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Essays

Human Scale

Posted on Aug 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Michael Honey first appeared in Offscreen Issue 7 (now sold out).

“Is there anything you like to ask us?” A typical question you hear at the end of most job interviews.

“I am a bit worried,” I said, “about the whole idea of relentlessly driving down supplier costs just so that people on the internet can buy marginally cheaper consumer goods.”

Silence.

I’d like to think that my question rocked him to his core, made him reconsider his life up to this point, caused him to abandon principles he never knew he held. In reality, he was probably making a this-guy-is-an-idiot face to his coworkers on the other end of the line.

“Well, if you feel that way, our organisation might not be a good fit for you.” He hung up and it was over.

I don’t know what I was thinking. If I felt that way, why did I talk to them in the first place? Because it’s always worth talking. Because they were interested. Because it’s nice to feel wanted.

As an independent web guy I often wondered what it would be like to be hired by a giant corporation. I would enjoy the security that comes with money and a big company job. I know from experience that years of worrying about being able to pay the bills take their toll. But I would also be wondering what I could have built instead, had I gone my own way.

If I took that role I’d disappear for a year or two, and out the other end would come a better login screen, a cleaner list view, an improved signup form – and a big paycheck. Those are nice to have but at what cost? The usual pitch that a big company makes is that they have the resources for profound impact on a large scale. Often though, that impact is spread out over millions of users, and it’s in the service of giving corporate investors better capital returns.

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism leveled at many new ideas. It’s true, some things don’t scale to millions of users. No venture capitalist throws their money at an idea that makes just a decent living for a small team. You need explosive growth to reach a worldwide market. But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming bigger? That local restaurant you love can’t scale to millions of users. Do you really want your favourite indie band to aspire to stadium-level fame? People get cheaper books, and an independent bookseller closes its doors to make way for a giant warehouse full of underpaid people working ten-hour shifts. You order your groceries online, but you’ll never bump into your neighbours at the local shop. Is this progress?

I’m aware of the disconnect between decrying large enterprise and, say, owning an iPhone. Some things, good things, are unbuildable without a critical mass – thousands of builders and millions of users. Acknowledging that, though, isn’t it also true that most things get worse as they get bigger? Humans are good at family, middling at community, dysfunctional as nations, and self-destructive as a planet. What doesn’t scale is our ability to relate to each other as human beings instead of target markets, as eyeballs to monetise.

I love technology and the internet and the wonders that it brings. I, too, build it for a living. But I don’t need another social network or more ways to share photos or further technological assistance for catching up with friends. What if we stopped building new things for a while, and tried to make what we have better?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go huge, to build something for millions, to double in size every few months, to scramble for market share – and then to try and find a way to pay for it all by putting ads on it. Maybe some day it’ll happen.

If I’m honest with myself, I probably would have taken that job had they offered it to me. I would have spent a couple of years generating shareholder value. I would have gained some management experience, a familiarity with Powerpoint, and some inexpensive consumer goods. But instead, I’m now working with a small team of people on human-scale projects for clients I respect.

I’m glad I asked that question.

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

Erased Experts

Posted on Jul 26 2017 in Essays

This essay by Sabrina Majeed first appeared in Offscreen Issue 11 (now sold out).

We have always been here.

Lurking in the shadows of your forums, passing silent judgment on your conversations, even joining in if we felt compelled to do so. You didn’t even realise it was us you were talking to, us you were so embroiled in heated debate with. We became good at disguising ourselves, donning ambiguous avatars and cryptic display names, basking in the freedom offered by anonymity. We congregated as our true selves in corners of the internet that you didn’t even know existed. Long before Pinterest and Tumblr became the designated spaces that you – you, with your anxious need to categorise and contain — would relegate us to. We were there.

You didn’t really think you were the only ones who could spend hours in the solace of a dark room, illuminated only by the comforting glow of a screen, did you? Softly clacking away at a keyboard, leery of waking up a family who just couldn’t comprehend why you needed to be online at four in the morning.

For a young girl growing up online, the internet was a source of sexual awakening. There was the early solicitation for age, sex, and location, and the late-night instant messaging marathons with internet boyfriends. Whether I was perusing the female-dominated, libertine world of fan fiction, or curiously poking my head into a more visceral, male-oriented landscape, I always kept my pointer carefully positioned over an exonerating browser tab, ready to pull the trigger if I heard footsteps approaching my room.

The web does not discriminate in its seduction. Its siren call is a whisper of white noise with the resounding wail of a dial tone. It echoed in my ears when I was at school, at the mall, with friends, always beckoning, and insatiable in its demands for my time and attention.

Yes, we were there too! Furiously scrolling and clicking in an attempt to escape the banalities of adolescent life. But few noticed. We were erased. Just as we were erased from the pages of history, like our contributions to society and our participation in the wars that toppled dynasties and drew new lines in the sand.

Now you purport to ‘make room’ for us on an internet you’ve claimed as your territory, as if it hasn’t been just as much ours all along. The rise of social media holds us accountable to our true identities, and anonymity is no longer a guarantee. The threat of exploitation is all too common, and voicing one’s opinion in a public sphere always bears a certain amount of risk. We now have to fight to feel welcome in the very spaces we’ve always occupied. It’s retrograde.

Even those few sites where femininity is allowed to visibly flourish, the spaces that dare to cater to women’s interests are dismissed as frivolous and unsubstantial. Should those strongholds fall to their founders’ desperate need for male validation, then perhaps we will become digital nomads once more. In the past our attention was fleeting and we were loath to tie ourselves down, to nest. New plat- forms popped up like frontiers itching to be explored, and we happily planted our flag.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that Bill Gates had access to the early computers during his childhood and college years. Gladwell looks back on those early interactions with technology as foreshadowing for Gates’ later success. Twelve-year-old Mark Zuckerberg had ZuckNet, a messaging program built with Atari BASIC. It was arcade games for Elon Musk.

Where do I hear about the woman who found her calling after building custom Livejournal layouts, who learned HTML so she could spruce up her Neopets shop? Or about the designer who can trace her success back to posting desktop wallpaper art on DeviantArt and GaiaOnline?

We need to start talking about them. We need to understand and celebrate the origin stories of women in technology just as much as those of men, and make those stories part of our industry’s cultural lore. Not only for the sake of looking forward and inspiring the next generation of creators, but to be able to look back and be reminded that this is our domain too. We are experts, CEOs, and role models. You can’t make room for us, because we’ve always been here.

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

The Disaster Factory

Posted on Jul 12 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Knauss first appeared in Offscreen Issue 8 (now sold out).

I’m a programmer, and therefore live in a world of worst-case scenarios. Networks fail, hard drives crash, and those troublesome human beings persist in disgorging all sorts of nonsense into every interface my software has. Computers are incredibly complex and delicate systems, and they fail in dramatic and unexpected ways, without warning, every day.

No, no, I’m fine. My eye twitches like that all the time.

In an environment as insanely chaotic as our modern technological infrastructure – made up of the most advanced science we have, and often held together with chewing gum and good intentions – the only rational response is a deep and abiding paranoia. Experience has taught me to see my software as a writhing mass of Achilles’ heels, a horrific Shoggoth, every line of code a potential disaster. And so I wrap each in a thick, protective layer of negative assumptions, so that when things do go wrong – and they will – the program can (best case) recover quickly or (worst case) not actually kill anyone.

I wish I was exaggerating. Twenty years ago, a few weeks into my first professional programming job, I read a story about the software in a certain type of X-ray machine. An overflow bug had been found, and the upshot was that the machine had been accidentally mega-dosing every 256th person it scanned, effectively giving them cancer. Paranoia doesn’t seem response enough.

By the way, don’t mention this at parties. People tend to look concerned and then sidle away. And never follow up with the story about the rocket that exploded because of a misplaced semicolon.

But programmers – engineers of all stripes – can’t afford to look away. They need a relentlessly negative outlook, to come up with the most horrific thing imaginable, add contingencies to prevent it, and then invent something even worse. It’s what keeps our mechanised world ticking along, what keeps most catastrophic failures safely theoretical and leaves computers merely frustrating instead of murderous. While most have heard of Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” – only the nerds know Finagle’s corollary: “...at the worst possible moment.”

Hug a coder, folks. They could use it. Because what the software industry calls ‘best practice’, psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’, and it’s awfully hard to spend ten hours a day worrying about disaster and not have the aptitude you develop for it follow you home, like sentient toxic sludge from a grade-B monster movie. It can infect your relationships, your personality, your real life.

For me, it took years to even see that it was happening. Unanswered phone calls became car accidents. Marital tiffs became grounds for divorce. Heavy traffic became late arrivals became missed opportunities became career stagnation became destitution. Anxiety at the omnipresent but-what-ifs grew until the entire world was shadowed by the spectre of inevitable but unrealised doom. The true pleasures of the real world – serendipity, trust, joy, love – became suspect, not to be believed, traps waiting to be sprung.

But the realisation that I was unconsciously extrapolating to the worst-case scenario in my personal life has helped me enormously. Anxiety defeats the rational mind by preventing a sensible examination of itself; it panics you into action at the expense of introspection and self-assessment. But assessment – the quiet, sensible consideration of risks, outcomes, costs, benefits – is vital to a well-lived life. Reward comes from risk, and a life without risk is a life spent under the bed, cowering.

It’s well-worn common sense that programmers need a break from the keyboard every once in a while. They should be standing and stretching and refocusing their eyes. They should get regular exercise and eat right. They should probably not have the local pizza place on speed-dial.

But programmers should also take a break from programming, from the mindset it inspires and the rationale it requires. Stepping away from the machine is both a physical and mental act. Seeing the world afresh, with clear and unswayed eyes, is as important and rejuvenative as a long walk or a good night’s sleep. Just as programming requires the world to be viewed as endlessly dangerous, perpetually teetering on chaos, actually living in it often calls for the exact opposite.

Because the world is a beautiful place, your friends and family love you, and the warm sun in the sky isn’t going to go nova anytime soon. Probably.

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

Save Yourself

Posted on Jul 05 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Hoy first appeared in Offscreen Issue 10 (now sold out).

Not too long ago, while sitting in my office, I took off my glasses, put my head in my hands, and cried. It was the culmination of the toughest year of my working life, and more specifically, of my fifteen years of running a company. As I squinted into my dark, brackish palms, I had visions of laughing with my co-workers over a drink after sales pitches, celebrating project launches, and laying carpet squares, prepping our beautiful new office. It all came rushing back in a Vaseline-lensed retrospective.

If you invest a lot of time in something you’re passionate about, it becomes a part of you. For me, that passion happens to be running a company. And after a while, you have no longer a say in the matter. Whether you’re cutting grass, driving, or sleeping, you’re thinking about just one thing. It’s an involuntary response, like breathing. Or recoiling when you see Guy Fieri.

Back then I knew I had to start my own company, because I was so often disappointed by other people I worked for. They didn’t take time to get to know you. They were short-tempered. They didn’t participate in the business anymore. And while I sensed they once inspired people, I saw little evidence of it myself. They appeared beaten down.

So I decided to create the company I longed to work for. In the beginning, it was just a small group, and it felt like family. We had fun, and things felt effortless. I sold the work, managed projects, and designed websites. We were swamped with opportunities, so much so that we had the luxury of selecting the clients we wanted. There was almost no overhead, and the projects paid well. The industry was still blossoming, and while we weren’t a big fish, we were one of only a few in our pond.

At one point, the opportunist in me realised that hiring more people would enable us to take on more work. Soon, we were ten, then fifteen. People would ask me, “How many people do you want to grow to?” and I’d respond, “No more than twenty, that’s for sure.” In 2011, we had a headcount of twenty-four. A merger and an additional business partner later, we’ve added ten people on top of that. Before I knew what hit me, we had multiple layers of management, closed door strategy meetings, and multiple project teams. We relied on messaging systems to communicate instead of speaking to one another face-to-face. It led to unconstructive backchannel communications, conflicting roles and responsibilities, and people not taking vested interests in one another – myself included. A young employee once came up to me and said, “I had no idea you were once a web designer. I just saw it on your LinkedIn profile.” Of course he didn’t. It was maybe the third conversation we’d had, and he’d been with the company for almost a year.

While all this was happening, the web design field was changing dramatically. Things were getting crowded. We found ourselves competing against our own alumni. Sales cycles started to take forever, clients pulled budgets, and contracts became more restrictive. You can see where this is headed. Lots of employees, not a lot of work. The math makes your next decision for you.

My teary-eyed moment came shortly before I finally accepted the fact that everything I loved about those early days was gone. And several of my long-time colleagues have since echoed the same. The camaraderie, the ability to anticipate each others’ every move, even the trust – it all felt like a chore to encourage and maintain.

I have two young boys. When I see them every day, they look the same, and they don’t act very differently than the day before. But when I go away for a week and come back, they look so grown up. They say things I’ve never heard them say. Somehow, running a business feels the same way. My biggest challenge has been focusing on what’s right in front of me. To adapt with it, but to also appreciate it.

Today, our company is smaller. I’ve experienced what growth for growth’s sake is, and for me, it’s an unfulfilled prophecy. More people to enable more work didn’t make things better. And I was starting to show some of the negative traits of bosses I’d had in the past, the very people I tried to get away from.

The lesson I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t be afraid to stick with what feels right. The passion you bring to the table is directly dependent upon your level of happiness. If it’s all a chore, you have to figure out why. You may have even contributed to it. Own up to it. Then save yourself.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

The Grip of Now

Posted on Jul 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Ben Callahan first appeared in Offscreen Issue 12 (now sold out).

I recently got a chance to visit the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Most people know it as a Gothic church covered in gargoyles, the home of Quasimodo, or – for the architecture buffs out there – one of the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. While all of these tidbits of information are fascinating, what stuck with me was the history of its construction: it was started in 1163, and completed in 1345. It took almost 200 years to build, and it’s still standing 700 years later. Between five and nine builders are credited with the construction; most of them died before its completion.

What an odd thing, to commit your life to something you know you’ll never see finished. No addiction to the rush of shipping to keep you going, only solidarity with those working alongside you and the vision of something greater than yourself.

In the ’30s, the Empire State Building took just over a year to build. The Willis Tower in Chicago took three. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took a ‘seemingly endless’ six years. In our own industry, digital projects are usually measured in weeks or months. Today’s web workers will hold between twelve and fifteen jobs in their lifetime. That averages out to around four years of commitment to each job. And this is all made even more startling when we consider how long our work lasts. Basically, it doesn’t. Apps are outdated almost immediately with the release of new hardware and operating systems. The web is flying by. Our work is fleeting.

Ray Kurzweil wrote about the Law of Accelerating Returns back in 2001, suggesting that the rate of technological evolution grows exponentially. This means we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century. It will be more like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate. His work explains why we can build amazing structures faster today than ever before. What it doesn’t explain is how this impacts us as makers: how the immediacy with which we can create changes us.

‘Good things come to those who wait.’ Everything in our industry pushes against this aphorism. From indispensible continuous integration tools to the latest web development frameworks, it’s all presented under the guise of making us more productive and better contributors. None of this is done with malintent, of course, but we’ve lost the long view. And with each push to production comes that shipping high. It’s self-feeding – a roundabout with no exit where we test how fast we can go and still make the turn.

Part of me wishes there were a balance to the formula, that the amount of time it takes to create something would directly impact its longevity. Of course, this is not true. And even if it were, it would be nearly impossible to measure. Miles Davis and his band recorded their album Kind of Blue in a matter of days, and the end result is considered the greatest jazz recording of all time. This was only possible because of the decades of experience each player had gained before they ever set foot in the studio. In a sense, they had been preparing for those sessions their entire lives.

Which makes me wonder, what are we preparing for?

If the things we produce are merely a symptom of who we’re becoming, maybe we should ask ourselves who that is. How do we implore the next generation of makers to take their time, to hone their craft, to see their current accomplishments as foundational to their life’s work? But also, how do we make them recognise that most things worth doing cannot be done alone? Like those who spent their lives building Notre Dame, we need to understand our role in the grand vision. Every product we release is a brick in a new kind of cathedral – one that connects us all, from its foundation to its spire. And it’s this architecture that holds us together, taking its strength from our diversity.

For you and me – for all of us – there is much left to do. Are you willing to commit, knowing that you’ll never see it finished?

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

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