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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.

Just launched: Issue 23

Posted on Jul 01 2020 in News

Today we’re releasing Offscreen Issue 23! As usual, first some house-keeping: subscriber copies are being sent out later this week 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.

Please note that due to COVID-19 many shipments, especially those going outside the EU, will take longer to arrive!

In issue 23 we share thought-provoking conversations with:

  • Rachel Botsman
    As an expert on trust in the digital age, Rachel highlights the precarity of navigating today’s low-trust environments – on- and offline.
  • Bruce Schneier
    The leading expert on cyber security offers a stern warning of the fragility of our interconnectedness and calls on a new generation of public interest technologists to step up.
  • Seth Godin
    We pick the brain of author, marketer, and entrepreneur Seth Godin about his latest thoughts on digital marketing ethics and nurturing an online audience.
  • Genevieve Bell
    The esteemed professor and anthropologist examines our human-computer relationships and raises important questions about our role in an AI-driven future.

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

Addressing Offscreen’s diversity problem

As a publisher guided by strong ethics on inclusivity, I recognise that I have failed to live up to my own standards. While I have taken steps to diversify our overall list of contributors in recent years, the people we interview have still been overwhelmingly white, with this issue featuring an all-white interviewee line-up.

As I described in my newsletter (see issues 90 and 91), it took recent events in the US to make me realise how much I have neglected to truly educate myself about racism. Sadly, it has taken twenty-three issues of Offscreen for me to come to see how my shortcomings as a publisher have contributed to systemic and institutionalised racism in our world.

As a concrete, immediate step, I will donate 10% of net sales of issue 23 to The National Justice Project, an Australian non-profit that takes strategic legal action to advance social justice, with a focus on First Nations communities and asylum seekers. I have already made a donation of $1,712 based on sales of issue 23 to Offscreen subscribers (receipt here). I will publish another update later this year with the amount of additional donations made.

As I now try, like so very many people – including countless colleagues, friends, and Offscreen readers around the world – to more fully educate myself about racism through the many resources and tools available, I’d like to make a public commitment to do better: there will never be another issue of Offscreen with an all-white interview line-up.

I’m grateful to the Black voices who so clearly and powerfully demand that we learn how much we have been part of the problem. It is well past the time for us to assume our moral responsibility to take definitive action to combat the racism that is so firmly embedded in our societies and cultures.

But this is not just about adding people of colour to our list of interviewees. Diversifying Offscreen also means going beyond our Western-centric view of tech and giving voice to cultures that don’t share the Silicon Valley worldview. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Ijeoma Oluo’s book and – more specifically relevant to tech – from this interview with her:

‘The way in which tech is utilized in Nigeria is completely different than the way it’s utilized here. In Nigeria it’s about utility first and foremost. And about bringing people together face to face, to make African businesses run more smoothly, to help undo legacies of colonialism that have taken away physical infrastructure. To build that infrastructure online so that it can exist somewhere... Look at what it looks like when you’re creating the internet in a society that values the group over the individual. What does the internet look like then? Because it’s not the dream of extreme independence in Nigeria, that’s not what the internet’s built for, that’s not a goal, that’s not what you want for your kids or your family, that’s not what you set out for. So then, what does the internet look like when you have a different social structure? When you think that maybe it isn’t the idea that we’re all here pulling ourselves by our bootstraps, maybe we’re pulling our communities up, what does it look like then...?’

To reiterate my commitment: there won’t be another issue of Offscreen unless our interviews include more voices from underrepresented groups, and in particular from people of colour.

I also want to reaffirm here what I said in my newsletter: public pledges that respond to current events change little if there is no sustained effort to continue to educate ourselves and others on the issue of racism. I’m committed to doing just that through my work as the publisher of Offscreen and Dense Discovery, now and in the future.

As always, my inbox is open for your comments and suggestions.

Our first fully illustrated issue

As a magazine about the human side of technology, the photography in Offscreen has always played an important role in helping our contributors come to life for our readers. Getting a glimpse of another person in their home or work environment is a big part of what helps us relate and connect to them.

Just as I started working on this issue, the world went into pandemic lockdown. With self-isolation and social distancing becoming the new reality, commissioning one-on-one photoshoots was suddenly out of the question. Not knowing how long these restrictions would be in place, I had two options: either delay the release of this issue indefinitely, or find a solution that didn’t require photography. So I began to talk to our go-to illustrator, Agnes Lee, to try to imagine what a fully illustrated issue of Offscreen could look like.

Working from existing photography sourced from this issue’s contributors, Agnes produced the fifty-six illustrations spread throughout this issue in the span of a few short weeks. Her illustration style beautifully captures the feel and spirit of the original photos, while adding a wonderful playfulness and that sense of liveliness unique to drawings done by hand. I’m immensely grateful for Agnes’ work, and I hope you enjoy this unusual-looking issue of Offscreen – made in unusual times.

View the details of issue 23 here →

Letter to the editor

Posted on Feb 29 2020 in Letters

Hi Kai,

I wanted to send a note of thanks for the work you’ve created and shared. I’ve sticky-noted so many things in my Offscreen issues over the years. 🙂

Personally, the last year has been filled with a lot of questions and thinking about life decisions. I decided to quit my job near the end of 2019 mainly to take a break from the ASAP-ness and noise of the tech world, and now I’m in that transitional stage of looking for a new team to work alongside. Offscreen’s content is something I go back to often when thinking about my next steps.

When I was getting into the web development world in a professional sense (2015), I remember seeing ‘People Behind Bits and Pixels’ on the cover. Then Issue 16’s cover had ‘The human side of technology’ on it. There was always a focus on people and their experiences. It was a nice contrast to some of the companies I came across. When it was time to choose my first employer, I knew I wanted to be part of a company whose team valued and work exemplified traits like kindness, empathy, connection and communication. Reading the stories within Offscreen was part of that decision.

I think it’s safe to say that recently sometimes it feels quite heavy, globally. The last few issues have felt charged with a certain energy. A combination of a call to action, a call of warning, a call of urgency, a call to slow down, etc. They’re a good reminder that there are definitely things we need to change in not just tech, but as a collective society. They’re also a lovely reminder of hope for the future, and things that people have done/are doing to move the needle.

There’s a few folks I donate to/‘patronize’ on a regular basis. Every once in a while I take some time to think about why I’m supporting these people to make sure I’m allocating resources to causes I still believe in, but I never really have to think about why I’m an Offscreen Patron. It’s an automatic ‘continue to support’. I always know that I’m supporting quality – especially of the calibre and bent that we need more of at this time.

Thanks again + hope you’re well,
Emily

Just launched: Issue 22

Posted on Dec 16 2019 in News

Today we’re launching Offscreen Issue 22! Subscriber copies are being sent out today and we’ll do another round of shipments this Thursday, Dec 19th! If you are not a subscriber, make sure you place an order by Wednesday so that we can get your copy into the mail before the holiday break!

In this issue we share thought-provoking conversations with:

  • Cennydd Bowles
    The designer and ethicist with a strong call for a new ethical awakening in tech and design, led by individual and collective action.
  • Jenny Odell
    The artist and educator provides a less capitalistic perspective on productivity, one that values observation, care, and maintenance.
  • Paul Ford
    The author, programmer, and CEO talks about his journey from idealist to realist, critically examining the power dynamics that shape our current understanding of ‘technological progress’.
  • Anab Jain
    The designer, futurist, and film-maker creates visceral experiences to showcase what our shared futures may look like.

As always, we relied on the generous support by our sponsors to make this issue happen: DuckDuckGo, Harvest, MetaLab, Hover, SiteGround, and Postmark. And of course, a big ‘thank you’ to all Patrons of this issue.

Editor’s Note of Issue 22

As a sneak peek, here’s this issue’s editor’s note:

If you practiced digital design in the early 2000s, you may recall fighting for a seat at the table where business decisions were made. ‘Take design more seriously!’ was a common plea from designers at a time when our discipline’s contribution was often seen as superficial – a nice-to-have.

Two decades later, design has spread its wings. Designers are no longer just polishing up interfaces – we conduct research, study behaviour, and employ psychology. We put the desires and emotions of users at the centre of everything we do to make products more captivating, more efficient, and immensely profitable. Design is big business.

Actually, design is now so deeply intertwined with business goals that in many cases it’s become nothing but a slave to perpetual growth-market dynamics, dismissing any idea that doesn’t involve ‘solving customer problems’. With such a narrow-minded focus on one outcome – customer happiness – designers have turned into one-dimensional problem solvers who ignore possible consequences for anyone or anything else other than the customer. The business of design has made us oblivious to the complexities of the world. We now relentlessly prioritise individual needs over those of our communities, our societies, and our planet.

The looming threat of environmental and societal breakdown confronts us with some difficult questions: can we still justify putting the needs of humans at the centre of solving problems when the solutions we come up with are incompatible with a sustainable future? Is it time to move beyond our unidimensional thinking and encourage a new design philosophy that considers not just the best outcome for humanity but accounts for our interdependence with all life on earth? Does design need to break free from the shackles of efficiency and compliance, and strive for more speculative, provocative solutions – many of which may clash with the capitalistic conventions of today?

While the interviews in this issue may not provide clear-cut answers to these urgent questions, I hope our conversations will inspire you to think more deeply about the harms of the user-centred design thinking that is so pervasive in our industry. I hope they will help plant seeds for a more regenerative, planet-centric design approach. Because if there has ever been a time to take design more seriously, that time is now.

– Kai

View the details of issue 22 here →

Blind Spot Protector

Posted on Dec 02 2019 in Essays

This essay by Lisa Sanchez first appeared in Offscreen Issue 17.

I’m standing in the pristine lobby of a tech company. Elevator bells are dinging, up and down. Young, beautiful people slip past me on either side, clutching silver MacBooks. My heart is racing, though it shouldn’t be. I’m the interviewer, not the candidate! Still, I get nervous every time, no matter which side of the table I’m on. I have no idea what my candidate looks like, but I find him in the small crowd eventually. After confirming his name, I extend my slightly sweaty hand.

“Hi! I’m Lisa,” I say, willing myself to exude confidence. I'm reminded of recent feedback: Speak up! Look confident!

“Who?” he asks, bewildered.

“Lisa,” I say, as my sad little tent of internal confidence collapses.

“Who am I meeting with?” he says.

“Me?”

“I mean the hiring manager.”

“That’s me.” My voice contracts to a squeak. Fortunately the lobby crowd has dispersed.

“How’d you get that job?” he asks. He is older and taller than me, with a salt and pepper beard. His voice booms from above.

I hear my response like an echo from far away. Something about an acquisition. It sounds like an apology. Then I guide him toward the café, offer him something to drink, and politely conduct our interview. Part way through, I have to remind myself that I am not the one who’s supposed to be proving myself in this conversation.

His voice is one among many others that regularly question my presence, at work and in the world. I’m often asked about my accent (though I’m sure I don’t have one), my olive skin, and my last name. To the question where I’m from, ‘Pennsylvania’ rarely suffices as an answer. I’ve been informed, usually indirectly or playfully, that my apparent age, quiet voice, small stature, femininity, and curly hair do not add up to the term ‘boss’.

Even years later, I’m still reflecting on his question. Stripped of its condescending tone, it’s a valid question, and one I'm asking myself: how did I get here, and why does it matter that I am? The answer begins with how far I had to come to get here.

I grew up in a rust belt town of three thousand in Pennsylvania, born to one white parent, one Puerto Rican. My dad did seasonal field work, planting trees and pruning vines. Later he worked in manufacturing. I spent most of my life feeling different and trying to make it seem like I wasn’t – among peers with more privilege, among friends with ‘matching’ parents, and starting in graduate school, mostly among men. It wasn’t until recently that I began to embrace my otherness as a competitive advantage. I don’t just look different, I am different. I see things differently than the majority of my peers in technology, and that different perspective has remarkable value.

Sometimes I think of myself as a blind spot detector. It’s an exhausting role to play, but I can hear one more way in which a turn of phrase may be interpreted, see one more possibility for how a team might proceed, add one more lens through which to evaluate a candidate for a job.

Did you know that female drivers are 47% more likely to die in a car accident? According to a study by the University of Virginia, this is partly due to the fact that vehicle safety features are largely designed for and tested on male bodies. It’s no coincidence that women hold only about a quarter of the automotive jobs in the US, and make up less than 17% of the industry’s leadership. The car industry badly needs more blind spot detectors.

The percentage of women in technology is similar. Our efforts to improve diversity in this industry are often focused on incremental change. One more woman at the table or one more percentage point of people of colour in technical roles is considered a win. We don’t approach our product or business objectives in such an anæmic way. When it comes to diversity, what would radical transformation look like?

How might we create workplaces filled with so many different kinds of people that there would be no ‘type’ – either in particular roles, or in the company as a whole? How might we create workplaces where there is no qualified person who ‘doesn’t belong’? What possibilities might we unlock if all members of a team were remarkably different from one another? A team like that would not require a blind spot detector: it would already be equipped with powerful 360-degree vision.

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