Tom Uglow spoke with Siobhan Toohill for Out the Front in November 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tom Uglow started Google’s Creative Lab in Europe and now works in Sydney, Australia on exploratory projects and creative ideas that help connect Google, Android and YouTube with users. Projects at Google include Life in a Day, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and a recent collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Prior to Google he worked for the Royal Academy of Arts, the Wellcome Trust, Random House and Christian Aid. He tweets, posts, blogs, and has judged, presented, and enthused globally on TV, online, and in print. He describes himself as a Sunday-coder, a traditional creative, and a fuzzy strategist. Tom, welcome to Out The Front.
TOM: Thank you very much.
SIOBHAN: Tell me, what is a fuzzy strategist?
TOM: I think it’s someone who thinks they know about strategy, but doesn’t really. So it’s a kind of…well, I find an awful lot of people who think they’re strategists, but actually, they do tactics. They don’t really understand big pictures. And then you find people who think in kind of big, broad terms, but generally kind of struggle to wrap those into concrete levels, I think I put myself into that category.
SIOBHAN: So how do you describe what you do?
TOM: I struggle. I struggle to describe what I do. I get to work on a number of different projects, I have a lot of autonomy. Generally we look at what is interesting in Google, projects that are of interest to the company, or areas that we think are interesting. And then we look at ways in which we might use that. So you might look at APIs for GoogleDrive, for example, or doing a projects with Web Speech, these sorts of things. And we play about with them, and sometimes they turn into practical executions that can be used by the teams, and sometimes they turn into cultural projects, which is my preferred place to play about.
SIOBHAN: I think for a lot of people, working in a creative role in Google would be a pretty exciting idea of a job. How did you get to where you are now?
TOM: I wish I could say that there was a clear path and that I applied for a job, and that’s what this was, but it was a really…well, you know, like most careers, you kind of blunder without any real sense of trajectory until you find yourself, hopefully, doing something that you love. And then you go, ‘Oh look! Here I am!’ So, sort of, very simply, within Google, I’ve been working here for eight years, which is a long time at Google. When I started with Google, I started in London, I came in to do one month’s work, doing some presentation work, and I really didn’t mean to stay. I was freelancing for charities at the time, this was a large corporation, I didn’t think it would be my cup of tea. But they had, well, you know, they had great food! Free coffee, and then some really good ideas. I kind of came around to the idea, I sort of believed in what they were doing. They also had very little structure, there was very little design structure in Europe at the time, and there was a real kind of can-do atmosphere to the whole place, and I suggested that one month turn to three months, it turned to six months, I suggested that actually we could do with having a few other people, and they didn’t even really say no, they just…didn’t stop me. So we started from there.
SIOBHAN: What did you study, what is that you brought to the role that you now have?
TOM: I studied fine art. I studied a range of things actually. I studied fine art, I then left university, studied book art, which was not a vocational degree. I eventually, whilst working at the Royal Academy, did a degree in design management, which I though was incredibly valuable, I think most creative people should have to do some kind of either management or business degree. It helps really focus your thinking and understand why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing. And it’s generally been a process of kind of… tinkering. Playing. So I left university, where I had learnt about, I did my first HTML web course in 1994, but I thought it was rubbish, it didn’t make any sense to me, I liked making things, I wanted pen and ink and paper, and I still do. I still think those are incredibly important things. I think paper is a better technology, and that’s why we’re all writing down our notes. And then I found myself working at the Royal Academy, and it was just a time where you could build the website, so we built the website, and you could do that because you didn’t know, there was no-one else to do it. I feel very lucky that it was just a time where you could learn through doing, for an awful lot of the web stuff. And now I’m surrounded by people who are much better than me at all of that stuff, it’s great.
SIOBHAN: We all have a sense of Google from the outside, what’s it like being a creative on the inside of this biggest of internet businesses?
TOM: It is thrilling. I mean, you mentioned earlier, it is a great place to be working, because there’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of drive, there are a lot of ideas, there are some very smart people. And there’s actually remarkably few out-and-out creative people, it’s not an organisation that’s packed to the rafters with marketing or creative individuals. The dominant force of the company, obviously, are the engineers, they build products and they have great ideas, but they build the products, the don’t necessarily use the products. And then there’s an awful lot of people selling the products, selling advertising, selling tools. And then actually there’s a relatively small group of people who are allowed to articulate what those things mean, and how you can use these tools, and how you can play with them, with the public, and with simple projects that we’ve been able to put on. So it is really exciting, but sometimes we feel pretty close to the outside of the company. Sometimes it’s like, a lot of the projects we do are with external creative agencies, external teams, external companies. Using products in the way that anyone could do them, it’s just that we know what they’re capable of.
SIOBHAN: Where do you see culture and technology heading?
TOM: I feel that culture’s not going anywhere. And what do I mean by that? I mean that there is an awful lot about traditional culture that we love. We love our art on our walls, we like big pictures, we like the history of these things, we like going to the theatre, it’s very important experience. Experiences occur when you consume these cultural kinds of artefacts in their traditional ways. We benefit enormously from the collective sense of being in an audience, and being taken by a true performance, that physically comes before us and transports us into this miraculous place, into this play. And then, I think that then, the whole concept that you have to understand is that any culture is really of society, the reason we support our artists is kind of to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to record who we are and what we do. And to represent that. And you’re going to do that using contemporary tools, so you need to start making music that reflects the way in which we can experience music, you need to start making theatre that understands the internet, and understands how we are compressing time and space and fragmenting narratives and interweaving things back and forth. You need to understand social, because that’s the trajectory we’re on. Time has a certain fluidity now, we can loop around a story, and we’re moving from a place where everything used to be very static, you used to have to go to the theatre, go to the museum, to a place where we just expect, or we will certainly expect, to be able to access any information, anywhere, at any time. And in the form that we want to experience it. Information is moving to a place where it is completely fluid.
SIOBHAN: So what does that do for place then, this idea of being able to access things in the Cloud, online, versus the experience in place, when you’re engaged physically? How do you think that’s going to shift?
TOM: It is really interesting. We tend to focus very much on the practicalities of how these things affect us now, rather than looking forward, into an understanding that if you go back five years, no-one’s going to trade in their phone for a phone from five years ago, they’re just not going to do it. But we’re not really able to project forward to a phone five years from now, and understand how that might be a more interesting way of consuming content, or might completely transform the way in which we consume content. Certainly, however much you would like, or we would like this move from static information in books and in museums to fluid information, which is accessible, say in the Cloud (for the benefit of your listeners) but accessible, the idea that it is instantly accessible to everyone anywhere, whether it’s music or imagery or film or…these are, all it’s just data. These things become, they change the way in which we need to transform them. And you need to understand, for artists, or creatives, I think it’s very important to understand that that is your audience, an audience that understands that. A generation that has never experienced anything but that. They have never experienced a time where there wasn’t an internet, so you should be working, you should be looking to them. And the same for a sense of place, if you want to make new work, you must make new work for your audience, and your audiences are going to understand it from where they are, not from where you stand now. I think it’s terribly challenging to project ourselves, as we don’t expect artists to project themselves, we expect them to create. And what they create is often uncomfortable, because they’re instinctively projecting. Their work is, will make much more sense to future audiences. But for us, as critics or enablers, it’s hard to create those sorts of spaces.
SIOBHAN: When you reflect back, what have been some of your favourite, or most successful projects? The projects that you get most excited about?
TOM: I think big projects have been important to me. We worked on a project called ‘The Google Art Project’, which allows, which is again, it’s a collating of information, and preserving of information, that allows people anywhere to visit a huge number of galleries. It started with a very simple model, working with the Prado and wanting to zoom in on Google Earth, it was a very primitive model, and just seeing that evolve, and the galleries that worked with us on the first iteration of it – there was only about 14 or 15 galleries, and they’re very brave to do that – and now, obviously, we have thousands of galleries and cultural institutions following a path made possible by those institutions. And the opening up of that cultural content is something I’m genuinely proud of being a part of, actually. So that’s great. I really love the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, I’m very proud of that because it was fantastic to be a part of. Again, it made an enormous difference to the community, who felt like they were using a dynamic new tool. And there were lots of them. We also made a film. We made a film, which we didn’t think would be a film, when it started off, called ‘Life In A Day,’ where we asked people all around the world to film themselves on one day, and we ended up with 5 000 hours of content, and had to lock some people into a basement in SoHo for three weeks, and even then, when they came out, when we let them out, we were down to about 200 hours!
SIOBHAN: I feel like we could be here for 5000 hours tonight, Tom!
TOM: Well, I worry it’s the other way around, really! Kevin Macdonald and his team put together this really, really special film, which actually kind of does capture a whole world of creativity that is outside the realms of the film industry – because they don’t, because you’re asking people who don’t make films, to make a film. And they teach people who do make films whole new ways of looking at the world, simply because it’s new to them. These are new ways of seeing.
SIOBHAN: That new way of seeing, is that what gets you out of bed in the morning, is it that capacity to work with other people?
TOM: Yeah. Well, yeah. I do think everything is, all of my work is highly collaborative. I think if it wasn’t highly collaborative, it’d be very poor. So I’m highly reliant on really, really capable people. Really talented designers and producers and developers and creative technologists, who bring a kind of rigour that I lack. And who bring the specialist skills that I lack, and then we work with these fantastic organisations, and we get to work with artists, we get to work with musicians and playwrights and directors and curators and collectors, and the more that we can open this up, the better. Partly, I’m not, I don’t think we’re seeking to create fine examples of art, I think we’re just seeking to kind of push on doors that are almost open, but just the structures aren’t there to allow us to experiment with digital at the core of cultural projects. And the creators aren’t encouraged to, because the institutions that support them are ultimately, you know, at least semi-commercial, and there’s not, even though they’re cultural institutions, there’s not a strong culture of experimentation and exploration and play with these contemporary tools. So it feels like a valuable process, and it’s very rewarding.
SIOBHAN: What does a dream team or dream collaboration look like for you? Or is there some organisation, or some entity that’s out there that you haven’t already that you would love to work with?
TOM: I don’t know! I don’t think there’s an ideal. I think that anyone who comes with an open mind – I’m working with Lee Lewis at the Griffin Theatre at the moment, you know, and she comes with such enthusiasm and energy, and can-do attitude, and she’s just fantastic, because, frankly, it’s been…we’ve talked to – I’m not going to name names – but at the start of the Symphony Orchestra, we were talking to orchestras, and they were like, ‘You’re crazy!’, and we did a project with the Guggenheim who weren’t first on our list, about YouTube, and we talked to a few other museums, who were like, ‘Maybe we could do something in the lobby…’ and we were like, ‘No, we want to do an exhibition, we want, you know, we want to do these projects,’ and so it’s fantastic working with her at the moment, because she’s just…truly gung-ho about the whole thing. And is really open to the idea that we need to explore new forms, not just of performing, but also of creating. And that’s fantastic, so those sorts are great.
SIOBHAN: What are some of your reflections on working in Sydney now, and what are some of the things you enjoy about working in this city?
TOM: Well… I’ve been here two years now, and I think it is a city which is well adapted to the quality of living that most people here want to aspire to. It does its best to allow everyone to live the life they want to live, which is fantastic. I think it’s…for me, it gives me, basically, gives me creative freedom, because we’re actually quite a long way away, and I know that normally that’s seen as a negative, but actually being in the heart of things kind of creates pressures that you, that mean you aren’t able to do things. So for me, it’s fantastic to be far enough away to work with people and to produce projects that are under the radar, that we can then bring out into the world.
SIOBHAN: By being far enough away, do you mean being away from the UK or US…?
TOM: I see things in a fairly global sense, we’re quite a long way away from the UK and the US. You know, you’re not…visible. And whilst that’s sometimes a problem, if you’re willing to abdicate from having that kind of sense of significance or importance of being at the centre of things – I really think it’s really important to have experienced that, to go there and be a part of these things – but it’s also important to understand the value of space. And the value of distance. Especially now, in a world where actually you can work with people all over the world, we did a project called ‘Build with Chrome’, which was a commercial thing with Lego and GoogleMaps, and we were working with an agency here in Sydney, and we were working with North Kingdom, who are based in Sweden, and we were working with an American team as well, so we had, you know, this incredible global team. And those things are perfectly possible. So there’s no reason why you can’t be working on these things. Earlier this year I did a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and frankly, it would have been easier if I’d been in London, and I could have gotten the train up to Stratford-on-Avon, but it didn’t mean that we couldn’t do what we did. We could have just done it better!
SIOBHAN: But did you still have to jump on a plane and be there as well?
TOM: Yes, I did suggest to them that I might not be there until a few days before the performance, and they though that this was perhaps a bad idea! So yeah, you do need to, you need to work together, especially when there are physical things. Digital is slightly different, but there’s a special…well, you communicate far more when you’re in the room. This recording will capture some of what we’re talking about, but it won’t capture anywhere near the full breadth of information that we’re trying to share, because all of my gestures are pointless! And I find that very interesting, I find this kind of latency of information, as you know, we also have a transcript of this recording, and that will definitely lose information. If we go up the line, we can definitely have a video version of this, which would show more information, but it certainly wouldn’t capture the same amount of information as if we were sitting in the room. Which, frankly, is a bit weird, because if you can see me and hear me, what are you not being told? But we’re not. The best answer to this, you know the idea that there might be, micro, kind of, muscle movements, of that there are pheromones or… but it seems to me that clearly we have a level of communication, I mean, I think what’s kind of interesting is that even if you put a glass wall between you and me we would lose a certain amount of information. What information? What would we be losing?
SIOBHAN: It’s back to your point almost about being away, and being distant, when sometimes you take some of the sensory elements away, you distill the idea as well?
TOM: We’re coming back to your idea of place, really. This idea that actually, if you create total fluidity of information, you’re still dealing with degrees. You begin to understand that information exists in degrees. That information is like…I mean take books. Digital books are not books, they’re lacking an enormous amount of information that comes in a physical book, like the patina and weight, and anything sensory is all gone, all of the page design is gone, an awful lot of information is gone. So that sense that information exists on a scale, and likewise, that our sense of place, and where we exist in relation to each other, and in relation to this transfer of information is also… we’re just beginning to understand how important those things are to each other. So when you understand that there are holes in our information, that’s fascinating, because… sorry, I know we should get back to the real point of your question… but when there are holes, there’s possibility. And there’s points of interest. And it strikes me that those are really…the spaces that we should be exploring with culture. Having an enormous amount of difference, of distance, utterly amplifies that. You become incredibly aware of these things, you’re not in the room. And it’s very helpful. It’s very helpful. It is an isolation, I’m not going to pretend it’s not a long, long way away from my family and from an awful lot of people I still work with, but…
SIOBHAN: Thinking about these holes, and perhaps some of the places you’re focussing on now, what are some of the things that you’re really excited about?
TOM: I’m doing a really interesting project with Web Speech, which is about the computer’s rigidity, and its inability to understand you when you don’t speak clearly, when you don’t pronounce well, and most of us don’t pronounce our words well. Most of us, if we really think about the English-speaking population of the world, most don’t speak English, English is a second language. Like, the first-language speakers are small. But I mean for a lot of positions of power, you could call them, or 1% group….But it’s very interesting, if you begin to turn the rigidity of a computer’s ability to understand English, and use it as a tutor, because it’s very…it’s very responsive, and it will listen to you again and again and again and again, you can say a word 1000 times, and it just tells you whether it understands it. So we’re trying to use that to turn it into a game, and a teaching tool, and something that can allow people to test their vocabulary and test their pronunciation. I mean, it’s not educational, it won’t teach you how to say it, but we can certainly teach you what it is hearing, if it’s hearing ‘police’ rather than ‘please’, you know. Especially with English, we have all of these homonyms and words which… like content and content, these are very difficult things to understand as you’re learning English. So that’s a project that I’m really excited about, and it’s just using a local API. There are lots of projects that we’re just… we just put a set of binoculars down at the Opera House, that I’m also very proud of!
SIOBHAN: Tell me about the binoculars - I’ve seen them online.
TOM: You should go see them! They’re there until the end of January. And the binoculars are just a physical moment, they’re a place, they’re a moment of place, they’re absolutely about this idea of location and distance. They’re the kind of binoculars you get at the top of the Empire State Building, that kind of classic, iconic, coin-slot… we’ve made $8 already apparently! People are sticking in coins! Unfortunately it broke them, so we’ve had to block that up, but it’s good to know we’re turning a profit! No, obviously, that’s not the point, the point is that we’ve taken out the insides of these binoculars, and we’ve put a couple of high-def screens, and we have 40 destinations from Google StreetView around the world. So when you put your hands on the binoculars, it chooses one of the destinations, and as you turn the binoculars around in 360 degrees, and up and down, you get to be in that place. So you’re looking in the binoculars under the Opera House, and actually, you’re looking at Stonehenge, or you’re looking at Versailles, or you’re at the top of the Himalayas, or you’re in a BuddhIst temple. And it’s just about that sort of…sense of distance. About bringing it closer together, and kind of just reminding people that they’re in a really special, magical place, actually, in the world they are in one of these places, and it’s a really nice thing to be able to do, and hopefully… hopefully, it makes people smile. It’s quite interesting, because we did it the first time in a science museum as part of the WebLab, and that was exploring the idea that, exploring it as a science exercise, that distance was compressed, and that you could look through a live 360 degree video camera. And I felt that maybe we lost a little bit of the magic of it. So I went back to the designers and the developers who are called Tellart, and said, could we get these original binoculars, and this time there’s no signage, there’s no science, it’s art! Last time it was science, this time it’s art! And it’s just a thing which you have to experience, and you also have to be brave enough to look, so that means only kids, really, are using it. Because they look. And it’s great, it’s fantastic. People seem to be enjoying it.
SIOBHAN: One of the terms we hear a lot about now is ‘the digital disruption’, and there’s a real sense that there’s a pace of change. How will our experience of life be different by, say, 2050? How do you see the future?
TOM: I don’t know! (laughs) Frankly, I don’t think much will change. I think there are things which are, which feel profound, because we don’t have a sensible sense of scale on things. I mean, there are things which are profound differences, but we all go to the shops and buy our food, and we’ve been doing that for hundreds of years. We all have our families around us, and this is how we’ve always formed. We still tell each other stories, although we may use slightly different tools, I think that actually what you see more, is the kind of digital technology, hopefully what you see more is the digital technology slightly disappearing. So if you think that we’ve got wireless power, fairly soon, it’s got to get here eventually, so all of these wires disappear. If you think that screen technology is going to become enormously more flexible and capable of being embedded more into the objects around us, then all of these screens that we have all around us start to disappear. If you think that our understanding, or the speech recognition that we’ve been talking about, and how we sort of, computers can be begin to understand even me, with my mumbling and my starting and stopping, then all of these keyboards begin to disappear. And if you think that the…information that we need, the generation that are growing up at the moment that have never understood this idea that you don’t just look it up, you don’t just know, if we think that all of this information begins to become a little bit more intelligent, and understand us, because we’re giving it information, then a lot of the kind of decision-making that is time consuming begins to disappear. So I think we can expect life itself, less, I can’t speak for the fashion industry, but I think we can expect a lot of life itself to feel very similar, in fact more similar to probably the ’80s than to this era. We’ve got all this machinery, this weird kind of screen-y stuff going on, and everyone carrying computers in their pockets, and that’s going to go. That’s just not going to be… because it’s not natural. It’s not a natural way to live, and we progress towards a natural state.
SIOBHAN: Well, thank you Tom, for sharing your fuzzy kind of creative views and insights around the world that we life in now, and reflecting on the future as well.
TOM: Thank you, it’s been great fun.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright
This interview has been proudly sponsored by
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews