Google’s Tom Uglow talks fluid information and an au naturel world without screens

Tom Uglow, creative director at Google’s Creative lab, will find his happy place in a world where our interactions with technology and the internet aren’t limited to screens. Here’s what he envisions.

I’d like to start by asking you to go to your happy place. Yes, your happy place. I know you have one, even if it’s fake.

Comfortable? Good. 

Now I’d like you to mentally answer the following questions.

Is there any strip lighting in your happy place? Are there any plastic tables? Polyester carpets? Phones? No? You do surprise me.

I think we all know that our happy place is outdoors: on beaches or by fireside. Eating or reading. And we surround ourselves with natural light and organic materials, even ink and paper evoke more ‘happiness’ than, well, daily reality.

It seems fair to suggest that natural things make us happy and humans strive for happiness, it is a great motivator. I guess that is why we continue to design things – in the hope that the solutions will feel more natural.

So let’s start with that. That the best design feels natural. 

Your phone is not so natural and you probably think you are addicted to your phone. But you’re really not. We are not addicted to devices, we are addicted to the information that flows through them. I wonder how long you would stay happy in your happy place without news from the outside world.

The phone is a conduit to that information, before that we used personal computers, before that we used telegraph wires and newspapers, innovations that ‘shrank the world’. But we are kind of addicted.

How you feel about that is up to you.

My interest is in how we access and experience that information. 

We have moved from a time of static information, held in books and libraries through a period of digital information to a period of fluid information where your children will expect to be able to access anything they want anywhere at any time. From quantum physics to medieval viticulture, transgender theory to tomorrow’s weather. Just like switching on a light bulb.

Imagine that. It’s like the introduction of the light bulb in 1880. At that time electricity was equally terrifying, mystical and misunderstood.

Information is our childrens’ electricity. However, they will value it less, just like you probably don’t value being able to switch on a light bulb any more.

So that has a lot of implications, but let’s stick with the principle. Humans love information.

Humans like simple tools and they adapt them to fit the purpose. The phone isn’t a simple tool. A knife is a simple tool. I hope they aren’t supplying sporks for lunch, because we like forks, spoons, and knives. And we don’t like them made of plastic. In the same way I don’t really like my phone very much.

It’s not how I want to access information. I think there are better solutions than a world mediated by screens. The ‘Internet of Things’ does not just mean fridges talking to your phone, it means everyday objects can behave like apps – not simply tweet that your cheese is getting old.

I don’t hate screens – but I don’t think anyone feels that good about how much time they spend slouched over their computer or their phone.

Fortunately the big tech companies seem to agree and they are heavily invested in touch, gesture and speech and also in sensors that allow dumb objects like a cup to be imbued with the magic of the internet, potentially turning that digital cloud into something you can touch and move.

Before phones came along this was what the future was going to be like – and it had names like ubiquitous computing or tangible media. You know, computing you can touch.

Reality is richer. We intuitively know that being at an event is a better experience than watching on a screen, but why? You would see and hear everything.  

I’m fascinated by the science of this – I think it has something to do with depth perception. Maybe screens turn off the bit of my brain telling me how hard I have to throw a hacky sack to hit this guy in the office. But I don’t know.

These are the unknowns that fascinate me and drive our creative work.

We need screens, of course, but as you’ll see there is more we can do with these magic boxes. Your phone is not the internet’s door bitch. We can build things using physics rather than pixels that actually integrate into the world around us.

A while ago, I got to work with the design agency Berg to explore what an internet experienced through light rather than screens might actually look like. And they showed us a range of ways in which light could work with simple sensors and physical objects to bring the internet into the physical world. To make it tangible. This was inspirational to me and it led me to work with the Japanese agency AQ on a research project around mental health. We wanted to use physical objects to capture the subjective data about your mood swings that is essential to diagnosis. We developed a thing called a mood stone that captures your emotions. So you might press it hard to show joy or stroke for calm. It’s like an emoji stick, for capturing intense daily moments that you can then revisit and add context to online. More importantly, we wanted to create an intimate object that could live in your pocket, and be loved.

We’ve worked on a range of other projects like these, many of which are still in the cardboard box stage. And while they are all different, they are all underpinned by the simple principles that humans like natural solutions, humans love information and humans tend to be drawn toward simple tools.

So while you may feel uncomfortable about this age of information that we are moving into, and feel challenged rather than simply excited, we design the world we live in – from architects to engineers, businessmen to artists.

And if we challenge ourselves, we can have a happy place with the information we love, that can feel as simple and as natural as switching on a light bulb. And although it may feel inevitable that what the public want are watches, widgets, and websites, maybe we can give some thought to light or mood stones.

  • This column is an excerpt of a speech Tom Uglow delivered at TedX Sydney last year and was published in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing magazine.

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