now I work at Google, so, by default I am pro-technology. But I also present as an artist. I’m not a coder, nor particularly good at art, I just like potential. So as soon as I get hold of anything like this I basically try to mess with it. It’s like a default: move stuff about, try and glitch it, warp it, press all the buttons, see what happens.

So take an app, one that is ‘good’ and popular. And try to make something that it doesn’t want you to make. Try to paint with it. You can even use ones that let you ‘create’… just try to make something that feels unique to you, that is an expression of yourself, rather than the capabilities of the software, or hardware. It’s hard.

In the end it just does what it set out to do. Ideally it’s idiot-proof, but also kinda artist-proof. And while I am sure that is completely amazing it speaks to a bigger problem about contemporary creativity and design in modern life. The one where we realise that as creatives, we will do what the app or software does, but not necessarily what we could do.

For example, now take a pen, and try and draw something, a doodle, anything. Something that expresses your inner boredom at the day in front of you. Easier right? And highly unlikely to look like what you thought it would look like. I think that’s a good thing. Even if the doodle sucks.

Increasingly it is harder and harder to adapt apps, software, or hardware to purposes beyond the very carefully planned and intended uses. Which is both very very sensible in terms of security and profitability and also somewhat anti-human. We evolved because our ancestors developed ‘apps’ like stones and sticks and used them to develop an agrarian society (and, admittedly, to kill other animals). There are probably less brutal illustrations but the point is that to evolve we need our tools to be adaptable, to be reconfigurable, to be open. If we want a world where art, literature and philosophy can remain an integral part of describing and defining the world we live in then the next generation of great artists should not require a computer science degree to push their tools beyond the intended use-case. For example this wonderful archaic combination of magic rituals and Machine Learning used by James Bridle to tease out some uncomfortable thought spaces about automated vehicles. Artists should not need to write the code themselves (as Bridle did) in order to talk about tomorrow.


Google X Visual Editions: Tea Uglow, A Universe Explodes


Google X Visual Editions: Tea Uglow, A Universe Explodes


Google X Visual Editions: Tea Uglow: A Universe Explodes

This isn’t an app problem exactly. It seems a bit bizarre to moan because an app does its job well. This stretches the whole way across the technology spectrum from that moment you realise your illustration studio is literally an Adobe Illustrator Studio, or that the start-up idea you’ve been working on for six months is redundant because an API has been deprecated. It is about that moment when our technology does the job so well that it begins to be impossible to imagine any other way of doing it – then it simply becomes the reality we live in. We need to be able to express through technology as easily as a pen. Something that felt more likely with the web than the internet.

In our recent project Editions at Play we started with the seemingly obvious observation that the only reason that ebooks started on page one and finished on page 274 was because books always had. But what if they didn’t have to? After all, that was just a tech innovation from the 16th century. They don’t have to any more. And after looking at ePub, PDF, and Apps.. we turned to the web.

More generally we design for phones because that’s what everyone uses, rather than designing solutions that might mean we didn’t need phones. We rely on notifications to feed our information addiction, and we are energised by virtual reality whilst worrying about the rise in social isolation without seeming to connect any of these. If you think it is too early to worry about that, perhaps we should be enabling more artists (and fewer advertising firms) to explore that space for us.

In other words we are creating a reality for the hardware we have, or which we are promised. We design for the gadgets we have, while using the tools we are given – rather than for an unimagined future. And that’s why digital tools that cannot be repurposed frustrate me. I feel a bit beaten. There is a fabulous exhibition waiting to be hung of international artists engaging with geo-tech (Maps!) Some works are fun. Some are beautiful. Some are deeply critical, and that is the dialogue and the critique that we are missing. Those conversations still aren’t being given the media oxygen they need for a healthy society. Culture isn’t just Broadway or the Tate, it is the medium that allows us to think about ideas in more (or less) than 140 chars. And then argue about it endlessly over pints.

So how might we change this? Well, actually technology firms already encourage one solution. But to a different end. They pay money to people who break their software. These are called “bug bounty” challenges. Effectively paying hackers to demonstrate weaknesses (called ‘exploits’) by paying them. What would a contest to demonstrate the cultural strength or weakness of a product look like? Could this be more free-market than a “grants programme for digital arts”? Would we see more positive culture hacks than negative ones? Are there edges? Can you haiku, could you dance?

Unfortunately, an exploit is demonstrable. And engineers prefer things that can be seen and measured. However there has to be a way to talk about what is happening in the digital world. Can we even say we understand the context in which the youngest generation experience their internet? For example being published in a newspaper ‘means something’ to my generation. I kept those first magazines. The point is that content is affected by the context in which we experience it. And we have neither the content, nor an understanding of the context in which it is being created. The next generation of artists, writers and the philosophers of the world would ideally grow up involved in the techno-industrial process, not outside it. That is the only way for culture to hold a mirror to our everyday reality rather than a backwards glance, wistfully, at yesterday’s world.

I love the work I get to make. But I wish it didn’t seem so kooky. Next month we launch a book ‘owned’ using blockchain to highlight the way in which our understanding of ‘ownership’ has subtly changed in the digital age. A book in permanent beta using blockchain. So how do we move this to the mainstream? Maybe I’m dreaming, but wouldn’t an X-prize mentality for our deep-thinkers be kind of cool? A data Pulitzer for digital poets. A Turner for beautiful art-tech, works that provoke both criticism and conversation. So that maybe we can answer some of our biggest problems in the op-eds of The New Yorker, or in letters to the Times Literary Supplement, rather than at conferences, or tech journals?

It is incredibly hard to imagine, but for our future generations, perhaps, it might make sense to start making more space in both our cultural institutions and in Silicon Valley itself for some full-on SHTEM to exist in the first place.

Tea and the Creative Lab’s latest project with publishers Visual Editions is a digital book titled A Universe Explodes . It explores notion of ownership and identity in a very digital way. It will be launched online in early April.

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Further Info

Follow @editionsatplay, read A Universe Explodes here or watch a short animation here.

About the Author

Tea Uglow

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