Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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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.

Issue 18 Editor’s Note

Posted on Feb 08 2018 in Thoughts

After Mills’ encouraging email, I decided to publish the editor’s note of the latest issue here. I believe it’s one of the most important Offscreen issues yet. Make sure you purchase your copy before we sell out.

As the people who create technology, we love to think of ourselves as the architects of a better tomorrow, an exciting future full of positive possibilities. We often believe that the fix for major problems is a technological one: where humans fail, let the machines figure it out. Technology is, by definition, progress. Or so we thought.

In the wake of global upheaval against the status quo, the tech community is coming to terms with having over-promised and under-delivered. Almost weekly, headlines about security breaches remind us that we’re now in the post-privacy age, where private data is just another commodity. Meanwhile, a cultural shift is bringing deeply entrenched gender and racial inequalities into the open. And in Silicon Valley, unicorn defectors publicly apologise for having created addictive UI patterns and shady algorithms that exacerbate social division.

And just like that, the tech world finds itself on a soul-searching mission. The realisation that the ethical decisions made by its creators are baked into all technology has come as a surprise. It turns out that lifeless tools – such as a simple recommendation engine – are not as neutral or amoral as we thought. It’s become clear now that programmers, designers, and data scientists are faced with some of the most pressing ethical dilemmas of our time. This forces us to ask a vital question: are they sufficiently equipped to make decisions on behalf of millions of people?

I would dare to say that we are on the cusp of a new era in technology. For the first time, we’re seeing the broad ethical ramifications of the tools we build, sparking a discussion about what author Fabio Chiusi calls ‘the human ghost in the machines.’ From academics to journalists, and investors to politicians, we’re finally starting to engage in the difficult conversations that could lead us to exciting and much- needed alternatives to the orthodoxies of the last few decades.

In a more enlightened era of tech, we will move beyond a superficial understanding of ’well designed’, which today seems overly concerned with aesthetics. Instead, good design will focus on creating user experiences that are inclusive and empathetic, on writing code that is open and energy-efficient, and on running a business model that doesn’t rely on infinite growth to survive.

Perhaps out of necessity, ‘doing the right thing’ for people, planet, and profit will soon have a much broader, mainstream appeal. Let’s not forget that we – the industry at the forefront of change – carry a tremendous responsibility to lead the way. As the conversations and essays in this issue demonstrate, it is time that we all look inward and ask ourselves whether our work contributes to a tomorrow that will indeed be better than today.

The web is a mindset

Posted on Mar 08 2016 in Thoughts

This is my editor’s note of Offscreen Issue 8, first published in April 2014. This issue is now sold out.

In today’s brave new world where our privacy has become a commodity and tweets can topple governments, it only takes a quick look at the news to realise that geeks rule the world — and I don’t mean that in a melodramatic or self-aggrandising way. The people behind bits and pixels find themselves in a unique place of power.

With the ability to influence millions if not billions of people, we’re facing some difficult questions about the impact and relevance of our work, the role of money, and how both correlate. In the era of Big Data, we are in the challenging position of bringing governments, corporations, and the public onto the same page, so all can work towards a common goal rather than against each other. All the while, we slowly come to terms with the good and bad of a lifestyle that is measurable, marketable, and hackable.

Listening to mainstream media or the average dinner table conversation, it’s easy to get sucked into a trend of scepticism about the web. You don’t have to be of any conservative affiliation to feel wary of ‘the next big thing’. For many of my friends, much of the web has turned into a place that’s made up of fluffy articles and stalking banner ads with the sole purpose of filling investor pockets before our data is gobbled up by freshly IPO’ed tech giants.

Has the web failed us? Have we failed the web?

What’s missing in these bleak assumptions is the realisation that the underlying values of the web permeate through all aspects of modern life. Beyond the sensationalised headlines of overnight billionaires and self-righteous hackers, you’ll still find a community that cares deeply about helping one another.

How else can we explain the altruistic principles of open-source software which in one way or another lie at the basis of almost every interface? It’s an ethos that lives as much in forum threads and shared repositories, as it does in the many conferences, hackathons and co-working spaces around the globe. It’s the ripple effects of our ‘sharing is caring’ culture that cause upheaval in established industries. No startup could exist without them.

Even though as an editor/publisher I’m now coming to terms with the slow-moving wheels of the publishing and print industries, I still feel as much part of the web as ever before. That’s because the real web is not return-on-investment or shareholder value, nor is it follower numbers or the latest shiny gadget.

The web is a mindset — a way of doing things. It’s collaboration and openness. It’s inclusiveness and non-hierarchy. It’s figuring stuff out, being creative and breaking some rules along the way. It’s constant reimagening of the status quo with no need for permission to get involved.

The web has forever changed the way we think about each other. That’s the web I’m part of. And it’s the web Offscreen wants you to see.

Kai Brach

The apps I use (updated)

Posted on Jan 11 2016 in Thoughts

I’m always interested in finding out what tools/apps other people use to get stuff done. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a list of current apps I use to work on Offscreen (by no means complete and in no particular order):

I'm using Raindrop to save stuff I come across online during the week and want to feature in the magazine or Dense Discovery.

The invoicing software I use it to invoice stockists, sponsors, and occasional consulting clients.

Google Drive
Google Docs has been indispensable for me since starting Offscreen. I create around 30 separate documents (one for each contributor) with every issue. Its collaboration and editing features make working with others on content simultaneously a breeze. My goal is to move away from goal, but weening myself off G Drive has been difficult.

I made the switch to using Gmail in my browser (Chrome) many years ago and still find it the most productive way to use email! (I have a paid account with Google, so no ads, more storage, custom domain name, etc.) As mentioned above, the ultimate goal is to also move my email account away from Google.

Receipt Bank
My book-keeping app. I can either forward email receipts or upload photos of paper receipts (through my iPhone) and it does all the categorising, finding total amounts, tax, etc automatically. All I need to do is to export a spreadsheet at the end of the quarter and send it to my accountant.

I use this little tool every day. It lives in my menu bar and I can drag’n drop anything onto its icon to either create a short-URL, upload a file or take a screenshot, and then make it available online. It’s been a super handy companion.

I have no idea how I’d survive the login mayhem without my trusty 1Password app. It stores all my secret words, and therefore it’s probably the most important piece of software on this machine.

Oh yes, online content overwhelms me too. There is just too much I want to read, watch, listen to… I don’t get to read all the things I add to my Pocket app, but especially on long flights, I really enjoy catching up on interesting reads I’ve stored here.

Campaign Monitor was my go-to tool for email marketing, until I changed over to MailChimp. I like both of them equally and both have been big supporters of Offscreen. I decided to go with MailChimp because their creative branding/marketing suits Offscreen a bit better. For my weekly newsletter Dense Discovery I use the much more affordable Mailblast.

Adobe Suite
With Typekit, Indesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom and even occasionally Bridge, I do use a lot of Adobe products for the design of the magazine. It’s easy to criticise them for making software that crashes often, but when I’m in the depth of a project, I realise again and again that these tools are immensely powerful and have matured a lot over the last decade or so.

Puts my files online.

Podio is an extremely versatile project management software. You can essentially build your own app setup and connect lots of different interfaces. It seemed overwhelming at first, but turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in order to build a searchable/filterable database of potential contributors for future issues.

I work from a lot of cafes, so a good VPN is important. I love TunnelBear because it’s so simple to use.

I back up my data to a hard drive with Time Machine and then use Arq to push an additional backup to my Dropbox account.

Atom + CodeKit + Github + MAMP + Transmit
My tools for working on the Offscreen website.

Simple copy-and-paste tool that allows me to have a plain-text clipboard history.

My go-to text replacement tool. I use this to create shortcuts for everything like shipping addresses, emojis, often-used URLs, standard replies, etc.

A little calendar menu app for quick access of my calendar. I use it for lack of decent alternatives. There are a few design issues that still confuse me after years of using it.

Recently bought this font manager to manage my growing font library. It's a little slow sometimes, but very reliable. Would buy again!

Another mini app that lives in my menu bar and allows me to check and calculate global times/timezones. Handy when working with contributors from all sorts of places.

I don’t record a lot of screencasts, but when I do, Drew Wilson’s little app never lets me down!

Take your conscience to work

Last week I emailed my readers to give them a status update on the making of the next issue. As in all my pre-launch emails I included a list of what’s been happening here at Offscreen over the last few months. One of those things was the ad-hoc fundraiser for refugees that I ran back in September. Half an hour after pressing Send I received my first-ever hate mail: Gary didn’t like the fact that I was using Offscreen as a platform to support refugees.

While I think Gary and his attitude do not deserve more of my (or anyone’s) attention, it made me think about how ‘political’ a thing like Offscreen can or should become. (It’s depressing enough to think that humility and compassion is now a partisan issue.)

In my talks and here on the blog, I’ve long been promoting a more personal approach to our work. I believe that we can make better products and create stronger relationships with the people who buy/use these products if we build some of our ideology right into what we make. Thanks in part to the internet, we have the unique opportunity to put ‘corporate professionalism’ behind us and instead put our moral beliefs front and center.

I’m reminded of this excellent piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in which she describes how professionalism has become this destructive myth forcing us to leave our conscience at home.

Professionalism, which most of us were brought up to admire, implies compartmentalisation. It used to mean something good and noble; leaving petty emotions at home, taking your higher self to work, thinking beyond mere profit, doing good, committing to altruism. Now, it means almost the opposite.

Where ‘professional’ once meant 'bound to higher truths’, it now denotes payment. Professional dancers, politicians, footballers are those who do it for money. What this indicates is professionalism’s slide down the moral razor. Now what we leave at home is not petty emotion but conscience. (…)

Out there, in just-nuke-it profit land, those glimmerings of deeper knowledge – human wellbeing, nature’s dignity and how these twist together into spiritual value – are easily derided. Out there only the measurable matters.

For the next issue (spoiler alert!) I’ve been interviewing Yancey Strickler, the co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter. It’s a company I hugely admire not just for their immense success, but for how they managed to stay true to their early beliefs. Yancey talks about how idealism drives them:

We think that idealism is incredibly important. We tend to view idealism as being naïve, but maybe that’s exactly why it’s so important. What we sought to do with our mission and philosophy is lock in that idealism from the very beginning to ensure that it’s always a part of who we are. I think there is a certain magic in that.

Every big company once started as a small one, and while it’s not the case for all, many of them lost their soul or their meaning somewhere along the way. How often do we see people reminisce about their younger selves asking, “Remember when we cared about these things?”

Obviously, Kickstarter operate on a much different scale than Offscreen. But no matter how big or small, we all frequently face crossroads where we get to choose between following our conscience or succumbing to the lure of ‘professionalism’.

With Offscreen, I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be given a voice, to be able to provoke people’s thoughts on a particular subject in the hope that it instils just a little bit more empathy and humanity in them. And in the same vein, I hope that small acts of kindness towards people in need remind us of what it means to be human in a fairly dehumanising industry.

If you disagree and would rather not support me in doing so, email me and I will cancel and refund any order on your subscription that hasn’t shipped yet.

To Gary: I’m saddened that you have such strong feelings against people who are fleeing war. Let’s hope you never end up in a situation in which your life depends on the compassion of others. But just in case, I made another donation to the Australian Red Cross’ refugee efforts in your name.

Update: You guys never stop to amaze me. Since I made this public, many of you made further donations in the name of Gary. If only he knew...