It’s hard to describe exactly what Tea Uglow does. But know this: She has your dream job. Within Google, as has been said before, she is, essentially, paid to play.
The gig didn’t come easily. Uglow started as a Fine Art student, came across design and navigated the tides of the Dotcom boom and Dotcom bust, and then grabbed the laptop from her severance package and taught herself HTML. She bounced around a few design jobs, and then happened upon a one-month contract position to make Powerpoints for the sales team at Google.
… And then she founded Google’s Creative Lab in Europe.
How? In this episode of Design Matters, Debbie Millman explores just that—and, of course, digs into what Uglow does today as creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney.
Uglow’s work may not be the easiest thing to nail down in a nutshell, and it’s best seen in action. So here we present a tapestry of Tea, from her personal writings to a medley of her striking projects that reveal the key to her meteoric rise and all the rest of it: her raw brilliance.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
All things Uglow! Comprehensive and compulsory.
A series of wise, witty and wildly important letters about her personal transition.
As the official elucidation goes, “Semi-Conductor puts you in front of your very own AI orchestra. It uses Tensorflow and PoseNet to allow you to conduct music by moving your arms, using only your browser and a webcam.”
“The Royal Shakespeare Company put on a unique, one-off performance of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in collaboration with Google’s Creative Lab. It took place online, and offline—at the same time. It was the culmination of an 18 month project looking at new forms of theater with digital at the core.”
“XY-Fi allows you to mouse-over the physical world, with your phone.”
“Editions At Play is the Peabody Futures–award-winning initiative by Visual Editionsand Google’s Creative Lab to explore what a digital book might be: one which makes use of the dynamic properties of the web.”
“Google's Creative Lab teamed up with Grumpy Sailor to help a class of year 8 students from Bowral ‘video conference’ with 1348, in what we became the first of five ‘Hangouts in History.’”
“The Oracles is a cross-platform experience, developed for primary school children in Haringey. Digital and physical environments are blended, alternating between gameplay and visits to Fallow Cross, where enchanted objects know where you are so that your moves trigger the story.”
“Story Spheres is a way to add stories to panoramic photographs. It’s a simple concept that combines the storytelling tools of words and pictures with a little digital magic.”
“Google has a secret interview process …”
And if you still can’t get enough Uglow … here’s a slew of talks to get lost in after listening to this episode of Design Matters.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with Tea Uglow about experimental digital projects that are pushing the boundaries of tech and art.
Tea Uglow: This is very much the principle with all of my projects is like, draw a line in the sand and put a flag there, and then at least people might come over and look at the line and go, "What's the flag for?"
Curtis: Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Tea Uglow is a designer with a swanky official title. She's the Creative Director for Google's Creative Lab in Sydney, Australia. But in the fluid world of design and technology, titles don't really tell you much about what the people behind them actually do, or who they are.
Debbie: Tea Uglow works on projects that help artists, writers, and performers use digital tools in their work. She's written books, designed websites and apps, collaborated on films, plays, concerts, and exhibits. And this little resume doesn't even scratch the surface of her achievements, which is just a sliver of what we'll talk about today. Tea Uglow, welcome to Design Matters.
Tea: Thank you Debbie.
Debbie: Tea, in your 2015 TED talk, you stated this. "Your phone is not the internet's door bitch." Can you tell me what that means please?
Tea: Oh, I just don't like phones. I know that's probably not an appropriate thing. But I just don't like the way in which that form has so dominated the way in which we interact with information over the last 10 years. It's become this extraordinarily kind of restrictive way, an increasingly restrictive way in which we limit the way in which we have digitized and democratized information to this extraordinary degree, and then we force it through this tiny little supercomputer that lives in your pocket. So, that's kind of all it was. It was like, that whole talk is about what happens if you don't use a phone? What happens if you put the information in different forms?
Debbie: Which is what you've spent quite a lot of your career doing. I only have one more question about that specific statement. What's a door bitch?
Tea: Oh. Yeah, okay, for clarification, a door bitch is that person on the door of a club that you're going to. You know what a door bitch is.
Debbie: No, I don't Tea.
Tea: You do.
Debbie: I swear to God I don't.
Tea: It's that person at the clipboard that says, "You're not wearing the right shoes," or that you can't wear jeans, or that your coat is ... Or just, "You don't really have the look for this club." So it's just that thing of like, the phone is what makes decisions about what is and isn't allowed in terms of information infrastructure and information experience.
Debbie: Now I fully understand the statement.
Tea: Good. I never realized I really needed to overexplain that. Do you think there's a world of people out there who are just like, "What's a door bitch?"
Debbie: Yes. And rather than look it up I figured I'd ask you so that I could be surprised.
Tea: It's an Urban Dictionary thing, if anything.
Debbie: Probably. Tea you were born in England. Your mom was a historian and your dad was a law professor. And in understand that from the time you were about five years old, you were obsessed with fitting in. What aspects of yourself were you trying to adapt for those around you so early?
Tea: I was a little boy, so I kind of needed to ... And it was already clear to me at that stage that that's what I was expected to be. So that was the number one kind of part of fitting in was this kind of weird sense of not really understanding the role I was supposed to play. Actually since we're on roles, my mother who is a historian, always hates the title of historian.
Debbie: Oh really?
Tea: Well because she's an editor and a writer. So she writes histories of people, and she writes biographies. And they're these extraordinary things where I think she's always understood that how someone presents, and what they are, is in no way like their full narrative. And actually, in order to understand their full narrative, you need to understand not just their history, but the history of the people around them, and the history of their culture and society which they grew up in.
Tea: I think that's always ... I mean, it's one of the things about this show is actually trying to pick apart not just what someone says they do, but really who we are. So I always feel like I've spent most of my life not being that, just working out how to pretend to be that.
Debbie: Me too. Me too. You said something recently that I wanted to talk about. You said this. "I've been waking up recently to the idea that trans people are expected for some reason to express their early lives in terms of trauma or difficulty, aka the problematic boy years. That was certainly often the case, but I'm finding ways to reiterate that I was perfectly happy as Tom." What was Tom like growing up?
Tea: I don't remember.
Tea: Yeah, no I have no recollection. So I kind of need to go on all history.
Debbie: Well you've said that you don't have much on your childhood, before I get to about 15. So, you were still Tom at 15. So if that's really your first set of memories, what was Tom like then?
Tea: Oh just a geeky kind of shy ... I always felt like I was trying to not be noticed. My sister was kind of like a much more gregarious and popular character around town. So I always rather felt like her brother. So I was just Hannah's brother, and that was fine. So yeah, I would kind of hang out with my two buddies, and painted little metal figures, and wrote in my books, and drew a lot. I was just a dweeby art kid, basically.
Debbie: And you were also in the Boy Scouts?
Tea: I was in the Boy Scouts. Exactly. That fits with that. Yeah, I did those kind of things.
Debbie: Were you an outdoor kid?
Tea: No, I'm not an outdoor kid.
Debbie: No, I can't imagine. I was surprised to read that you were in the Boy Scouts, because I thought you were sort of like me where you much preferred to be inside.
Tea: I mean, all of those things come with a sense that yeah, I didn't enjoy them, but that's what I was meant to be doing, right? That's what I was meant to do. I was meant to play rugby, and I was meant to play cricket, and meant to go and do Boy Scouts, and camping, and bivouacking, and sleep in the woods, and meant to want to ride my mountain bike around the tracks and be outside, and be rough and tumble, and all of these things that I really didn't want to do.
Tea: But hey, if it made everyone else happy, that's fine. It was a very strange process of trying to keep a balance between what people want you to be, and a little bit of the ability to push back sometimes and go, "Actually, I want to sit in my room with my girlfriend, and talk shit."
Debbie: I think that is one of the most noble pursuits, to be able to assert who you really are without having to worry about what other people are going to think.
Tea: Well I don't think I did it very nobly. I was just desperately trying to be lots of different things. I really have a very clear sense of having multiple lives, of being different things, of being the head boy at this school, the boys school. I went to a boys grammar school. And I was very happy, because I knew how to play that role. It was pretty straightforward. A lot of boy role playing is quite straightforward compared to what the girls are expected to do.
Debbie: What do you mean?
Tea: It's kind of easy. There's a certain physical quality to things. There's a certain kind of bluntness. You're perfectly allowed to be intelligent, and be smart. But all this leadership stuff is pushed on you from a very, very early age, the idea that you'll step up, that you'll step forward, that you will lead the team.
Debbie: Man up.
Tea: Yeah, man up. And other masculine metaphors, of which there are very few feminine metaphors which kind of equate. And it's not because we do it naturally, it's because it's pushed upon you.
Tea: Yeah, at such an early age. So from the earliest age, I've always had that kind of training. And you get trained. It's just like this idea that you ... Like the girls grow up feeling that feminine is a negative term. There's nothing about being feminine that is negative. There's no way you learned that through your lived experience. You can only possibly have been taught that.
Debbie: You've said that you were raised in a feminist tradition.
Debbie: In what way?
Tea: I think it was a very agendered family life. My parents were 1970s academics. It was that pre-pink thing, where yeah, I think we had all the same toys. I don't really remember much, which is partly because of how my brain works. But I think it took a long time before we started demanding the Star Wars toys, or guns, or things like that. I grew up with two other brothers and my sister. And my sister probably could have had any of us in a fight. So that was also that thing. She played rugby until she was 11, 12. I think she was stopped from playing rugby, because there wasn't a women's club at that point.
Tea: So yeah, gender did sort of play a role, but it was probably more of a kind of boy atmosphere than not. And therefore, you roll with that, and you take these lessons. No one ever has to say, "This is a lesson about how to be a boy." It's just you are told again and again and again, until you begin to understand that that's what you are, that's what they expect you to be.
Tea: And there's no one, certainly not in the 80s in Kent, we're talking about an era where they just decided never to teach, or that it was illegal to teach about homosexuality in schools. To teach about homosexuality, let alone gender, let alone gender roles. So we were in a kind of dark ages in the UK in terms of gender, and sexuality, and the idea that these expressions were acceptable. And that's what I grew up with. So, if no one ever teaches you, and there's no visibility, of course you're going to be what they want you to be, because you think that's normal. That is normal.
Debbie: You also played rugby, I believe. Was that something that you enjoyed, or was that something that you resented having to do?
Tea: I enjoyed playing the game. Like okay, between you and me, I really enjoy physically hitting someone with your shoulder, like a really hard football tackle. There's something deeply profoundly enjoyable about that. Like the stuff around the game, the kind of culture thing again, I could leave if it was up to me. But I was also like, I'm an introvert, and not designed for that kind of sports club life. I don't know how I did all that, actually.
Debbie: I know. You sort of remind me a little bit of a butterfly, so it's hard for me to imagine you shouldering someone in a rugby game. I can't even fathom that.
Tea: No, me neither.
Debbie: So you started to have memories at about 15, which is also when you said you began to develop consciousness of being an individual. What does that mean? What did you find at that age?
Tea: Again, my version of normal was probably not everyone else's version of normal. But I certainly found that there was this sense that you could construct an identity. This thing again of being different things to different people, that it wasn't just what they wanted, but that you could begin to construct identities. That you could begin to borrow things from other people.
Tea: So I began to see these people around me who would be interesting, and cool, or confident, or calm, who seemed to be successful in that particular space. And then you would just acquire those things. So it was more like understanding that this was an entity that could be different things for different people, and it's just like some kind of game. It is all a game. These are all presentations.
Tea: Basically my entire life is about this notion of presentation, and the artificial versus the authentic, and acquiring aspects of how we're going to present, just like if you're walking through a computer game and you can pick up bits of armor, or special magic potions, or you can modify your appearance. For me there's not much difference.
Debbie: Were you depressed growing up?
Tea: I have no idea. I don't think so. I know I was by the time I hit my teens, because I didn't understand what was going on. But then I feel like the teens are very, very difficult, that what's happening in your brain is very, very difficult. And if you're dealing with the fact that you're queer, and you're trans, and you've had some issues in your life that it's very, very hard but you don't really understand any of those things. You don't have that information. It's completely unknown stuff.
Debbie: When did you have a sense that you're female?
Tea: I've always, since I was three, known that I thought there would be a day when there was a switchover day, when okay, that didn't last very long, because it became incredibly clear that there wouldn't be a switchover day, probably because that would be really unfair to all the girls. But there's also just this idea that in your head you know. And then as you begin to develop sexual ideas and sexual feelings, I mean it's so weird to tell the world about that.
Tea: But yeah, you get to a point, 10, 11, 12, where you're like, "Why is it that all my fantasies are about being a girl with guys? That's weird." And then you go, "Huh, must just be kind of normal." And then by the time you realize it isn't normal, you've worked out, thankfully beforehand, not to tell anyone, ever. So, it's taken me 40 years to work out that maybe there's a benefit to telling 10-year-olds that they don't need to struggle with those thoughts.
Debbie: I spent almost I would say the first 50 years of my life keeping secret after secret after secret, whether it'd be abuse, or sexual orientation, or any number of things. And when I finally did come out at 50, I had a real sense of resentment at actually having to declare anything, as if it was anybody's business who I slept with when I was straight, and why should it be anybody's business who I sleep with if I'm not straight? And I find that having to declare something like that, there's a certain inequality to it that I resent.
Tea: I mean yeah, within the trans community, enormously so. There's this kind of bizarre idea that you should disclose what genitals you have, like whether you've had surgery or not. I mean, what other surgeries are people feeling entitled to know about?
Debbie: Exactly. I don't walk around and say, "Hi, I'm Debbie Millman, I had a hernia operation when I was four."
Tea: Well more importantly, for anyone to be able to go, "So have you had a hernia operation?"
Debbie: There are [inaudible 00:15:59] laws that protect that actually.
Tea: Right. But you see trans people on TV shows today who are being asked that kind of questioning, as if somehow these people owe the public some form of disclosure. And you see it with intersex people, and you see it with disabled people. You see it with all sorts of kind of minorities. You see it in mental health. There is a whole world of disclosure.
Tea: I disclose a lot, and I disclose for a reason. I disclose because I know that there are kids out there for whom the fact that I'm trans, and queer, and have a dissociative disorder, and other mental health issues, the fact that I've been in a psych ward, and repeatedly, and that it doesn't affect my work, or my profile, or the things that I want to say.
Tea: And I will talk about those things, but I would still much rather talk about the work, the ideas, the people that I do projects with, and the idea of information in space, and orientation, and sound, and why the shape of people's ears is a weird thing. There's a world of things which they don't relate to that stuff. There's no reason for telling it. And the reason that I tell it is not to titillate people, and it's not to make me interesting. It's because there's some value to it, to a kid somewhere who doesn't understand that it's fine. It's just fine.
Debbie: Well I relate to that a great deal. When I was growing up, and it was the 70s, when I was ... late 60s, early 70s, during the time that I was being sexually abused. And at that point, I didn't know that that happened to anyone. It was such an anathema to me that this could happen, that this was possible, that I felt like I was the only person in the world it was happening to.
Debbie: And when I finally read in an advice column in Long Island's newspaper, Newsday. Ann Landers was the advice column, and somebody had written in about something that had happened to them that was similar. I cut it out of the newspaper, and hid it under my mattress, because I thought, "There's someone else in the world that this is happening to." But it took me until I was about 55 years old to actually feel like it was okay for anybody to know, because I felt so ashamed.
Tea: Yeah, you hid the information that that was even a thing. It's not like this happened to you. You hid the information that it happened to someone else.
Tea: Yeah, I think that that happens a lot. I think for a generation, and it's our generation, who grew up in a world where this was socially completely unacceptable. And it's actually only through that courage of going, "Hey, we're going to tell you something that happened to us which is very, very difficult for us to talk about." And as we get older, we become less and less cool. But it doesn't become any easier weirdly to say something that for our generation is profoundly painful and shaming. I'm doing a book at the moment on queer speeches.
Debbie: I know.
Tea: And that comes across so strongly, these kind of cycles of shame within society, and the kind of characters that you need, the individuals that would stand up at the beginning of those cycles, like Barbara Gittings, or Frank Kameny, who they were in suits saying, "Homosexuals deserve to be respected." You're like, "Wow." We had this kind of mythology around Stonewall, like nothing happened before Stonewall.
Tea: And there were these extraordinary figures in the 40s and 50s, I mean with the Germans, around the turn of the century, and again a total black period for gay rights during the 30s and 40s. And then Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society. There's this extraordinary history, and I'm just kind of having these moments of going, "Oh my God, I already know this." And you hear these speeches, and people like Audre Lorde, and then the AIDS crisis.
Tea: It's this amazing rich history over the last hundred years. And you get to the kind of coming out culture of celebrities today, and yeah sure, it's tough, it's still tough, clearly incredibly tough for Black American males, like to say it. For your generation I appreciate that maybe how you present in your gender fluidity is not a challenge, and that's amazing.
Debbie: It is amazing, and it is an extreme accomplishment. Because I didn't come out until I was 50, because I wasn't sure of my sexuality. I didn't come out until I was 50 because I was afraid of it, and I was afraid of how I'd be judged, and I was afraid of being ... I had so much inner homophobia, that I was afraid that people would think that there was something wrong with me. Because I thought there was something wrong with myself.
Debbie: And when I finally did come out, I spent a lot of time even before coming out reading, I've been always endlessly fascinated by coming out stories, by transition stories. And for quite some time I was reading a lot about transition stories, and Portrait of a Lesbian Transsexual, which is a seminal book from many, many, many decades ago.
Debbie: And my partner at the time questioned whether I was trans, or I thought that I might ... And I said, "No, I'm not. But I'm fascinated by what it means to stand up for who you are." Which is something that I've only recently been able to feel. That sense of being proud of who you are, and the courage it takes to become who you are.
Tea: It is courageous. And I think there's a generation for who don't quite understand that what you're overcoming still are the stigma of your youth, not the lack of stigma. And frankly, you exist in a lovely bubble in this world which does accept you, and you don't need to be afraid particularly, Debbie. But there are lots of places in the world, there's lots of places in the U.S. where you need to be afraid.
Tea: I mean, for me there are places in the world I cannot travel to.
Tea: Well, Dubai is one. I'm not going near Russia. The idea that we have any kind of sense of understanding, we're gaining a sense of acceptance. But the idea that we've reached ... And again, with the trans stuff especially, the debate and conversation about it is so primitive, that you know ... And the violence of the conversation, because it's a very complicated, rich, nuanced topic. And that doesn't mean it's going to go away. It just means that we are at the beginning.
Tea: And you see, honestly you see the kind of conversations happening about trans people at the moment which are absolutely typical of gay people in the 60s and 70s, and absolutely typical of any kind of sexual or gender expression earlier than that. And they're the same arguments. It's the same rhetoric.
Debbie: How are you feeling about the news about Caster Semenya, the runner, might need to use testosterone blockers if she wants to compete professionally?
Tea: Well I mean, it's a very interesting thing, this arbitrary decision that there is a natural level of testosterone. Caster is a kind of fascinating example in that she's a cis woman, she's a gay cis woman. And she has more testosterone in her body than most other women. And that's true, and that's what gives her an advantage. And actually, that's probably what gives the guys like Usain Bolt an advantage.
Tea: It's probably ... A lot of comments have been made about Michael Phelps, and how he has basically a biological condition that gives him an advantage. And yeah, she has a biological condition that gives her an advantage. So do a lot of the other runners in those sports. So do a lot of runners generally. The idea that actually by creating an arbitrary natural limit for testosterone in a woman's body is fascinating, because not only does it mean that A, she's got to take drugs which will genuinely affect her mentally, and will affect her life, and yeah, they will reduce her muscle mass. So that's why they want her to do it.
Tea: Like I'm 30% weaker, and yes, this is a noticeable thing. Fortunately for me, it's something that I take great delight in, and I can't actually pick that suitcase up anymore. But I am. The most interesting thing about setting an arbitrary natural limit is that not because she's got to come below it, but what is stopping anyone else bumping up to it?
Tea: Like how on Earth are you going to tell people that they can't take supplements to reach that natural limit? It's a really challenging space. And again, as a trans athlete, there's this whole other conversation about trans athletes, and Caster Semenya is not a trans athlete. It's got nothing to do with that conversation.
Tea: Because again, maybe it's a bit too much information, but if you are on hormone replacement therapy as a trans person, as a trans athlete, your testosterone level is really, really likely to be down, way down below the natural level that they want, that they've specified, and probably lower than most other female athletes. And if it wasn't, this is not a new thing. Trans people have been competing for decades. The reason they don't win everything is because there's no real benefit like that.
Debbie: There's just different talent levels.
Tea: There's different talent levels, there's a lifetime that goes into winning a race. It's not about the 10 seconds from the beginning to the end of it. And any athlete knows that. So it's a really strange situation, and what's just upsetting is kind of that thing where it really just comes back to the idea that you're a freak, and that freaks shouldn't compete. And you're another. You're not like us. Because every time we find a space, it's going to happen, this conversation is going to come into The States.
Tea: You've seen it playing out in the UK, with this idea of trans-exclusionary feminism. It's going to roll across The States. This idea that trans women are other. And actually, it's not even to do with trans women, or trans people. It's to do with splitting up that LGBT, because they've given a whole load of rights to the others, and "These aren't like your people. Why are you defending them?" That just can be politically so divisive, and it's so painful when you see your own community making those kind of comments, both as a feminist and as a queer person.
Debbie: What do you do when you are faced with the otherness being put upon you? How do you respond to that?
Tea: I feel very other. I've got a big thing about othering.
Debbie: Let's talk about it.
Tea: Othering is super important. It's incredibly important in terms of creativity and culture. It's incredibly important in allowing people to understand that they're different, and it's really important, this idea of diversity and inclusion, where we're still again at a conversation point with this where we talk about diversity and inclusion, like that's the outcome.
Tea: And it's like, no no no. It's the input, "We're going to be more diverse, we're going to be more inclusive." It's like, actually, the input for that is accommodation. Accommodating the fact that everyone is already different, and is diverse. Whether it's neurodiversity and about how your brain works. Whether it's about gender diversity, and gender fluidity, and how you present to the world and what role you want to play. Whether it's about sexual diversity, religious diversity, economic diversity, educational diversity.
Tea: So we already live in incredibly diverse, generally diverse environments. We know that there are benefits to allowing or accommodating diversity. That's what we want to do, but we don't use the word accommodate. Accommodation still means where you live.
Debbie: Or it means making an exception for.
Tea: Or making an exception for, rather than including. So that othering thing happens when we use othering, and we talk about accommodation, or we talk about diversity. We're basically saying, "These people are different, and we need to listen to them," as opposed to going, "Everyone is different." And actually, the thing that's most interesting is when you get people to realize the degree to which they distort themselves with the clothes they wear, with the haircuts they have, with the hats, with the logos, with anything that they do, the watch they wear, the team they support.
Tea: The amount of time and effort ... I spent my life doing this, so I know all about it. The amount of time and effort that goes into fitting into different roles, is like the opposite. This is you normalizing and trying to be normative. And the scary thing about that is that because there are so many benefits to not standing out, you spend most of your life trying not to stand out like that, because it was safer.
Tea: So when we get to this new world where everything gets digitized, we're looking at a world where most of the data is built on a world where not standing out, or not being different, or not expressing that difference is paramount. So from a data point of view, our historical data is madly skewed. It's just skewed because people are scared to be honest.
Debbie: Right. I think that's what's so interesting about having access now to others through technology, is that in addition to all the things that are harmful about that data, there is something incredibly freeing about finding others that are also other, and therefore negating the whole idea of other.
Tea: Yeah. I find Twitter a really strange thing, because there's a lot of abuse on Twitter. It's kind of quite bad for one's mental health. But at the same time, it's a way of connecting to communities. And I talk sometimes, especially within the advertising world, people are like, "Well, we just don't know how to reach out to those people." It's like, "You don't have to reach out to them. You don't have to do a focus group. You just need to get on Black Twitter. You need to get on queer Twitter. You need to follow the actuallyautistic hashtag. You want to know what neurodiverse people think? Believe me, they are shouting it.
Tea: Do you want to know what the disabled community think? Believe me, they really aren't shy of telling you. You're just not listening. Yes, there's a lot of noise on Twitter, but one of the great, great abilities of hashtags is that you can find communities who are really supportive of each other, and who are really trying to make their voice heard in very authentic ways. And they police authentically, and they regulate authentically, and they support in extraordinary ways. So it always rather upsets me the people working on projects for those communities.
Debbie: As opposed to with the communities.
Tea: Yes. As opposed to with the communities. They're not even ...
Debbie: I mean, that is big, other, neon sign.
Tea: Yeah. But it's like the first step is like, you don't even need to do anything. There are activists. You can find them, you can follow them. And if you can follow them, you can follow the people that they retweet. It's just not that hard.
Debbie: You mentioned before something about ears, and wanting to talk about ears. And that keeps coming back into my head because I want to ask you about it, and I don't want to forget to ask you about it. So, why are ears so strangely shaped?
Tea: Ears are really strangely shaped because nature is fantastic like that, because the patterns in nature which are to an extent kind of preset are also wonderfully diverse. And that's why we have this extraordinary diversity, the idea that your ear is ... And that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they're all different.
Tea: And the interesting part is that sound, or your understanding of sound, is shaped by the shape of your ears, obviously. So, sound is entirely subjective to you. You learn how to hear, and how to place things in space. You learn how to orient things. You learn what is normal. And we all, in terms of sound, in terms of listening, we all listen all the time. We listen while we're asleep. That's something which will wake us up. Maybe a bright, bright light will wake us up, but sounds will definitely wake you up. Unless you are my four-year-old who basically is able to sleep through anything. Well that's probably because they feel secure.
Tea: Because we allow our brains to understand and filter sounds. We filter sounds all the time, even if you're listening to this, you're also listening to half a dozen other things. And if you stop and you think about it, you can hear them, but your brain has filtered them out for you. So we're doing that all the time constantly on a cycle. And then when we look at things, it's normally to confirm what we're hearing. It's very rarely do we see something and then listen for it.
Debbie: Interesting. Very interesting distinction. I have a slight brain disorder with sound. I have misophonia. And so I get really, really freaked out by certain repetitive sounds, which seems to be getting worse as I get older.
Tea: I mean yeah, when you have ... Face blindness.
Debbie: Yes, you are face blind. And there is an actual term for that, which I was learning how to say. [inaudible 00:33:53]
Tea: No, that's not ... Prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia. It's close enough. Let's stick with face blindness, which it isn't. I'm not blind to faces. I see faces fine, I just don't remember. I have no recall for faces. And much like hearing disorders, actually those sorts of disorders or impairments allow us to understand the experience of hearing or facial recognition far better. They're normally spectrum conditions. It's like faces, certainly those people who recognize every face and can't forget a face.
Debbie: Bill Clinton. It's incredible.
Tea: Yeah, that's an amazing ability. For some reason my complete inability to ever remember faces, no one ever says that's incredible.
Debbie: Yeah. I mean, I would do almost anything to not have misophonia, because when you're in public and you're with people that are doing things that they normally do, you want to strangle them because they're ... just for the sheer virtue of doing them. It's a problem.
Tea: I had a colleague, a really sweet colleague, and she came up to me in the lift, and she reintroduced herself. And I was like, "Bless you. Thank you so much." So I've got friends who understand that in terms of accommodation, kind of I can definitely pretend I know who they are, but I don't know who they are.
Debbie: And why would you want to pretend? Then you have to be sort of smiley, happy.
Tea: I always pretend.
Tea: I probably have a lot of friends who are friends because I thought I knew who they were. People tell you a lot with their body language. The most interesting thing with regard to that and sound is how much information we take from the world from body language, from how much you will tell me without making a sound. And equally, how much the sound, right down to the shape of the sound.
Tea: Like we're in studio, but we're wearing headphones, so the sound gets very distorted. It's not natural sound, and it feels unnatural to be wearing headphones in this small little room. And you can move between those sounds and that can allow you to understand the sound, understand the context of the space you're in differently. It can affect how you experience the information.
Tea: Just the idea of moving the sounds so that we could make it sound like we're in a [inaudible 00:36:06] concert hall. And then you begin to understand how if you can do that with objects in space, all of this stuff with AR and VR, we're always listening. We might be able to see it on a screen in the thing, but unless you can hear it in exactly the right place, and we can't hear it in exactly the right place because the sound isn't coming from that place.
Tea: It's being generated artificially, and it can't be artificially generated specifically for you, because your ears are a funny shape. So, because sound is subjective to you, that thing of putting a sound in space precisely so that it works, becomes an incredibly challenging exercise. And it's one that I'm enjoying enormously. I think we'll get our ears scanned.
Tea: In a few years time, I think you'll get your ears scanned just like you get your eyes tested, and that you'll have headphones which literally adapt to the inner structure of your ear, and allow you mainly entirely for the purpose of augmented reality, that sounds can begin to come from space, from very precise spaces. And they're going to need to know the shape of your ear in order for it to come from that precise space.
Debbie: So, customized listening.
Tea: Yeah, customized listening. Because then information doesn't need to come into you from a screen. It can begin to exist as sound.
Debbie: Is this something that you're working on at Google?
Tea: I enjoy playing with it. The work that I do at Google is basically taking technology that's normally in the public domain, and then playing about with it. So yeah, we're really interested in all the AR core stuff, and anchoring sounds in space, and how you orient. There are things that humans do really well. Filtering sensory perception being one, biases and filtering being another one, and understanding your location in space is another one.
Tea: And you begin to realize how our understanding of reality, objective reality, is really reliant on those skills happening in our brain. So until we can begin to allow our little supercomputers in our pocket to understand where they are in space, and to understand how we experience sensory perception, not a default for humans, then these kind of experiences are still limited.
Tea: But when we do begin to play with those spaces, it's amazing, because you start to put information into the real world, in a way that you are experiencing it. I always talk about sliding doors, the opening and shutting doors, in that it's a great example of augmented reality. You walk towards the thing, the thing understands your intent, which is to walk through the door, and the mechanics of the door, open the door. Or sometimes they don't.
Tea: But there's no real reason where that can't ... That sort of intent, and you think about how much information we know about you, and the patterns that you exist in on a daily basis. And for me, I like playing in cultural spaces. So theater gets massively changed when you move into a space where you've got whole other metalayers of information around the performance, or books move into an interesting space.
Debbie: I want to talk to you about a couple of the projects that you've done with books.
Tea: All of these cultural things are really defined by historical parameters, like the stage, like music is performed from a stage, because that's how it's always been performed. Or it's amplified through speakers, and the speakers go at the front of the stage, mainly because that's how you make money, by getting the people to stand in a box or sit in a box. And then in order to get them to come and sit in the box, you need to entertain them.
Tea: And the most cost-effective way is to put someone at one end of that room, and have as many people as you can in the room. Or if you've got a stadium, that's a different model where you put all the people around the stage, and you put the stage in the middle. And then the actual experience of those things gets distorted by the needs of the user, and the needs of the user are being catered to by the person that owns the experience, or the stadium, or the theater.
Tea: So really, they're just running ... We all know that sports team owners are running a stadium. We should understand that theaters and museums are very often boxes which have a bigger commitment to maintaining their staff, and the lives of their staff, and returning an income, and making sure the trustees are not unhappy. But they've got more of a commitment to those things than the actual art, which means that again, those other kinds of art where you're disrupting how those things work, they don't fit into the gallery system.
Debbie: What kinds of things are you referring to?
Tea: Mainly non-tangible digital artifacts. I think there's a really interesting problem with how ... We've sort of been through it with say, take for example, performance art, which would be documented, or conceptual art in the 60s and 70s where you literally have these pieces of paper where the artist has written down what it is and signed it, and that's the thing that's worth $150,000.
Debbie: Right, so things that Marina Abramovic are doing, or Karen Finley.
Tea: And what you're really doing is creating a value indicator. It's like a piece of money. It's like, it doesn't mean that a piece of paper is worth $150,000, it's a gesture that there's a physical entity that promises the [inaudible 00:41:12] on demand. But with art, that value is kind of arbitrary. There's no ceiling, there's no mint, there's no gold standard. No one's saying, "This is where it stops."
Tea: So when you look at the idea of creating an infrastructure for digital artists, then immediately that becomes a big problem, whether they're book artists who are making books and narrative devices, whether they are visual artists, whether they're sound artists. Whatever kind of form you might be working in, if the work that you're doing doesn't work within the framework of the economic institution, doesn't work within the framework of the school, or the gallery system, or the museum structure, then no one's going to give you any money.
Tea: And if no one gives you any money, you've got to get funding. And you can't get funding unless you've got enough money to apply for funding, which means that it becomes this madly discriminatory world, and we wonder why all the artists are white and middle class. It's because they could survive. Not because they're better at it.
Debbie: Places like Performance Space New York is, I think that they are trying to change that a bit. I know that one of the possible ways that the organization might go in the coming year is actually fund artists to do their performance, and that would be the programming. So it's actually putting artists on staff, essentially.
Tea: This is not new. I'm not kind of ... It's just how I understand that world. It's the same with theater. If you want to do work which uses digital tools which stops using the theater, and actually starts with the idea that theater can happen anywhere, all the time, all around you. And that would be a really interesting work. And we do see those works. They tend to be fringe works, they tend to be ... And if they start to integrate digital technology like Punchdrunk do. But when they really struggle with are creating ... Ultimately those companies are relying on creating things like Sleep No More, which is a box that you pay to go into.
Debbie: That you just pay to walk around the box in different ways, like a maze.
Tea: Yeah. The publishing industry is reliant on creating their cookbooks, or the celebrity bios that you buy. All of these industries are reliant on a certain output that allows them ... And the publishing is kind of wonderful because they keep making books, they keep making books that no one's going to buy, because they believe in books. They believe in literature.
Debbie: Yeah, but people like Steven King's net sales are helping fund these things.
Tea: Yeah. Yeah, they are, and they're really important. It's really important. Game of Thrones is really important. Harry Potter is really important. It's not just about getting kids reading. It's like ...
Debbie: It's getting a whole generation of people interested in reading.
Tea: Yeah, and paying for work that won't be created. So I think that there's this kind of interesting payoff. So for me one of the things that I really like to do is use the fact that we have some resources, we have those kind of facilities. We are interested already in how the technology that we're working with and exploring can work with these things.
Tea: But there is certainly a huge part of it is they're going, "Let's just make examples. I don't want them to be the best thing ever. I don't want it to be bought by MoMA." I mean, I do really, for the artists that we're working with. But to be perfectly honest, normally it's just an experiment in, you could do this, or you could do that.
Debbie: I'd like to ask you about a quote that I found utterly fascinating. This is something you said. "We've had this history of 1000 years of visual culture, and only a 20-year history of digital culture." What do you think that the people of the future will say about this particular moment in time?
Tea: I think they will probably go, "I wish they'd done a little bit more to try and preserve that experience." I think in 100 years time, what would be an amazing experience would be to understand what it was like to use a mobile telephone at the turn of the century. So we're at the turn of the century, right?
Tea: If you think about 1920 as a kind of ...
Debbie: I mean, if you think about 100 years ago, and then 100 years from now, when the world was a completely different place. So I would imagine if climate change doesn't do us in, that we'll look back on this time with a bit of horror.
Tea: Well, from a historical point of view, I think one's understanding of the way in which information was weaponized, and also limited by ... It's this double-edged sword of having these incredible walled gardens which restrict the form in which you receive information, and at the same time, this extraordinary ability of people to use humans worst habits. And we're all guilty of this.
Tea: When I say worst habits, I have a big thing about how bias is the only thing that keeps us sane. It's like that filtering process is what stops us all going mad. You can't have all the information. You can't have all of the perspectives on a single source of information. Even though all of those are available to you, you have to filter. So biases are very valuable in that sense. We'd all just go bonkers otherwise. Speaking as someone with some sensory issues, I hear too much.
Debbie: Are the headphones okay?
Tea: Yeah, they're fine. But I hear all the sounds, so I hear all the little creaks, and the rustles. It's a lot. And I think that that's something which has taken me a long time to understand that a lot of people don't hear all of the sounds, that you don't hear all three conversations at the same time. That's not ... I don't remember faces, but I hear all the things.
Tea: But my brain works in that way, and that's my normal, and it's taken an astonishing amount of time to go, "Oh, so you just don't really see the world like that? That's just not how you experience it." And I've spent years trying to get people to ... I've been putting on performances, like this whole thing about multilinearity, and non-contiguous performance, is these things where it's like, but that's how the world works. It's like, no, actually that's not. That's how my world works.
Debbie: Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could experience the way another person experiences the world?
Tea: Well, I don't know.
Debbie: That would be maddening.
Tea: Yeah, it might be. It's like, I have a dissociative disorder, so I have lots of different identities. So for me, the world is split up. For me, at any one point it's trying to work out what has happened, where I am, who I'm talking to, who I'm presenting as, what is going on? All of these things are active experiences for me at any point. So of course it makes sense that if I want to make a portrait of my world, it's going to have lots of information sources giving pieces of information that might feel arbitrary to a normal person who filters the world in a different way.
Debbie: You actually used I think all of this ability, and I would say it's an ability, as opposed to any kind of disability. You use this ability for your book Editions at Play, which you described as an experiment in creating books that cannot be printed. And you worked with Visual Editions, an extraordinary publisher, to analyze the limitations of the bound form.
Debbie: But I actually think in listening to you now speak, it's also about the limitations of a certain reality. Because every time the edition was reorganized, it's a different person's way of seeing a specific book. Can you talk about the project a little bit?
Tea: Yeah, sure. It's probably our longest running project. It won a Peabody.
Debbie: I know. It won a Peabody Futures of Media Award.
Tea: I didn't realize that that was a big deal until you got all excited.
Debbie: It's a huge ... Oh my God. It's like you, Beyoncé, it's so major. No, a Peabody is a very major deal.
Tea: Your reaction to that was the sweetest thing in the world. No, what it is it's basically like, for a number of years ... Again, it's this kind of cyclical thing. It's like, 25 years ago I left university where I'd studied fine art. And I went and studied book art, because my mom is a publisher. And I'd grown up with books, and I've always been really interested in what happens when you reconstruct books.
Tea: What makes a book a book? What defines it? What are its limitations? At what point does it just go back to being a piece of paper, or pieces of paper? Is it the content? Is it the form? Is it the vessel? Is it the context? All of these were kind of like your average MA thesis stuff.
Debbie: I don't know about that.
Tea: But one of the things that came out of it was this idea that I was never going to make any money doing that. So I learned to design. That's kind of where and why I learned to design, because no one was ever going to pay me to muck about with the form of literature and narrative. That wasn't really ... Well, not as a 20-year-old.
Debbie: But you started at Google designing PowerPoint slides?
Tea: Yeah, I know.
Debbie: And now, you're the Creative Director. So, how did that happen?
Tea: We'll get back to Editions at Play.
Debbie: Yes, yes. Believe me, we're not going to forget that one.
Tea: Yeah. I went in to do one month's contract work, because my friend was like, "Do you want to come and ..." He's like, "The pay is good." And I was like, "I've never actually used PowerPoint."
Debbie: I love this part of the story.
Tea: He's like, "I don't think that matters."
Debbie: You could just come in and experiment with PowerPoint.
Tea: Well, you know. It's nice. It's kind of a fun tool. And actually, weirdly it was a fun tool, because it's got these limitations. So I believe in working within limitations. For me, this idea of creativity is not about having space, and time, and perfect calm, and being able to find yourself. It's about normally being under some pressure with some deadline, with someone who wants to express an idea in a way that you don't completely agree with, and having these incredible parameters.
Tea: Whether that's the parameters of digital, whether it's the parameters of outdoor, whether it's the parameters of a PowerPoint slide. These are all the same things. And really what we're doing is making these slides ... Okay, maybe I was overthinking it a little bit, but we're making these slides which are trying to express quite complicated ideas, and then they were being shared with the rest of the European sales teams who were almost certainly going, "What on Earth is that?"
Tea: But I felt like I was just making adverts for ideas about digital. And this is very early days in Google, so really it was mainly ads. That's what we did. This is before ... I think we had Maps, but it was before Docs, and before YouTube. We had Gmail, but that was a couple of years old, so it wasn't a big thing.
Debbie: And it was very narrow at that point. Very few people had a Gmail account.
Tea: Yeah. You had to ...
Debbie: You had to apply. Yeah. So how did you go from PowerPoint designer to Creative Director of the whole thing?
Tea: It's chaos. It was chaos. I was in Europe, and it was chaos. And I'd done a design management degree, so I had that other kind of-
Debbie: You have several degrees. You have the design management degree, you have a degree in book design. How many Master's do you have?
Tea: I have two Master's and a Bachelor's in fine art from Oxford, which was a very educational experience, but I'm not an artist. I mean, it was amazing the people that we met. But I have these different parts, these different roles, in which all makes much more sense now looking back at it. And there was this kind of really important front that is very organized, and very disciplined, and is not me. It's literally another person as far as I'm concerned. And they did a design management degree.
Tea: So that was the skill that we brought to Google. So for the first two years, what I was really doing was organizing the design team, the idea of a design team within marketing in Europe, which didn't exist. And because it was helpful and useful for your temp to be organizing your design team, after a year-and-a-half they were like, "Do you want to do this as a full-time thing?" And I'm like, "Yeah, sure."
Tea: And then six months later, Ernie Berndt turns up and starts the Creative Lab. So things exploded. Then we started doing all these experiments, and we launched Google Chrome, which was wild because again, you're trying to go, "Hey, there's this thing called a browser." It was literally like trying to get people to understand that they could have different hands. Because it's like, "I don't understand. We've got the E. We click the E." You're like, "No no, there's another one. There's another kind of E."
Debbie: I read that the budgets for your types of projects tend to be relatively small, which would surprise a lot of people given Google's power. You've described it as quite a low input, high impact exercise. Does that make things more challenging for you? Do you like those constraints?
Tea: I like that constraint.
Debbie: I knew you were going to say that.
Tea: I mean, yeah. I don't think people we're working with like those constraints, because you go, "Oh yeah, no, we don't really have any money. We've got 20 grand or something." And I know that that's not a small budget for a lot of people. And that is, by our standards that's a small budget. These things [crosstalk 00:54:43] in time.
Debbie: But with what is expected too. The work that you produce is so complex, and abstract, and smart.
Tea: With really low production values. Yeah.
Debbie: Yeah. And it also doesn't really feel like they're projects from Google. They just feel like artistic projects.
Tea: Well they shouldn't do, really. They shouldn't do. They shouldn't feel like they're from Google at all. They should feel like they're from the people that we're working with.
Debbie: So let's talk more about Editions at Play. The first four books of the series, some use digital maps, and Google street view. One book morphs as it's read. Another brings a sci-fi world to life in a cartoon universe. How did you make this happen?
Tea: Well, it's actually ... Visual Editions, Anna and Britt came to me with this idea, that they wanted to do something about digital books. And what it came out of was working with Matt Pyke at Universal Everything who'd done this digital version of a book called Composition No. 1, which was one of their early printed editions. And the interesting thing about Composition No. 1 is that it has no spine. That's literally the only interesting thing about it.
Tea: It's basically a post-war kind of romp through Nazi Germany with nuns, and rape. But it's got no spine, so you can read the pages in any order. Literally, it's got literally no spine. Because it has no spine, the notion of a plot kind of goes out the window, because you can read any page in any order. And it's a fascinating exercise in watching humans completely lose their shit, because they can't comprehend either physically how to handle this thing. I mean, it's beautiful. But what to do with it?
Tea: And Matt Pyke at Universal Everything takes this great digital version where you press on the screen, and then the page stops, and then you can read that page until you take your finger off it, and then it flutters through the pages again. And they're like, "We want to do something with that kind of thing about what happens when you remove the binding from a book."
Debbie: So you removed the rules?
Tea: So we removed all of the rules. For me it became an exercise in understanding value. So the first set of books were about, we tried to sell through the Google Play bookstore, which was kind of a disaster.
Tea: Because people don't see value in that way.
Debbie: They probably don't understand it.
Tea: No. I mean, yeah, but they're not going to understand it until we've done it. This is very much the principle with all of my projects. Just draw a line in the sand and put a flag there, and then at least people might come over and look at the line and go, "What's the flag for?" It's not even showing the way, it's just like, "Hey, we drew a line here and we planted a flag."
Tea: And maybe it's useful. That's been the principle with theater work that we did with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where five years later that's kind of a major part of how they move theater forward.
Debbie: Talk about what that project is for our listeners.
Tea: So the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was a fairly crazy production of Midsummer Night's Dream, where we performed the play over three days. God knows how we got [inaudible 00:57:42] and Royal Shakespeare Company to agree to it. I think it was mainly [inaudible 00:57:45] and that kind of education team, and Geraldine, and they got them to somehow agree to do a one-off three-day performance of Midsummer Night's Dream. Because in real time, it takes place over three days.
Tea: And I was like, "Well, if it were happening in real time, we'd be able to build an internet around it. Because if it was really happening, and the King turns up with a princess who he's basically won on the battlefield, and declares they're getting married in three days, the internet would go nuts." And then he sends basically the equivalent of Meghan Markle off to a nunery. And there's these incredible conflicts. The internet would be going wild.
Tea: So I was like, "Why don't you have it as a three-day thing with the internet going wild on social media?" And for me it was one of those ... Again, I wrote a 5000-word essay. The most valuable thing to come out of it was probably this 5000-word essay on all the things that went wrong. To me even right now, that reads like a, "Here's the beginning of understanding what breaks."
Tea: And sometimes you need to break the things in order to make new beautiful things. And it's certainly that the same is true with the books. So, yeah. We've been doing books where we break the idea of ownership, or you break the idea of perspective, or you break the idea of linearity, or narrative.
Debbie: That sounds like you're also describing A Universe Explodes, which is a book about a parent whose world gradually falls apart. And it's owned by a collective of people who through blockchain progressively reduce the book ultimately to only one word per page. Now I went through it, I went up to I guess Issue #100. And it's still not at one word per page yet. Is it possible for that to still happen? Is it possible to make editions?
Tea: Do you want to know what happened?
Debbie: Yes I do.
Tea: Okay. It's a really interesting ... Again, I'm not sure you've got time on your show. But for me, it was about ownership. It was also a book where we wanted to talk about how blockchain allows for precedent, and how ... Provenance is probably a better word. Provenance is a key for the value of art. That this is a unique thing, and you can trace its provenance back, just like a family genealogy.
Tea: So we wanted to create a family tree which was a single line of owners for each book, so that we would make 100 of these blockchain editions, each of which has a place on a blockchain. And then that created a unique book, so then you could say, "Oh actually, I own the book that Debbie owned," because you can see on this proof that-
Debbie: Yes. It's a map.
Debbie: And I found friends. I found friends. [inaudible 01:00:19] who has also been a guest on the show. She did an edition, and I was like, "Whoa, this is amazing. I know who wrote and read this."
Tea: Yeah. And in order to double down on that idea that this person owned it, we made them go through and take away two words on every page and add one word. And that was a very destructive thing to do to a book. Because it was so destructive, I had to write it, because you couldn't really ask an author to do that, to say, "Here, can you make a book that's very, very precisely 256 words per page? And then we're going to give it to people, but then they're going to destroy it, and it's going to make no sense."
Debbie: I think some people would be interested in doing that.
Tea: Yeah, I think so. I mean, maybe it would be more ... It would be an interesting thing to revisit. But again, you learn these things through disasters. The wonderful disaster that happened there was that even though we'd done all these extraordinary ... We'd literally done risk assessments on the cost. What's the most that it could cost to do this on blockchain?
Tea: And we were out by a factor of 10, because blockchain kind of went through this astonishing spike, and suddenly everyone was a billionaire. And we couldn't afford to do it. We just couldn't afford to run the book. So we stopped giving out copies. So yeah, every time you made those changes, you could take ownership. In other words, you could commit those changes and your name to the blockchain, by giving it to someone else.
Debbie: I was trying to figure out how I could work on one.
Tea: Yeah, well and we basically had to take it offline, because it became too expensive to commit those changes.
Debbie: Well it's still fascinating.
Debbie: And it's still incredible to see the changes.
Tea: I'd quite like to put it back one day when it gets back to being-
Tea: Yeah. Again, it's a concept model. It's about demonstrating those ideas.
Debbie: Well online, it's a little bit hard to buy ownership.
Tea: Yeah. The main thing with that is if you take that model and you transfer it over to digital art objects, because I've got friends who are digital artists, and it's like they're literally limited by the idea that they have to make something which in 100 years is going to be on a machine that still runs. And that genuinely limits their output, and it shouldn't. But that's the value, is that's the thing the collector wants to own.
Tea: So, it was really about that idea that really, actually what we're talking about is a kind of share model, like a stock exchange. But the stock would be at one whole edition of that artwork. It's just you own one edition of it. And how much that transforms the art world, if you suddenly don't have to worry about storage. But you do have responsibilities like, it's your responsibility for maintaining the service, as the owner.
Tea: And also, because you own it, if you want to destroy it, that's also within your agreement. These things ... A lot of it comes out of the confusion that we have between the idea of owning things. It's like, you don't own the photos that you've got in the Cloud.
Debbie: Well, and we're learning that you might not own the music and the books that you already paid for.
Tea: But you don't own these things. You have a license. You own a license to access them. And that license can and is revoked, and frequently. And it is a really interesting philosophical question for a world growing up for this first 20 years of the internet, for us to understand that ownership of our data is not ownership anyway. It's a license to access the data that other people own, and maybe destroy it. But that's not a given.
Tea: It's a license to access the photos and destroy them in principle, but it's not a given because it's a license to rather than the act of ownership, which is something that we understand only through tangible, physical form. So that's just a massive question. And if artists aren't answering that question, aren't addressing that question, aren't talking about that in every different form ... And they're not.
Debbie: I don't think they are aware. I don't think most people realize that they don't own the file, they're licensing the file.
Tea: But they're these huge philosophical questions about the world that we're in, not even the world that we're heading into. The world that we're in. We haven't even got onto machine learning and AI. We're still working around ideas around ownership of data and privacy. And the chasm is growing between the people who have one perspective on information and technology.
Tea: And for me the art world that has always challenged ... I know I use the art world as broadly as I possibly can. People who challenge art preconceptions. And that the number of people involved in those spaces is small. And the reason it's small is because there's no money. So you can't make money. So actually, everyone's off making TV shows for Netflix and HBO.
Debbie: Because that's where the money is right now.
Tea: All making games, video games.
Debbie: Or working in technology. The rock stars now are the technologists.
Tea: Yeah. These are questions ... They're not questions that should be debated in Congress. What's the point in that? They're questions that should be being debated in popular culture, in design, in creative arts, in schools, in galleries, in music. That's where this conversation should be happening. I think it's a wonderful time to be alive. I've often talked about my career at Google like having front seats at the opera, because it's been amazing. It's been amazing to know those actors and performers, to physically have met those people.
Debbie: Well Tea, thankfully you're sitting in that front seat, because you're helping to steer us to a better place.
Tea: I wish I didn't feel so lonely in that. I wish there was more ... And I do think that again, it's an accommodation on behalf of ... My boss protects me, and his boss, and her boss, which is pretty much the top. They do believe in this. I think that there's an important role for the arts to be played. It actually deeply frustrates me when we set briefs for students, and they're basically like, "Oh, the internet is evil." It's really not.
Debbie: Well, it's all relative. People say the same thing about corporations. It's not the corporation and it's not the internet. It's the people. And some people are evil, and some people are not.
Tea: But yeah, all of these things are fascinating and are conversations that are best had when you allow the arts and technology to explore and play. They might not be the most successful, or popular, or even comprehensible projects. But as long as we are continuing to explore ideas that are relevant not just to our society, but to this idea of our perspective back on now. Like why weren't they thinking about that? And as long as we can go, "Well, we kind of were actually."
Debbie: Tea, I have two last questions for you.
Debbie: First, when you addressed the Emmanuel School in January of last year, you said, "Here's the bad news. I've already said you can do whatever you want, but it will probably never feel like that. You will always feel the pull of something safer, something more understandable, less challenging." So Tea, I want to ask you if you still feel that pull, even today?
Tea: That's such a trick question, Debbie. Yeah. There's a part of me that wants to [inaudible 01:07:57] There's part of me that wants to find someone with a really secure job, and then I can retire to the country and just ...
Debbie: Isn't that everybody's dream?
Tea: And then I can come home from work on the train.
Debbie: Yeah. You can have dinner waiting.
Tea: Yeah. [inaudible 01:08:14] books. So yeah, that. But at the same time, there's a lovely quote from Camus which I won't forget. Actually, there's a completely unverifiable quote from Albert Camus, which I will forget, which is about, "The only true free act of being in such a state of rebellion that you are truly free to totally overthrow all expectations of you." I think I'm getting ... As I get less competent at dealing with society, which is more as I get more aware of my health constraints, I get less inclined to give a fuck.
Debbie: I think that's a good thing.
Tea: But it is all like ... Like is, to that quote, to what I said to that quote. To what I said is that all of these things are compromise. And more importantly, all of these things are nuance. And all of these things are roles, and all of these things are projection. You are you to you, and that may be that you believe in an authentic self, or it may be like me that you believe in a kind of plural, fragmented, very conflicted idea of selves.
Tea: And that framework allows me to exist. And I can pathologize it, or I can just have it as a kind of notion. However you exist to the rest of the world, there is a person that you need to present, there's a gender you need to present. There's a role you need to present. We exist in that duality forever. Yeah, the desire to be what the other people want you to be, that'll always be there.
Debbie: My last question for you today is about something you have learned. You state, "I've learned that sometimes it's useful to insist people ask, 'How are you today?' rather than, 'How are you?' So my final question to you today Tea is, how are you today?
Tea: Today I am [inaudible 01:10:10] Debbie. Today is a difficult day, but it's a better day than yesterday. And I think that if I tried to do everything, I'd have to say, I'm fine. Yeah, everything is okay. The sun is out, it's stopped raining. But if you're asking me about today, we're still recovering, and I'm very happy to be in New York. And I'm very happy to be sitting with you. So, it's a good day like that.
Debbie: Tea Uglow. Thank you for elevating the possibilities of technology in our world in such noble and artistic ways. Thank you for your honesty, and your transparency, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Tea: Thank you Debbie. Thank you for having me.
Debbie: You can find out more about Tea Uglow at teau.me. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.