Tea Uglow is the kind of person that makes you feel as though you’ve been viewing the world in black and white and suddenly see it in colour. She’s best known as the Creative Director of Google’s Creative Labs – a network of experimental teams in London, New York and Sydney that test the boundaries between culture, technology and marketing – but her reputation as an author, public speaker and transgender leader have led to her being celebrated far beyond the tech community.
A thought or idea never gets stuck or siloed with Tea, rather it mutates into another, joining the dots in a magical interplay between things. In this manner, on an Autumn afternoon in Sydney, we traversed through space and time discussing the future of design, architecture and technology, and why the burning of Notre Dame wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to Paris.
Why did you choose to leave Europe and start a Creative Lab in Sydney?
When I got here people would go, ‘Why are you here?’ I’m here because it’s a really long way away and I don’t share a timezone with my boss. Funnily enough, it’s so far away mentally that he’s never been to visit me. I excluded myself from the pressures that apply when you are visible and made myself invisible so that I could do the work that I wanted my team to do. If you asked difficult questions in a visible space people are less inclined to let you do that more than once.
And yet you’ve been doing it again and again and again.
It’s because they’re not terribly clear questions. But, over the last 10 years, all of these different things became much easier to talk about. For example, how we work with the idea of information in space and how we operate with information and culture. We are doing a lot of stuff at the moment with UX teams and design teams to get them to understand that, for 30 years, digital user experience has been dominated by the form rather than the content – just as for hundreds of years, theatre and literature have been dominated by their form.
So ultimately everyone in that (digital) user experience gets very used to a flow that’s about a phone screen and everyone gets very used to a user interface that involves buttons that you press. That becomes so dominant that it’s very hard for us to think outside of that as to what a more immersive design experience is.
The thing that you need to do is build a framework and a skeleton for technology to evolve into it, rather than a framework of what technology is capable of at the moment. You need to create spaces that allow for layering, a layered environment.
Do you think the built environment needs to be more responsive to the changing nature of technology?
I do. When Barangaroo was being developed they asked us about technology. We said, ‘Please understand that the thing that you need to do is build a framework and a skeleton for technology to evolve into it, rather than a framework of what technology is capable of at the moment’. You need to create spaces that allow for layering, a layered environment. The reason Barangaroo is sterile is because it is simply one moment of Barangaroo. We haven’t allowed any of the former moments of Barangaroo to really exist there. And as it grows over the centuries, hopefully, we will have that layer of decay and history.
One of the reasons I love this street, Market Street, is because it is all of the different Sydneys that we have along this street. Architecturally it’s a mess. It’s a horror show. Yet each piece was designed of its time, in its way and with no regard for the aesthetics of things.
How can we balance the idea of layers, chaos and decay with the need for a development to be profitable?
This is like the second time that Western ideas of cityscapes have imposed themselves on non-existent cities – cities are being built from scratch. You see the same thing in America, there is a failure to acknowledge that what is of value often looks the least valuable. And actually, if you make it valuable, it’s useless. You can’t make it into a special thing, it’s got to be a not-special thing.
What do you think about civic responsibility? Do you think a city’s inhabitants should have more input into planning and design or is it just the responsibility of government?
I think there’s a flaw in the question – that you’ve got two options. One of which is an oligarchy that is fundamentally controlled by the wealthy and that wealth is often generated by property and corporate management and building. And you’ve got another, which is controlled by ignorance, where, frankly, people have a very short-term and limited understanding of what they’re really being asked. And who are they informed by? So if you want a city’s civic constituents to organise a city you’re going to get a lot more four-lane highways that go straight through the middle of town. Because they want to get through the middle of town and it’s easier than going in a tunnel and they certainly don’t want to pay for that.
Really what you don’t want is partisanship, bias or a lack of information. I don’t know if you know the New Democracy project, but I rather love that model where they get a group of citizens and they inform the fuck out of them – it’s like a jury system for civic decisions. You don’t bog it down in bureaucracy or being re-elected or like that kind of approach. And you do get a form of democracy because it’s as fair as we think the jury system ever was.
“Inclusion is not an input. It’s not a thing you begin though. It’s an output. It’s a thing that actually relies on accommodation, acknowledgment, compassion, time.”
Do you think that there is an issue with inclusion went it comes to decision making?
The thing with inclusion is that (often) the structure doesn’t have space to include, like the school or the office or the team. There’s no space within the way in which that group is structured to include people who think or act or are fundamentally different and therefore they get excluded. Often unintentionally, but they get removed from and excluded from the system.
And the other option is to restructure the whole system to include them. Inclusion is not an input. It’s not a thing you begin though. It’s an output. It’s a thing that actually relies on accommodation, acknowledgment, compassion, time. There’s a whole load of ingredients that go into inclusion and yet everyone talks about it like it’s something you just do.
If you were baking, it’s like, ‘Here, we’re going to do cake. We’re going to have a cake conversation.’ And no one’s willing to talk about the fact that for a cake conversation you really need some ingredients and then we need some behaviours and then we need some environmental things, like it needs to feel hot. Very hot in fact. Really hot. All of those don’t get included when you talk about inclusion. Which is daft.
So yeah, it’s a tricky conversation to have because we’re still at the stage where we’re going ‘Hey, cake is good’, rather than, ‘This is how you make cake.’
You leave for Europe tomorrow, what are you working on there?
We’re doing a machine learning workshop with a friend of mine from France about writing tools. For me, it’s always about the metaphor. The metaphor is how we allow people to understand what is actually happening so that they can have sensible conversations about it. The best way to do that is through projects. So even if you’re not the one doing the projects, through hearing them talk about what they’re trying to do you can create metaphors that mean something to non-technical people.
Can you give me an example of a metaphor?
A recursive learning pattern is like walking downhill with your eyes closed and having to try and walk. If you go uphill you generally go, ‘Oh no, that’s the wrong way. I’m going to go back’. We keep walking when you go downhill. But actually what we’re talking about is an incredibly complicated mountain, where it goes in all the directions at the same time. So when a machine is learning, to begin with, it’s fairly straightforward because it understands, we can tell it that it’s high and we want it to get to the bottom.
And then ultimately you go, here: we’re putting you on a mountain. It’s not the same mountain, but we’d like you to find your way down it. And you know what being on the top of a mountain is like and you know what getting down off a mountain is like. Which doesn’t even get close to trying to explain what’s happening, because what’s happening involves equations and coefficients and curves. No one asks us how Google maps works, we just know how Google maps works and that allows us to have an opinion about maps. Whereas this idea suggests that we are expected to have an opinion about machine learning when we don’t even know how to describe it.
It’s interesting that you use this navigational metaphor because so much of how we design our cities seems to be about a primal need to simply orientate ourselves in space.
I’m very, very interested in how we orientate ourselves in space. If you imagine information – digital information – in the same way as time or space as a dimension, we’re just getting to a place where we can begin to articulate our world. It’s the idea that you can have a point of information and it can be seen from many different perspectives. Which we do understand when we talk about the right or the left, or Liberal or Labor. The idea that one point of view is accurate and another point inaccurate is kind if fallacious and leads to really narrow thinking.
Just in the same way we build buildings and we do signage, we need to work out how to do the same for digital information. Whether it’s culture or literature or news or noise. All of these little bits of information that at the moment we take in through this tiny little screen. We take in a lot of information and we think that’s the only way that we can take in that information.
How do you see inclusion and technology overlapping and informing one another?
There’s this really interesting problem with machine learning again, which is really the future of technology, which is that we set it up as an Other, as a non-entity, not as a tool that we’re using but as an actual entity. Like a kind of intelligence or an artificial intelligence. Like it’s an alien. And the other aliens we have in our society are migrants, ‘undocumented aliens’ in the States, which is pretty much exactly the same thing as an artificial intelligence. Even with neurological differences, like autistic people or ADHD or people with physical disabilities, people with a difference of skin colour, people with differences in culture. All of these differences are Other, so the first part of the problem, which I think is quite interesting, is that even technology is being Othered by society. It’s being put into a place where it’s just like them, it is another thing to be scared of.
“I’m not a believer in preserving things. I am a believer in preserving things if they exist, but I’m not a believer in preserving things because they exist.”
It also makes me think about this idea of technology as being something that’s very old.
Yeah, one of my team was involved in a lovely thing the other day about this, in a meeting, and I love this quote and I’ll try not to paraphrase them too badly but they said, ‘If you went to a writer and said here’s a pen and paper, tell me a memory’, they’d be fine with that. But if you went to a writer and said we have some new technology that’s going to allow us to extract a part of your memory and record it for posterity, they would freak the fuck out and probably be quite surprised if you gave them a pen and paper.
What do you think about architecture’s ability to extract and record memories? Do you think buildings should be preserved for this reason?
I’m not a believer in preserving things. I am a believer in preserving things if they exist, but I’m not a believer in preserving things because they exist. The future is the future. We live in a changing time. It’s like the things that are old are not very old. They’re not very old. And you look at cultures that are old and they really don’t have that same kind of veneration for antiquity in the same state. I wonder whether it’s like the birth of architecture that causes it – like, there are things that are going to last beyond our lifetime.
That’s a really amazing point.
Somehow that makes us value things that last beyond our lifetime, or preserve things that may last beyond our lifetime, even when they don’t really have a natural need to do that. I’m English, so there are lots of parts of the world or the university that I went to which was founded in 1379 and you’re in these quadrangles which have been paced by monks for centuries and there’s a world of history. And it is a very rich thing. And actually, as Europeans, we’re taught to value that layering and layering and layering. We really are taught to value it.
But what is the value? For me, the value is in the layering, not in the existence. So I’m fine with things being torn down and rebuilt, torn down and rebuilt. I never thought I would find myself going, ‘Yeah I’m kind of glad that half of London got bombed’, but what it did for London was kind of release it. The other time, the most interesting time that London got rebuilt, was after 1666, after the fire of London and Christopher Wren’s kind of rebuilding. In Paris it was Napoleon. So you have these moments, which are fundamentally cataclysmic, and then actually what we’re really doing is venerating everything that came out of that cataclysm.
So why wouldn’t you, again, point to the fact that maybe something cataclysmic occurring, like Notre Dame burning down, is actually a positive. It’s just within our lifetimes, within our understanding, which is what always confuses everyone’s thinking, is that nothing exists outside of our lifetime.
Thomas Dudley is an editor and strategist at Right Angle Studio. His research and writing about human habitat focuses on community, culture and sustainability.