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Tom Uglow Doesn’t Think Your Brain is a Library Anymore

Good news, you're living in an exciting time for technology. Bad news, the pub quiz is dead.

If you have an interesting idea, any idea really, Tom Uglow wants you to tell a developer about it. As the Creative Director of Google Labs in Sydney, he himself walks into a room of developers each morning and throws around ideas to see what sticks. The result is a series of projects that obliterate the boundaries of technology and art. They’re the projects you would’ve seen in viral videos, shared between your friends as they exclaimed, “that’s cool as fuck!” Because they are. His work blends digital tools with cultural mediums that have existed for centuries, creating something completely new. We melded minds with Tom to discuss why he thinks we need to start creating for the audiences of tomorrow.

VICE: How do you describe what you do?
Tom Uglow: I’ve curated a small group of creatives, we conduct a range of experiments—it is a lab after all—and look at ways we can use technology we have to convert or change people’s perception of it.

One of our projects, Hangouts in History, is a really good example. We’ve got Google Hangouts and it’s sort of a way of showing how we can use an existing tool, how anyone can use these tools to create in new ways. Basically it’s getting some actors, knowledge, and schools, and allowing kids to talk through machines as if they’re talking back in time. You know they jump straight in! They have no problem with working with the idea they’re actually talking to Shackleton who’s just about to set off across Antarctica. Of course they want to hang out with him, they want to ask what he does when he wants to shit. They’re fantastic conversations. Once you’ve established that this is a parameter you can play with, you can bring people in and make up the other end of a hangout. It suddenly because an easy way to have a great time and in an educational way.

Most of the collaborations you do are with cultural organisations, schools, and even Not-for-Profits, is that a conscious decision?
Yeah, it is a purposeful decision. To me it’s a sensible place to play—for us to explore ideas. People do come with a more open mind to culture, and frankly those groups are more receptive and have less of an agenda.

We’ve actually got a long history of doing these things; the first one was a while ago we did a thing called YouTube Symphony Orchestra. It was very interesting going in and talking to orchestras and saying we want to audition an entire symphony orchestra using YouTube. They didn’t really immediately get it, then you always find someone who is brave within an organisation. We can come up with all sorts of large ideas, or fun ways we want to use our technologies, but without collaborators with that kind of artistic vision it just doesn’t work. I’m doing a play with the Griffin Theatre at the moment. Not only is it possible to change the production of a play, you can have a theatre that plays at a different time, different location—theatre that can bleed out into the online world and wrap itself back in. Theatre that is more reflective of the way we actually see stories on a day-to-day basis.

So you’re not a big proponent of the fourth-wall?
Exactly, that fourth-wall is now a very, very fuzzy area indeed. Most of my projects attempt to defuse landmines of precociousness, things that have to be done in order for people to understand we can move further. We need to give next generation creatives examples to help them know they can make work using digital tools as well as traditional methods.

You’ve spoken about the idea of old internet and new internet. Is the new internet something that we’re already experiencing?
It’s a phase, frankly. We don’t even know how long the phase is, what we do know is the trajectory and that we’re moving from a period of defined information. The thing that I find most interesting is 30-years-ago we understood information mainly in the ideas of a library—static content. Then with the rise of the internet, we understood that information was held on servers, it was held on web pages. Now we’re realising that idea of web pages and servers seems almost out-dated. We expect to get the most relevant information right away, however we want to see it. But we’re still using these rather clunky telephones and tablets, and only just starting to uncover the information that we’re capturing.

If there are creators who are creating they have to understand that their audiences are going to be coming from a position of more fluidity of information. There are things that I’m fascinated with at the moment, and they’re very indicative of this change in how we process information. I don’t know anything about fluid dynamics or quantum physics but I’ve been reading little bits on the internet, because I can. I’m also reading about witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa and Flemish culture. There is no reason anyone would ever find the amount of time it would take to be acquainted with these subjects, even to discover them would have been prohibitive. Now we are moving through the end of this phase where we have a very fluid information world, where you can literally grasp any of these concepts almost immediately.

Some people are concerned about that idea and what it means in terms of a change in the learning development and the education of future generations.
What it really means is that we’re going to have generations who rather than knowing things, can synthesise information from completely different sources and create in a completely different way. It is a little bit intimidating, but then Socrates was intimidated when writing came along, he thought that was going to destroy the brain. I think the only thing we’ve agreed is that we’ve destroyed the pub quiz, because nobody needs to know anything anymore.

It’s very important to understand where we’re going rather than where we come from. We know what we like, and we wish that all art would know what we like, but that’s not the good stuff, that’s never the good stuff. The good stuff is what challenges us and makes us uncertain and uncomfortable. Really, it’s our responsibility to create a home for that kind of work.

The last big shift in technology was towards mobile devices, what do you think will be the next shift?
Personally I believe we’re heading back to highly human interfaces. Before writing we used voice and gesture in how we communicated and that’s still how we communicate. When you look at what we like, we generally like natural things. People would much rather sit at a wooden table, writing on paper, with natural light, and a breeze than sitting at a plastic table, under artificial lights, tapping away on a piece of metal and glass, surrounded by air conditioning. It makes you wonder how did that happen? The journey that we’re on is going back to the most natural things. We’ll move to better, more natural systems because we just put up with what we have because that’s where we are at the moment.

People have this idea that technology is responsible for the death of some mediums; the internet is killing bookstores etc. Do you think the avenues that you’re exploring could resurrect those mediums in more relevant ways?
We have always told stories—humans are fantastic storytellers. Going to the theatre is a magical experience because you’re transported as an audience. It’s a form of virtual reality in fact. Your brain is working very hard to convince you that you’re on the plains of Troy or a fairy glade. Something where the brain has to work like that rewards us an awful lot more. It’s the same with a book, you fall into a book and you are in this space and you close the book and are suddenly like: oh I’m not there, I’m not in Mordor, I’m actually in Starbucks. These are forms of immersive reality. We can use technology to enhance and augment those forms. There are lots of things we can do which can augment, it’s not just about telling people where to arrive and where to get tickets, it’s about allowing the digital element to be at the core of the creative process so that we create things with the technology in mind.

Does your job and ever seem surreal to you? It’s not like something you could have dreamt of as a kid, like an astronaut or something.
Yeah, it’s surreal and quite hard to explain. I did fine arts, and found myself always coming across the internet, then kind of running away from it and thinking, “I’m not sure about it”. It still feels like that. I’ve got a really odd opportunity to kind of play with the internet. I can just bang things together and see what interesting stuff comes out. I doubt there are many other companies in the world that would enable it. We’ve worked with extraordinary institutions and it’s amazing. We’ve worked with fantastic Hollywood film directors, and the Guggenheim, and the Tate. As collaborators, rather than sponsors, the idea that we are all explorers rather than a company that wants to put its logo next to your logo. That’s something really special.

It’s all an experiment and there’s no failure in experiments. Experiments don’t fail, they just have results and you have to share those results. The only failure is if you don’t share what you’re learning as you go along.

Tom is appearing at the REMIX Sydney Conference May 8-9th at Sydney’s Carriageworks.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMaxxParker