Balancing old & new magic

As CD of Google’s Creative Lab, Tom Uglow dreams up the digital gadgets our great grandchildren will be using


Photo: Andy Roberts

Tom Uglow has arguably one of the coolest jobs in the world. As the creative director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney his working day is often spent in the year 2035, imagining and developing what future generations will be using in decades to come. Tom constantly explores the collision between art and technology, yet remains a devoted lover of old school objects. For someone who thought the Internet would never catch on, he has done some pretty amazing things with it, including Hangouts in History and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

Here is his story:

I thought the Internet was awful, after my first experience. It was 1994, the Internet was four years old and you could count the number of servers in the hundreds. My dad was a computer enthusiast so he made me go to the computer centre and get an email address – something wonderfully ridiculous like “”. I remember we had to queue up to use the one machine in the centre that had a mail program called Pine. Websites back then consisted of columns of text with very small pictures that had big, blue squares around them. I was an art student at the time and loved making things with ink and paper. I remember thinking, ‘this is rubbish!’ It was a good four years before I recanted.

I think a lot of early career decisions are based on survival. What changed my opinion of the Internet? I had no money! I was starving and penniless because, when I left university, I wanted to go into book design. I don’t know if there is any career that pays less! But it did teach me fundamental design skills, so when a friend asked if I wanted to do a “few hours” a week at his web design company, I said yes. The company ended up being incredibly big and suddenly I was employee #1 at a dotcom company during the dotcom boom.

Very little about my career was set in stone before I was 30. I currently have a wonderful group of five very young and very talented creatives working with me at Google Creative Lab and I remind them of this daily. But, you have this amazing opportunity to throw yourself towards different passions at different times and the most important thing is to keep moving and gaining skills. In 1999 the dotcom bubble burst and we all lost our jobs, but as part of my severance package I took home a laptop and a camcorder, sat in my garden and taught myself the most basic level of [Internet] language – HTML.

If you want to be in control of what’s on the page, you mustn’t actually be the person putting it on the page. You need to step away from the computer and be the person standing behind the person putting it on the page. This is one of the most significant realisations that I had, and why I went off and did a night course in design management.

I ended up at Google because I suffered from low self-esteem. I had spent two years working as a design manager at different charities but the last one wasn’t a great experience so I decided to go freelance. But, one shouldn’t freelance when one has low self-esteem because you’ll pretty much take any old job, on any old pay. When a friend said, “would you like to come and do a month designing PowerPoint presentations at Google?”, the answer – for anyone who isn’t feeling low – should be no. It’s not what I am; it’s not what I do. But, that wasn’t my decision, which in hindsight was lucky. I came and did a month, which turned to two and three…

I don’t think books, theatre or anything that has old magic is in any danger [of extinction]. The question is how we manage the balance of old magic and new magic, how we begin to allow writers, who are still working in an old form, to explore these [digital] spaces. It’s hard to find the words to describe how powerful the experience was for me working on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we did with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a great starting point for long-term projects exploring the role digital has in theatre, not just in terms of booking tickets or finding seats. If people are going to make theatre about daily life then it’s going to have to reflect daily life. Going to a theatre where everyone has to turn off their phone at the start of the play isn’t reflective of this.

Nostalgia is built on the moments of success that occur when we’re open-minded enough to experience them… and moments of failure that we’re unlikely to be open-minded enough to experience again. I have recently been reading The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. Every day I sit in the park and get 20 minutes alone in her world, a different, Victorian time, among a lavishly detailed cast of souls. I have recently taken to reading books on my phone. To be honest I find this behaviour somewhat scandalous, yet there I am, swiping page after page, rattling through fairy kingdoms and lustful teenage yearnings.

Read the full story in Issue 21 of The Collective 


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