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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.

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,