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A farewell?

Posted on Aug 09 2021 in News

Ten years ago, I hung up my web design career to figure out how to publish a magazine. A failed Kickstarter campaign and 24 issues later, and here we are today. Over the decade I paused Offscreen multiple times – for personal reasons, for a major rebrand or, most recently, a pandemic. These breaks offer me opportunities to experiment with side projects and recharge my creative batteries. The truth is, though, that I find it harder and harder to come back to and stay motivated about Offscreen.

The ‘tech world’ is the world I grew up in. It’s where I made lasting friendships and a rewarding career. It’s given me so much since I first ‘logged on’ in the late ’90s. But today it’s a world I struggle to relate to. I stopped getting excited about new startups, apps or gadgets. Even genuinely interesting projects leave me feeling blasé as they often come wrapped in a language and a business model I find off-putting.

If you’ve been reading Offscreen since its early days, you would have noticed a change in attitude. As I recently wrote in the introduction of my newsletter: “The naïve optimism for tech – the notion of ‘technology equals progress’ – has been replaced by a deep-felt scepticism about fixing social problems with technological solutions.” Seeing tech-billionaire space cowboys having a blast while the world burns and inequality explodes makes it difficult for me to not let that sense of scepticism turn into full-blown anti-tech cynicism. It’s certainly not the kind of energy that leads to hopeful tech stories.

That said, the magazine’s contrarian viewpoints – as told through the many voices speaking up against the Silicon Valley narrative – at the very least offer a way to make sense of it all. Still, it increasingly feels futile. I often ask myself: what’s the point of putting so much effort into a publication that preaches to the converted?

That’s not to say that I don’t value the amazing community that has grown around Offscreen. Hardly a week goes by without a heartfelt, constructive note from a reader arriving in my inbox. Offscreen managed to bring together some of the most considerate, smart, kind and generous people in the tech world – as contributors, interviewees, sponsors and, of course, readers. An utterly humbling experience and a rare source of hope for which I’ll be forever grateful. What it lacks in size, it makes up in enthusiasm and goodwill – the Offscreen community is strong enough to support another 24 issues. I know that. I just don’t know if I have it in me to make it happen.

Is this a farewell post? Honestly, I don’t know. As you can tell, my head isn’t in a space for more tech-focused magazine-making right now. It hasn’t been for a while. Though, it doesn’t really feel like the end of Offscreen yet. For now I will – once again – put Offscreen in a holding pattern.

When I think about Offscreen’s future, I feel a strong sense of responsibility. There is no future scenario in which I would consider selling ‘the brand’ to some media company. I wonder whether there is a like-minded editor out there interested in taking over my role as editor, while I stay on board to help with all the other tasks involved in keeping Offscreen afloat. If this is you or someone you know (most likely an Offscreen reader?), please get in touch.

There’s still a good chance that in a few months I’m back, hungry for more Offscreen. Right now, I’m in the lucky position to just about cover my living expenses by publishing Dense Discovery which has been a surprising source of motivation and, frankly, a welcome outlet for some of my world-weariness of late.

For now, dear readers, sponsors and supporters: thank you! I’ll be keeping subscribers abreast of any updates via email, as usual. (For those who have recently subscribed and thereby pre-purchased the next issue: rest assured that your purchase will be refunded if indeed Offscreen issue 25 does not see the light of day.)

With much love and appreciation,

Kai Brach
(Publisher/Editor)

Just launched: Issue 24

Posted on May 09 2021 in News

After a lengthy, involuntary COVID pause, we’re excited to release Offscreen Issue 24 today! As usual, first some house-keeping: subscriber copies are being sent out starting Wednesday morning CET and we’ll do another big round of shipments next Monday! If you’re not a subscriber, go ahead and order your copy now to be part of one of our first shipments.

International shipping in COVID times is still very much a mixed bag. There will be some delays, especially with shipments going outside the EU. We appreciate your patience!

In issue 24 we touch on a lot of timely, meaty topics:

  • Ali Alkhatib
    The expert on human-computer interaction explains why Big Tech’s algorithms are inherently unjust and offers some refreshingly simple perspectives on how to improve tech.
  • Jutta Treviranus
    It was an absolute delight to hear Jutta speak about her immense body of work in the field of Inclusive Design and how our default notion of ‘designing for the majority’ makes all of us more vulnerable.
  • Xiaowei Wang
    A fascinating deep-dive into Chinese (internet) culture and the surprising connections between rural China and Western tech hubs like Silicon Valley.
  • Jillian C. York
    The activist and writer highlights the many free speech challenges we face as a society deeply entangled in a system of surveillance capitalism.

As usual, we relied on the generous support by our sponsors to make this issue happen: DNSimple, Bakken & Bæck, MAD, MetaLab, SiteGround, and Dovetail. And of course, a big ‘thank you’ to all Patrons of this issue.

Shipping & price changes

The disruptions of COVID have not just made shipping times harder to predict, it also led to a range of changes in shipping rates by postal services around the world. Sadly, we were informed by our shipper last year that the cost of sending magazines to the US has (in some cases) more than doubled! Prices for shipments going to other countries outside the EU have also increased.

Since shipping is included in the price of the magazine, it means our profit margin decreased substantially for the majority of our sales since our last issue. Offscreen is already a fairly pricy publication – too pricy to reach readers from certain parts of the world – and so we’re very cognisant of the fact that increasing the price will make the publication less accessible.

While the subscription price remains the same for now, we did increase the non-subscriber price by $2 to now $22 in order to at least compensate for some of the additional costs. We’ll keep a close eye on our shipping costs with this issue, but we might not be able to avoid a small price increase for all readers in the future.

Needless to say, your ongoing support means a lot!

View the details of issue 24 here →

Enjoy these shots of issue 24 being produced at our printer in Berlin:

Stranger Things

Posted on Jan 11 2021 in Essays

This essay by Molly Flatt first appeared in Offscreen Issue 20. You can buy a copy here.

Of the 185 books Bill Gates has recommended on his blog over the past eight years, only 12 are novels. During Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘year of books’ in 2015, when he crunched through twenty-three worthy tomes, works of fiction cropped up only three times.

I’ve made it something of a personal project to ask the tech people I meet in my day job to name-check authors they love. Peddlers of neuroscience, behavioural economics, and organisational theory feature highly. Peddlers of make-believe do not. When I ask them why they read so little fiction, their answer boils down to the same question: why would anyone waste time on made-up stuff when there’s so much real stuff to learn about the world?

Life is indeed stranger than fiction, as recent global events have proven all too well. It can feel indulgent, if not irresponsible, to spend my evenings romping through a novel about glass-blowers in fifteenth-century Venice when there are so many urgent present-day technological developments and political dilemmas to understand and have opinions on.

I think we can all agree that what the people creating new technology need more of right now is the ability to step into the shoes of others who don’t think, look, or live like them. I wonder what would happen if tech folk spent less time skimming trend reports and explainer journalism and more time truly trying to understand the perspectives of others. Might we finally see more diverse and nuanced products and platforms emerge?

Science tells us that this is one area in which make-believe can actually help. Several studies have proven the link between fiction and empathy. Probably the best known, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano in 2013, found that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions. ‘What great writers do is to turn you into the writer,’ Kidd explained. ‘In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.’ Perhaps what we need to fill the empathy gap is imagination, not information.

In my own experience, fiction is also incredibly effective in helping people pay attention to the world. This may sound contradictory – after all, you’re not out there smelling roses if you’ve got your nose stuck in a book. But the best writers have a way of making you consider the mundane details of everyday existence with fresh eyes. And when you consider that many of our smartest startups have offered a new approach to prosaic things we used to take for granted (taxis, dinners, periods), you start to see how this sort of defamiliarisation might be the ultimate disruptor’s gift.

Of course, some of the techies I talk to do love novels. But their reading seems heavily, if not exclusively, skewed towards science fiction – just like every one of Gates’ and Zuck’s fiction picks. I’m also a massive fan of that genre. In fact, I’ve just published a novel set in London’s startup scene that has been described as ‘stealth sci-fi’, and a short story best explained as ‘near-future sleep-science meets Macbeth’. Many of our current technologies and ideologies were vividly predicted by writers such as George Orwell and William Gibson, and their works can indeed act as a potent gateway drug for lapsed fiction readers working in tech.

However, we all know that true creativity springs from unexpected connections. So if innovators really want to create something world-changing, they might want to aim for a more varied fictional diet. That fifteenth-century glass-blowing novel I mentioned? It’s teaching me deep lessons about the perennial preoccupations of Silicon Valley: hierarchy, belief, ethics, power. The best crime novels can offer a rigorous neural workout, exercising our brains’ pattern-recognition abilities. Even romantic beach reads can provide an insightful window onto a particular generation’s aspirations and anxieties.

Perhaps there’s a gender issue at play here too. Fiction is read by more women than men, and as we all know, in the tech industry, men predominate. But to dismiss novels, poems, and short stories as ‘sentimental’ or ‘irrational’ is surely to miss the point. Sentiment is the source code of humanity. Irrational instinct has more influence over our behaviour than cold hard logic. And fiction unscrews the circuit board of being, so if you want to hack the system, I reckon there’s no better place to start.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Taking a COVID break

Posted on Oct 22 2020 in News

Just a quick note to let you know that the next issue of Offscreen will be delayed until international logistics has returned to some form of normality.

While most shipments still get through at the moment, there are long delays in some countries. Sending a new issue to 1000+ readers around the world with that much uncertainty makes little sense. So I’ve decided to pause the publication until there is a light at the end of the COVID tunnel.

In the meantime, our online shop remains open and we fulfil orders as usual (much appreciated!) – just expect some COVID-related shipping delays.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out via email.

Issue 23 Editor’s Note

Posted on Jul 11 2020 in Thoughts

This is the editor’s note of the recently released issue 23. By Kai Brach

In the early days of this pandemic, a wave of appreciation for the internet washed over us. Confined to our homes, we figured out how to use our digital tools in earnest – to check in on each other, to stay informed, to work and play together. Some heralded it as the internet that we were supposed to get: one that elicits connection, not conflict.

During the weeks that followed, the internet morphed into an existential lifeline for many. With no access to public physical spaces, we found ourselves relying on private virtual spaces. Suddenly all of our interactions and transactions occurred on the backbone of just a handful of privatised services. A dream come true for Big Tech.

Social isolation perfectly complements Silicon Valley’s business model of ‘frictionless convenience’. Endless entertainment, news, shopping, and socialising, all without having to navigate the insanitary physical world – a risk we outsource to low-income gig workers. Eliminating reasons to go outside was already a winning strategy, but even the most bullish growth hackers couldn’t foresee the boon from a society in quarantine.

In panic mode, our governments, too, have turned to tech solutionism. In what writer Naomi Klein calls the ‘Screen New Deal’, hastily signed public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection promise to bring us out of isolation and into a ‘smart’ future, one where our health records and location data could be blurred into our shopping personas and search profiles.

I know this sounds very cynical. There is no denying that technology is helping us get through this. But anyone who benefits from this tidal wave of fear and uncertainty deserves intense scrutiny. Big Tech’s relentless drive to expand their influence, often at the cost of smaller competitors and our public institutions, has just accelerated. On the back of this global health crisis, tech monopolies don’t just see a business opportunity, but a chance for redemption: when public systems falter, Big Tech is here to save the day. So goes their argument.

This virus offers us a glimpse into a post-spatial future in which we rely on a few conglomerates to navigate a largely privatised, digitised world. The path to a different, more human future depends in no small part upon technologists willing to defend and promote the benefit of the public over that of the private – designers and developers who see the internet as a public utility, not as a vector for disaster capitalism. Now more than ever, as Bruce Schneier eloquently argues in this issue, we need ‘public interest technologists’ who can help revitalise and strengthen our public institutions for the many challenges of the twenty-first century.