Google’s Tea Uglow gives us the benefit of the doubt

The director of Google’s Creative Labs talks to Screenhub about doubt, technology, and the joy of a good failure.

So, here’s the tea

Tea Uglow is an expert in her field. It’s just a bit hard to pin down what her field really is. As the Sydney-based creative director of Google’s Creative Lab, she once described her job as ‘drawing things on whiteboards that make no sense to people, and then asking them to do it.’

The Lab’s projects are tantalisingly vague: they are multidisciplinary, creative, and have a reputation for bringing cutting edge technologies to their vast array of artistic collaborations. Uglow’s project record is remarkable and extensive; she has led creative collaborations on a huge variety of projects, spanning hypertext literature to film to installation and sound art, in collaboration with cultural institutions like SBS, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Science Museum, the Adelaide Fringe.  This year, her team worked with Digital Writers Festival to develop machine learning tools to help combat writers’ block. More recently even than that, she was a keynote speaker at Screen Producers Australia’s (SPA) annual conference, Screen Forever. 

Given her illustrious profile and formidable creative history, one would be forgiven for thinking her keynote would cover the brave new world of machine learning AI, VR, AR, any of the other tantalising acronyms that has traditional screen workers thoroughly scared. Instead, she presented on a topic that many creatives find even scarier: doubt.


Uglow believes that ‘it’s in the uncertain spaces that magic occurs.’
Image courtesy of the artist. 

ON DOUBT 

While many producers, researchers, and creatives frame uncertainty as something to be mitigated or solved, Uglow approaches doubt as something joyful, permissive, and alive. I’m immediately reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s quote about hope: ‘hope is an embrace of the unknown.’ Doubt is what happens when you have the confidence to question the assumptions that underpin (or maybe impede) your practice. It’s what happens when you do something new. Doubt is the opposite of judgement. Her proposition is that not knowing everything (and maybe more importantly, not pretending to know everything) is Actually Good, and makes us more available, as humans and as creative practitioners, to new stimuli, new ways of making, being, and knowing.

Uglow’s thesis is that when we work solely within our fields of comfortable expertise, our work can only be reflective of what already is — not what could be: ‘when you have a lot of certainty, that’s also when interesting things stop happening – because everything gets predictable,’ she tells me, ‘but it’s in the uncertain spaces that magic occurs, where humans do things they didn’t know they could.’ It’s a sentiment that resounds throughout her work. It’s also the underpinning of the Creative Lab’s project; to introduce creative and cultural institutions to new and unfamiliar tools and possibilities. This embrace of the unknown, however, requires a little curation. 

COLLABORATION

Uglow believes in letting communication and curiosity guide the work, rather than focussing on predetermined outcomes. She aims to ask the right questions of her creative collaborators, and to prompt further questions with the work their collaboration produces. When I posit that working collaboratively necessarily introduces uncertainty, she agrees enthusiastically; each collaboration introduces creative and cultural institutions to the possibilities that digital tools can offer their work. Conversely, they each offer the Lab new insight into what people expect, believe and want from new technologies. Through collaboration, both parties can enter into a generative space of curiosity and uncertainty.

The Lab’s approach is radically un-authoritative.  Rather than handing down answers, they ask questions and offer tools: ‘the first act of collaboration is listening to what matters to people,’ Uglow says, ‘effectively, my job is inciting their creative genius, just to give them new tools to do what they do.’ This is the framework that the Creative Lab can offer cultural institutions and creative practitioners; a space to be curious in a new field.

Getting technical

Technology is the source of some significant creative anxieties – some of which are based on unhelpful certainties that range from self-deprecating (I’m just bad with technology!’) to oppressive (‘men are naturally better programmers!’). Introducing doubt to these beliefs is key in creating stronger engagements between the digital and cultural spheres. 
Uglow is quick to point out that capital-T Technology is not a monolith; she tells me that ‘obviously, everything is technology – paper and pen is a form of revolutionary technology, a touch screen, a machine learning AI, is no different.’ Digital tools can still be confronting to people with no, or limited, familiarity. A total lack of familiarity is different from generative doubt; rather than allowing for conversation and exploration, it can end up feeling unapproachable. You can’t start the conversation if you don’t speak the language – or, to extend the metaphor, if you don’t communicate using language at all. 

Despite the Lab’s slightly daunting reputation for cutting-edge projects, their work ultimately doesn’t aim to for perfection. Uglow also rejects a ‘silver bullet approach’ to technology, that frames innovative technologies as stable, isolated artefacts that can perfectly solve creative problems. Uglow is less interested in product than in process; the projects she leads aim to showcase new possibilities that others can learn from. ‘People who don’t work deeply with computers on a daily basis are usually incorrect in their conclusions about what computers do, or can do. Real engagement would require a certain degree of understanding. So we try to give that understanding, by making concrete examples.’

Uglow consider’s the Lab’s work as providing a jumping off point for a new mode of creative inquiry; ‘the articulation of the idea into practice is what allows other people to consider the idea; that’s essentially how far our work needs to go. We’re never looking to go further than that.’

a note on FAILURE

And then, sometimes it all goes terribly awry. But that’s not the worst thing in the world, either. Uglow’s commitment to radical curiosity is reflected in her definition of failure: ‘for me, a failure is any time I don’t learn anything.’ At its best, a failed project gives you information: what you didn’t know; what you weren’t prepared for; what couldn’t have been predicted. Working from a place of curiosity can help us develop a resilience to failure, because it redefines the terms of achievement.

She gives the example of her work on her Peabody award-winning digital literature project, Editions at Play; one of the experiments relied on a blockchain, which quickly proved to be unsustainable. Technically, this compromised the project, but it represents a success of a different kind; the team had entered a creative field full of questions, and this outcome had given them information that would shape future modes of inquiry. . Maybe this is a lesson we can all learn from; that a perceived ‘failure’ is fertile ground for whatever comes next. 

so, What next?

Ultimately, Uglow thinks of her work as communicative, not technical: ‘My work really has more to do with information than technology. digital tools and technologies are just the most interesting ways we can give people to access to information.’ As the Lab continues its work in broadening the field of creative inquiry, they hope to provide a context for creativity and exploration, not a one-size-fits all solution. The project is, and must necessarily be, a little uncertain, a little curious; that’s why it can work. The age of the internet ticks on, and the nature of labour and creativity seem in constant upheaval; it might be time to give ourselves permission to benefit from a little doubt. 

Tea Uglow was a keynote speaker at SPA’s annual conference, Screen Forever. Find out more about SPA and Screen Forever

Jini Maxwell is a writer and curator who lives in Naarm. They are an assistant curator at ACMI, where they also host the Women & Non-binary gamers club. They write about videogames and the people who make them. You can find them on Twitter @astroblob