Rachel Dixon spoke with Siobhan Toohill for Out The Front in September 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tonight on Out The Front we're thrilled to be joined by Rachel Dixon. From a background in film and television production Rachel has gone on to have a career in digital most of us could dream about. Just do the google. The things you won't find are that she managed four rock bands and ran a chain of book stores. Rachel describes herself as a mile wide and an inch deep, and we reckon she goes 100 miles an hour, and we're so pleased to have her here with us. Rachel, welcome.
RACHEL: Thank you very much.
SIOBHAN: Rachel how would you describe what you do for a living?
RACHEL: A series of accidents. I do a lot of technology, I guess over the past five years I've become more technological than I used to be. I'm fairly deeply enmeshed as a product owner on several horribly bleeding-edge online video products. I'm also involved in a lot of other businesses. I've been a director of a whole bunch of companies, including things that are to do with social enterprise, and companies that have been involved in all things from say high-performance computing all the way through to – actually it doesn't sound very broad really – IT, telecommunications, media, a lot of content-related stuff, a lot of film stuff. Some policy, quite a lot of policy work, and a lot of consumer affairs – so I was the deputy chair of Choice for a number of years. I like all of that stuff. I do a lot of public speaking, particularly in terms of culture and technology, obviously coming from a content background I have a fairly deep affinity for what Woody Allen once called the serrated edge, which is Art. So that's kind of like – I'm interested in the juncture between technology and art mostly.
SIOBHAN: Why technology? What drew you to technology?
RACHEL: A series of accidents. I was a film producer. I remember I was working at Film Victoria and first got on Compuserve back in 1987 or 1988. I had a university account at Melbourne University because it was my final year at university. I discovered Usenet as it then was, which was very early days. There were not very many news groups on Usenet back in those days. I really enjoyed that – I thought it was fairly interesting. I didn't really get into it until I inherited a stepson by a marriage. And he was of course an absolute digital native, who in 1984 had been given his first Macintosh, and went through that whole thing with the Amigas and that stuff as well. I was really interested in what you could do with a computer. While I was a film producer digital arrived when we were in film. So at Film Australia I did several things that were relatively new. I was very privileged at that stage to be on the public purse, I guess, and I could experiment. So two things happened. The first was that I edited the second – well I didn't edit it, I had an editor – we did the second show that was made on non-linear editing system in Australia. We did an analogue video disc adaptation of a documentary series that we had made and put it in kiosks and things in a museum. And so that was the beginning of the interactive thing, and that all happened when I first began at Film Australia, and by the time I did five years at Film Australia, and by the time I finished we were doing quite a lot – CD ROM had arrived, the future was going to be completely interactive. It was all very bold brave future. And I kind of liked that interactive thing. Film and television in Australia is very hard. It's very hard to make a living.
SIOBHAN: You've been part of what in a way has been a growing digital world, but you said that we're now in a post-digital world. What do you mean by that?
RACHEL: Oh ok – that's a much more complicated thing. I think it's a really great time to be doing anything right at the moment. People are pessimistic – get off my lawn, kind of, oh my heavens everybody on different kinds of devices that kind of stuff. There's a lot of very exciting things happening. The first thing is – there's a phrase 'the great acceleration' which Ray Kurzweil and people like that will talk about. Which is to do with the fact that we've now got... if you look at genomics for example. The human genome could not have been cracked without the increases in processing power that came from IT. So it's impossible to think of biotechnology without IT as a precursor, and that's still true – the amount of processing power you use in those things – in genome sequencing, but we're now at the point where you can get a home genome kit. If you look at people who are enthusiastic about this space they will predict that in ten years time you'll have a home genome sequencing kit in your [home]. Your fourteen year old will be able to own one. A little scary because your fourteen year old will be able to build a flesh-eating bacterium. (Laughter) Now you can't regulate against that so I look forward to this bold and invigorating future. Having said that I think that we have already seen this period of great acceleration. It's impossible to think of a world without an iPhone now, and yet iPhone's are, what, six years old? Facebook is seven or eight years old. YouTube is eight years old, right now.
SIOBHAN: And yet they seem so much a part of our lives. They seem to have been there forever.
RACHEL: Absolutely. So we're seeing this enormous acceleration. There's a great joke by a guy whose name I forget – except his first name is Rob – it's a fairly slight Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-type novel called 'Year Zero' and in it as part of the denouement ... he postulates that aliens have been watching earth from afar, aliens who are looking for civilisations that are going to make it, and they realise that earth is advancing too fast and one of the things they decide to do is to send aliens down to impersonate great people in the universe, and one of the people they send down impersonates Bill Gates and he invents Windows to slow the development of humanity (laughter) because it's guaranteed to reduce productivity. And I know speaking to you about Lotus Notes you know whereof I speak.
SIOBHAN: Yeah yeah.
RACHEL: So technology has its plusses and its minuses but we are nevertheless going through this amazing period. Part of that has to do with pattern recognition. If you look at for example what Google is doing – the big hype word these days is 'big data' – but that is essentially all about pattern recognition. And of course you can always intuit bad patterns the same way you can intuit good patterns, but as a species in fact our whole history of thinking is about pattern recognition. The one thing you can say about human beings, the one thing we're currently better at than computers, is pattern recognition. We have an intuitive feel. As babies we try, that's just what our brains are really good at. And we're much better than computers at it. How long that will last is anybody's guess. We are going to accelerate the uptake of technlogy. We're going to accelerate the pace at which we do things. Biotech has only just kicked off. We're seeing in terms of automation and in terms of intelligent agents really we're still very much – we've had like 20 years of that, but since 1996, 1995, which is when the first really useful AI became involved – and by AI I don't mean artificial intelligence, I mean what Patti Maes at MIT would call augmented intelligence, which is a different thing. So that's two decades – that's tiny in the scale of human industrial revolution. But it's really big.
SIOBHAN: When you cast your eye around the current emerging technologies what's the one that really excites you in terms of the difference it might be able to make for us?
RACHEL: I would like to say that it's to do with better pattern recognition, but I think we're about to go through a slowing phase of that. For two reasons. One of them is to do with privacy. I’m not as down as everybody else, because I think that a lot of people don’t care. It is the thing that the helpful agent is the thing that offers the most opportunity, but I think it’s also the hardest thing to achieve, I think we’ve seen the first flowerings of that, it’s like the early days of the phonograph, it got so good for so long and then it sopped, because it takes a lot to make it much better. And certainly there are a zillion people at Google working on that, and I wish them all the best of luck!
SIOBHAN: Well, I still remember the first days of using LastFM, maybe four or five years ago, being so excited, that here was this thing that was telling me about the kind of music I might listen to or buy, and being so excited that I wanted to open up and be less private about the music I’m interested in. Is that what you’re talking about here?
RACHEL: A little bit. I would say that one of the things you pay attention to if you’re interested in that space, a friend of mine works for a company called the Echo Nest, who provide the software that goes behind a lot of those systems for third parties, and Glenn McDonald, who works for them, has an incredibly lovely application online that you can go and have a look at. Go and google the Echo Nest, read their blog, it’s all about not just recommendation, but intelligent things. They have an algorithm which was based on, it was to go from tunefulness, which is an unusual thing, but they’re all about music algorithms, and they’re music-obsessives, so it’s a really interesting thing.
Having said that, you do get into the situation that Cass Sunstein observed about five or six years ago, called ‘cyberbalkanisation’, which is where all you’re getting is a deafening reflection of the tastes of people that share the same taste as you, and then, where do you get the accidental thing coming from? And this is terrific, I mean, I worked on some recommendations engines a few years ago, and we have a recommendations engine where I work right now, it’s not particularly sophisticated, but it’s not bad. If you look at things like Netflix and stuff like that, and you’re just, even when you go into the social, and linking social preferences to things like that, I think the world of media now is too diverse, and the world of the internet is too diverse to be encapsulated in the social graph that Facebook have. I don’t know about you guys, but my Facebook - and I actually guard my Facebook relatively close, there are very few people on Facebook, as opposed to LinkedIn, which is like stamp-collecting, there are very few people on Facebook that are not friends.
So I have friends from such…I’m of ‘an age’ these days, I’m not at university any more. When you’re a teenager, and I think this is the problem, when you look at music in particular, music when you’re a teenager is very tribal. Intensely tribal. You like the music your friends like, you like the TV shows that your friends like, you don’t watch the outliers, or if you did, you don’t admit to them. And as you get older, you embrace multitudes, as it were. And so, I have friends who are Republicans. I am linked on Facebook to a serving member of parliament in the Liberal Party.
SIOBHAN: Actually, I am too!
RACHEL: There you go! So what does your social graph say about you? It’s not actually necessarily a reflection of your taste, it’s a reflection of your breadth, which is a different thing. So to some extent, AI is limited when we try and go through those kind of connections, we’re much better off looking at things like – and this is why I think The Echo nest is interesting – we’re much better off looking at things like tempo and timbre, and percussion and things that might be related. Things that are of the medium, not things that are of the network. And I think that’s a really interesting distinction to make, because so far, most of the AI around this space has been around harnessing the network effect to provide more data. Well, more data is not necessarily useful data. What you want is the right data. What are we measuring? You can see this in the current election, the political parries are armed with enormous amounts of data, in fact, they have more data than they can use. What is the right data?
SIOBHAN: How do they drill? How do they get those insights? How do they mine the right information?
RACHEL: Badly. They employ people who’ve had more practice. So again, it’s that thing at the moment where we’re at the stage of the technology where human beings are still phenomenally valuable, because they can tell you how to use those tools. At a certain point that will cease to be true, but right now it’s still totally true.
SIOBHAN: I do love this idea of humans and the unique experience, and this idea still desiring serendipity. When you talk to people around experiencing cities, there is still something quite delightful about putting away the iPhone and saying 'No, I’m going to get lost in this city today, I’m going to chose not to find where I am at every moment by looking at my iPhone and checking GoogleMaps. I’m just going to experience this place as it is.' Yet digital and cities, there’s something I think quite exciting about that. Where do you see the future around how we might experience cities in the future, and how digital might play a role in enhancing the experience?
RACHEL: Oh, that’s a really, really big question! I think that there’s two different pieces to that. One is that the way we currently experience cities, I think, is partly a hold-over to the 20th Century, and I have to be careful here not to be classist. Because I am one of the privileged few to live within 15 kilometres of the centre of Sydney. So when you and I talk about Sydney, we talk about a very specific thing. Somebody in Kellyville does not talk about the same city, right, it’s not the same place. We may all look at the Harbour Bridge and the icons and that kind of stuff, but in fact their experience of the city is very different from my experience of the city. So it’s very easy to say, for example, that the current car I have will be the last car I ever own; much harder for somebody in Kellyville to say that. So how does somebody in Kellyville experience the city in terms of digital, that’s a very different thing to how would I. So when I go to New York, obviously I have a fairly digital experience. I can network, I can do lots of things. I always love that app, it’s a little bit stale at the moment, but it’s the Phantom City, a couple of years back. You can go around, and one of the great things on New York City, of course, is that if you’re on global arming, there are so many unlocked WiFi networks, you can pick up free WiFi as you go along…
SIOBHAN: Well, even the public spaces have free WiFi!
RACHEL: Exactly. So, it basically, if you’re in a given space, it will tell you what might have been in that space. So if Robert Moses had planned the thing, you can use this thing to go through… we can talk about apps in a minute, because I think apps are fundamentally the wrong way to go about the process, but those kinds of things are great. Having said that, that’s not my experience of Sydney. My experience of Sydney is that I actually use my phone almost never, I don’t use my phone in Sydney very much at all. Because I’m old, and my life is less digital on a day-to-day, my life digitally is about the connections I have with people, not with the city, which is really interesting. It could be, it probably should be, if we were in, not a 20th Century Sydney, but a 21st Century Sydney, I would totally be more wired, because I’d be expecting the city to be smarter about the way it directed me to do things, or the way it intuited that I was going to do certain things, and that’s actually not that hard. In Sydney it would be quite easy to do, in a city like Mumbai, it would be almost impossible to do. But we are in a First World country, we have a good telecommunications network, and we have fairly robust, I say fairly, because this is NSW, but we have fairly robust governance.
SIOBHAN: That’s an interesting comment about how if I live in the inner part of the city I’m going to have a different experience to if I live out in the fringe suburbs. I wonder if there’s something here about density, and the density about when you live in the inner part of the city and you’ve got access to more sources of information and experiencing that digitally, but perhaps the people who would really benefit from experiencing that digital engagement would actually be people who do live out in the fringe, who have the challenge of the spatial separation from each other. Perhaps digital would provide a new way of connection, digital information networks that would actually overcome the lack of density, or the lack of access to infrastructure?
RACHEL: Absolutely, there’s no question about that. Look, it is the problem, I think, that those of us who live within a certain zone, we do know each other socially, and we connect through events and things like that, and so, we tend to do our thinking about the future from within this microcosm that we live in. Not the microcosm that other people live in. Kind of helps to have family who are poor! So, you know, the whole concept, at the moment, for example, GoGet is great. Why would I have a car? Why would I have a car when I live in Newtown, there are a dozen of these things available to me, just from a cost-benefit analysis it makes perfect economic sense…
SIOBHAN: We’re pretty close to making that choice!
RACHEL: Exactly! It makes perfect economic sense. Forget ecology, forget anything else, it makes perfect economic sense, why would I own a car, right? That’s not true, even if I live somewhere like Strathfield. It’s absolutely not true. And once I get further out than that, like Penrith, than it’s completely not true. And it will take a long time before the economies of scale work to make that true, because how do I make a car that I can walk to in a place like Emu Plains? How does that work? How does that scale? So it’s, when you’re doing this thinking, you have to kind of say, ‘Well, I’m not Rachel living in Newtown, I’m Rachel living in Emu Plains, what does that mean?’ So, I think, beware of boffins bearing treatises.
SIOBHAN: Rachel, I talk about cities, but I think it’s interesting that you studied architecture - me too. So you studied architecture, how did you get to where you are now from that background?
RACHEL: I was fortunate enough to realise that I have limited creative gifts, and I’m a very good organiser. And so one of the reasons I was terrible at architecture is that I had ideas, but I have no sense of space. I have no 3D conception of space. I have a good 2D translation, it does not translate well to the third dimension. And you either realise that very early, or you go on to become a very bad architect. And I fortunately, well, I was studying at RMIT, and the course at the time was run by hippies, and you actually had to find real clients and real sites. And I’ve always been interested, a bit Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, I got my first interest in the domestic space, not really the industry, the commercial. And so I found clients who wanted to build houses, and maybe this is a domestic impulse, I’m not sure, but that was the thing that really got me, because the sense of a building for me was about how you lived in a building. Not how you went to work in a building, but how you lived there. If I was more sophisticated – at this stage, I was like 18, or 19 – but my experience of building was about living in them. And I designed several houses that actually got built by accident, which was really horrible, because the last thing you want as a student is for someone to turn your not-very-sophisticated idea into something that’s actually made of bricks and mortar, and that they spent $100 000 on. It’s really horrible, because then you feel really terrible about the design mistakes in it! it’s great to have a design studio where you can sketch and draw and draw your mile-high tower, and nobody actually has to put foundations in the ground. If somebody actually goes and spends, or worse, actually mortgages themselves to the bank for 25 years for you to build, you stop really quickly. You stop really, really quickly, and I’m not going to tell you where any of the five buildings that I actually designed are, for a really obvious reason. Alright? Although I discovered on Facebook accidentally, about a year ago, bizarrely enough, one of the guys I’m linked to on Facebook has bought a house that I designed in 1981, and his wife loves it. Which is weird. It has been extended since I designed it, but she loves it!
SIOBHAN: I’m sure it’s got a new kitchen by now!
RACHEL: It’s totally got a new kitchen by now, and about five new rooms as well!
SIOBHAN: How did you make the leap from architecture to film, to technology, to…?
RACHEL: So I left architecture because I wasn’t very good at it. And for a while, I ran a chain of bookstores, and did a few other things, as we’ve kind of alluded to. And then, I had been trying to get into film school, from actually, since I was a teenager. I used to make Super-8 movies, when I was about 11, my godmother gave me a Super-8 camera, and I used to make real epics. My first one was a remake of Airport, with six kids and in Kombi Van with sheets draped over the windows, and a burning model aeroplane. It was a three-reeler. We had sound, it was all, it was big-time! It was expensive stuff back in those days. So I loved that, I really enjoyed that. I always loved making movies.
But again, I’m not the most creative person. So I kept on trying to get into what was then Swinburne Film School - I spent my teen years in Melbourne - and they wouldn’t let me in. Swinburne only ever admitted 16 people per year, and I was never one of the 16. So, anyway, oddly enough, in 1980 … a long time ago, I was working in a cafe, a very bad cafe, and a couple of the other people, everybody at the cafe, except for me, I was studying cinema at that stage, at La Trobe, because it was the closest I could get. After I left architecture I went to study a Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe and did Cinema Studies, which was nothing to do with making film, it’s all about semiotics. And I was working in this cafe, and everybody else there was either an actor, or one of them was a film student at Swinburne, and the rest of them were doctors, or student-doctors. And Swinburne still wouldn’t let me in, so I just started showing up. And of course, if you show up to a film school, and you’ve got time on your hands - I was working a part-time job, I was working in bars and restaurants to keep myself supported, but I had a lot of free time during the day. And the one thing that film crews really need is really organised people.
So I started off catering, then I started production-managing, and then producing all these student films. And I ended up producing more student films than anybody else at Swinburne had ever done. To the point where Brian Robertson, who was then the Dean, offered me an honorary degree, which I never actually took, which was to my detriment. Anyway, they all graduated, Swinburne had a policy where 16 started, and they failed 4 a year until the final year, so only 8 every graduated, and they all graduated, and I was good friends with all of them…
SIOBHAN: Where are they all now?
RACHEL: Oh, they’re all still… well some of them are in the industry, some of them aren’t, but they’re all pretty much still, four of them are my closest friends, it was a really really exceptional group of people. And a couple of years above and below are also friends. And they all graduated and they didn’t have jobs. And they were all very creative, but they didn’t have an organisational bone in their body. And the one thing I’m really good at, I guess, I’m very glib about it, but I’m very good at exploiting creative people. I’m not very creative myself, I’m very good at thoroughly exploiting creative people. Everybody needs somebody to steer the ship, and be the fall guy when things go bad. I’m that person. I’m the fall guy, I’m the one who insulated them from things going bad.
SIOBHAN: And that steers them in the right direction, and that’s...
RACHEL: Hopefully, yes. Hopefully. And that’s what I do in my day-to-day now, it translates to IT, it’s exactly the same process. I have a very very good, very small development team, and I shepherd them from the worst of the excesses of what we call 'SAD’, which is sales-actuated design. Which a product company should never be saddled with, but of course, a small company always is, you’re always doing things in search of the sale, a big customer comes along, a giant telco says we must have this feature, we’ll buy your product if it has this feature’ and it can totally destroy your company if you don’t have it. So that’s what I do, I shield them from making poor choices. And make them feel loved and wanted.
SIOBHAN: When you look back, how would you describe what it is that you do, or the thing that you created, or what legacy you’ve left with the people that you’ve worked with?
RACHEL: I’m big on empowerment. But I’m also big on, alright, Management 101. Whenever anybody starts working for me, there are two things that I always say. The first thing is that, even in front of a customer, if I say something stupid, you should tell me immediately that I’ve said just something stupid, right, it’s never about ego. You can make me look like an idiot, because in fact, I’ll say your job is to make me look like and idiot, that’s why you’re here, that’s why I brought them, they’ll stop me from giving you the wrong information. And that’s a really important thing, because you always want to first of all be straight with people, with your customers, but second of all, you’ve got to make the people that you’re working with feel like their opinion is valid.
Now, if they say something stupid, that’s kind of a career-ending decision (laughs) – sorry, that’s a bit brusque, it’s not really like that, I’m actually much gentler than that -–but they can contradict me, if they’re really sure that what I’ve just said is…I’d rather correct myself then, than correct myself later because my credibility is on the line. So it's really important for them to be honest.
The second thing is – actually, there’s three things. The second thing is, when I first started working in my first corporate job, a really smart woman, and this is the days before PC was everywhere, told me two words of advice for a woman in business. And in those days it was: never learn to type, and make really bad coffee. Right?
SIOBHAN: I could completely relate to that.
RACHEL: Well, of course, in those days, we didn’t have networks, I actually had a PA who did all my typing, so I didn’t need to type. And I am still, to this day, a hunt-and-peck. I’m 96 worlds per minute, but I’m hunt-and-peck, you don’t want to watch, it’s horrible. So that was good advice, and she was definitely bad about making really bad coffee, nobody ever asked me twice, like, ever. So that’s a really good piece of advice for any young woman in business.
And then the third thing, apart from that kind of stuff, is that I’m big on empowerment. I want you to learn to do what you are good at. And I mightn’t be able to pay you a great deal, but we’ll find you something that’s interesting. Because life is too short to do boring stuff.
SIOBHAN: Well, thank you Rachel. Life is sometimes too short, and I won’t ask you to make me a coffee, but thank you so much for sharing your insights with us tonight.
RACHEL: You’re very welcome, it was a pleasure.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright, Adrian Wiggins
This interview has been proudly sponsored by
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews