Future Moves: Alix Dunn, Ethical Tech Expert

Future Moves – 25th April 2024

Is our fear of AI actually feeding the machine?

How can you best communicate complex subjects?

Should your brand be an anchor or a vehicle for reinvention?

Meet Alix Dunn. Founder of Computer Says Maybe, a public interest agency serving organisations working on issues of technology and justice. It’s also home to the New Protagonist network, an emerging community of the clearest and most focused visionaries and experts working on AI politics and power. 

We worked with Alix back in 2020 to help her with some creative thinking around her marketing strategy, hands down she is one of the smartest people we’ve had the pleasure of working with. Alix has this wonderful ability to make technological complexity wonderfully simple and I always walk away from a conversation with her with so much to think about. 

It’s fair to say this was a far-reaching conversation! We talked about everything from the limitations of current AI systems and the environmental costs of building data centres to the importance of creativity in business and staying adaptive in a rapidly changing technological landscape. Hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. 

Jess: Welcome Alix! You translate complex thinking to untangle complexity. Has this been something that has come naturally to you or something you’ve had to work at?

Alix: I think it's a lot like that Ira Glass quote; 

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”

I feel like with copy and communicating what we do, I've definitely gotten a lot better and I think working with you is a chapter of that. One of the challenges I faced was that I could discern good communication but could see that what I was producing was not. And to get there you just have to keep trying over and over and over again and let go of literal precision in the process. 

Jess: What does your creative process look like? 

Alix: One thing I found really helpful is what I call ‘speculative empathy’ in facilitation. In a big meeting if you're going to do a sequence of conversations, using speculative empathy can help you to see how someone's going to feel at a certain stage of a process. You can then design something that will meet them in that moment, even if you don't know yet how they're going to feel you can put yourself in their shoes enough to make changes.

It’s a skill looking at copy through your readers' eyes and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until it feels right. I shape-shift who I am when I'm writing intentionally. So asking, what do I want from this person? What do I want from this interaction? Maybe I just want them to buy this, which is kind of a hard thing to admit when you're somebody that is an ideas writer. If I'm a salesperson, who's the best salesperson I know, what would that person write and change? So it's not about my identity or who I am. It's not a form of my expression. It's a form of my strategy.

Jess: How we write and communicate is a key part of a marketing strategy. How did that overall process go? What did you learn along the way? 

Alix: I went full-on for like nine months trying to learn about digital marketing and learning where the challenges, problems and techniques are. So reading things like StoryBrand or listening to douchey Digital Marketing Podcasts meant I totally saturated myself in this world for nine months. Now, looking back, it’s a quite cringy period of newsletter writing where I was trying out a new voice and new copy with the aim to convert. That period was necessary marketing puberty. You can then let go of all of the formulas and the douchebags and you just have a habit as a skill that you can pull out when you need to, but not as a worldview. Because I think it is a worldview. And it's a worldview that doesn’t align with my values. But there's a lot there in terms of the small techniques, the small ways of thinking like the funnel, calculating conversions, experimentation mindset or copy that helps someone see themselves in the writing. 

Jess: With marketing strategy, we believe there is a process of testing and learning as you go. But what’s your view on brand building? Does the brand benefit from a test and learn approach? 

Alix: There is something amazing about tight cycles of direct feedback. I think in nonprofit spaces the feedback loop is long, because usually you're selling to a funding organisation, not to a person. And then I think in sales, the feedback loop allows you to edit, copy, test and learn as you go. But with a brand, you have to invest more energy in it. You can't just do the little feedback cycles and be experimenting all the time because then people are confused as to who you are. There's this brand piece which is the cadence by which you can test out a new identity, new language and see how it feels to you and see how it feels to your audience. See what happens when you run experiments, see what they like and not be so attached to an anchor identity that holds you down. But for me, I'm so animated to reinvent what we do, to have a brand that can be durable in that reinvention is really important and has been really fun to figure out.

Jess: Sam Altman recently came out saying that “95% of what marketers use agencies, strategists and creative professionals for will be handled by AI at nearly no cost.” As someone who works a lot in technology - do you believe him? 

Alix: I think it's all bullshit. I think Grammarly is the peak. He's not telling a story about marketing. He's telling a story about market cap. He wants to have people truly believe that the market cap of what he's doing is infinite. He has a PR person who's like, what can we say that will put everyone up into a tizzy, and then they'll be talking about us as though we're the central protagonist and figure of the future, so let's pick particular fields with reach. I mean, can you pick a better field to make people scared about what capability you have? For example, if a marketing person is afraid of being obsolete and so they then start experimenting with AI then this makes AI a bigger thing because they're using it?

Jess: I hadn’t thought of it like that before but it makes so much sense. What are your thoughts on AI in general? 

Alix: This is me prognosticating but I think that next year LLM 's are a dead end. There's no way from the way they're constructed to have them index towards accuracy. There's no way that they're going to be able to be a walled garden as they don't have a moat, given the number of open-source models that are going to be available in the next six to nine months. The environmental cost and the financial costs of building these systems is absolutely gigantic and there's a huge single point of failure in the supply chain in terms of  building these things. They're in this weird race to not have a massive outage whilst also continuing to convince people that it's going to get bigger and better and more critical in terms of everything we do. At the same time trying to win the efficiency game so that the efficiency gains that they make through research are fast enough to accommodate the fact that they're basically eating all the electricity that is currently available. Literally every exchange you have with chat GPT costs a half a litre of water in data center cooling costs.  Microsoft’s shows year over year water consumption increases of 35% with a major upturn when they started the partnership with OpenAI. And they're buying data centers where the land is cheap. You know where land is cheap? Where there's no water. So what's happening is they're then soaking up all the water from local communities who need water to cool data centers for this bullshit, like this future is not okay. This is a bullshit hype cycle of two or three years that we just have to withstand and avoid embedding all of these systems into critical infrastructure.

Jess: What do you think is your most important learning about building a brand?

Alix: I think it's to have a Northstar and DNA. For my entire career, I have been focused on how technology impacts people and how power gets distributed when we think about technology and innovation. That's literally my North Star. I want to make it harder for cavalier people to chuck technology into the world and causes lots of harm and not taking responsibility for it and also ending up being the hero in the narrative… fuck that. My whole career is focused on that. But in terms of DNA, it is about solving complex problems. Where are the problems that require a combination of different skills, and how has the problem changed? The clearest manifestation of our deep brand DNA is me walking into a room with 30 really smart technical people, and helping them move shared work forward that will have a positive social impact. That’s the purest version of my work. 

Moving Forward:

Jess: A book podcast or cultural movement that's made you think differently

Alix: Blood in the Machine

Jess:  Who do you follow for ideas, inspiration + advice?

Alix: My friend Toby Jenkins https://www.tobyajenkins.com/

Jess: What tech, or application of existing tech are you most optimistic for?

Alix: The AlphaFold Protein Structure Database by DeepMind is a great example and shows a use case on how AI has the capabilities to help science be better. https://alphafold.ebi.ac.uk/ 

Jess: Your hope for creativity in the future.

Alix: Less precarity in employment so that you can focus on being creative. People are not being ground down by work so people have the space and time to be expressive.

Jess: One word to describe your hope for the future.

Alix: Abundant

More of our thinking...