Uncovering The Human Side Of Technology

{ 📰 } – Interview with Kai Brach, author of Offscreen Magazine

We are living in times that are full of distractions and meaningless interactions provided to us by something that supposed to be useful – technology. But once we have the right approach to it, we can get a lot out of it without getting too attached to our devices.

Kai Brach, a person behind the Offscreen Magazine, is one of the people representing the movement of making the technology humanized again. We talked with him about the current state of technology, and his magazine, that plays a huge role in the design community.

Offscreen Magazine is all about uncovering the human side of technology. What drove you to pursue that mission? Why do you think it is important?

The tech industry can be quite de-humanizing. It’s easy to forget that technology is made by and for real people. The chase for money and fame in the tech world has led to a lot of innovation for the sake of innovating (think Juicero) without actually providing any real benefit to humanity. Because success sells, too many media outlets portray the tech and web industry almost exclusively as a goldmine for investors to be harvested.

Offscreen is trying to turn the focus back on what technology is supposed to do: advance humanity. We interview creative thinkers, makers, and entrepreneurs with an impact-driven view at tech and critically examine how we shape technology and how technology shapes us.

Technology has always been a synonym for progress, for a better tomorrow. But just open the news and you’re reminded of the many ways digital platforms are now being weaponized and used against us. We’ve entered the age of surveillance capitalism, so we need more people at the center of tech to think more critically about the consequences of their actions.

Offscreen is a purely print publication. Please tell us how print and digital reading experiences can best blend and co-exist in our daily lives?

I think everyone needs to determine that for themselves. It helps to think about different formats or media types as different vehicles to digest information.

I typically prefer time-relevant content and short reads served digitally, but when it comes to stimulating the mind with content that requires focus I still prefer print.

As a general rule, if I need more than one session to get through it, print is stickier and more enjoyable.

Kai Brach holding issues of the Offscreen Magazine
Kai Brach and his Offscreen Magazine

Over the past 5 years, you’ve interviewed hundreds of very interesting people: from designers to entrepreneurs, to technologists. What are some things those individuals have in common? What are the things that inspire and motivate them?

I think many of our interviewees understand clearly that technology isn’t inherently good (or bad). It’s a human invention that carries with it our own ethical and moral imprints. As such it’s up to us to establish a framework of rules and principles that emphasize the good and minimize the bad.

Digital technology can have an immense scale, meaning a few people can suddenly find themselves in the position of immense power over millions if not billions of people. Are we sufficiently equipped to yield that power without causing harm?

That’s the underlying thread that runs through most of our interviews. The people we interview are aware that code and design yield power and as we all know, with power comes responsibility.

What is your favorite, most inspiring personal story covered at Offscreen? What makes it so unique?

It’d be unfair to single out just one story. All of our interviews inspire me on different levels. In the latest issue, I loved how Aza Raskin makes some truly thought-provoking points about the technology we’ve unleashed on society. And Amber Case discusses her concept of Calm Tech, a way to protect our attention and recapture our sense of purpose and identity.

Issue #20 of Offscreen Magazine
Issue #20 of Offscreen Magazine

Offscreen is a one-man magazine. Doing it all yourself is a tremendous amount of work. What are your personal productivity hacks?

Hm. Not sure if they are hacks. One thing I think I’m good at is optimizing and automating workflows.

For example, every contributor to Offscreen – there are around 20 for each issue – receives an initial brief in the form of a shared Google Document that outlines the next steps and captures important info I need from them. Over the years I’ve refined those briefings to strike the right balance between too much info (overwhelming to read) and not enough info (unsure what to delivery). This saves a lot of email to and fro.

I think quite a lot about whether I’m spending my time wisely. But it’s not about productivity in the sense of ‘getting more done’. Piling more work on one’s plate is the easy part. The hard part is to figure out how you intentionally make time for reflection – the thinking in between all the doing. To me, productivity is pointless if you end up just getting stuck in your ways. I’d much rather get less done, but have time to experiment, explore new ideas, have inspiring interactions with others and so on. The flow-on effect of that is much more valuable than ticking one more to-do item off your list.

You are a strong proponent of the Slow Web movement. What are some ways to gain more knowledge, and not just consume information, in a more timely and rhythmic manner?

We’re bombarded with lots of instructional information these days: how to get rich, how to become a better writer, how to find your life balance. I think that’s partly due to social pressure (“Always be learning!”), but unless you’re trying to solve a very specific practical problem (e.g. how to get an HTML email to behave nicely in Outlook [spoiler: nobody knows]) I’d not waste too much time reading other people’s manuals on work and life.

I believe you’re better off consuming things that stimulate critical thinking and encourage you to find your own answers. Instead of going wide, occasionally make time to go deep. Read an interesting book. Throw in some fiction which has proven to help us increase human qualities like empathy or compassion.

I think we are not short of knowledge but we could all use a bit more wisdom.

Issue #19 of Offscreen Magazine
Issue #19 of Offscreen Magazine

How can we, designers, be more aware of the human side of the products we are creating?

Well, if you are not thinking about the human side of your design, you shouldn’t be designing. The goal of the design is inherently a human one. But I know what you are referring to…

In the digital world, we often design very complex systems. It’s not the same as a product designer crafting a comfortable chair. You may work with a team of designers that works with other teams of developers, sales folks, executives etc. This means you only play a small role in a complex system. In every interaction with other stakeholders and in every step of the process, the designer has to be a spokesperson for the people using the product.

Any design process has to start with research: speaking to the people you are designing for and finding out what they need. You should also develop an awareness for your own biases and then find ways to minimize those. Because of those biases, you constantly need to re-evaluate whether what you are designing is in the interest of the user instead of the interest of your ego.

That’s a start, but there is obviously a lot more to design.

In issue 18 Erika Hall provides a relevant reminder that I’d like to share: If you’re designing slot machines for a casino, our common understanding of human-centered design only tells you to make the user experience as easy and enjoyable as possible. But is a well-designed slot machine really in the interest of the user? As a designer, who are you creating value for? Certainly not the user. So human-centered design needs an ethical component and principled designers as their guardians.

Do you think that advancing and standardizing Design Ethics might be one way to make our digital experiences more sustainable?

Yeah, I think we need some kind of ethical framework that sets out some basic rules and limits of design in the digital space.

A lot of other industries had to make grave mistakes before they came up with a set of ethical industry guidelines to protect humanity. Think of the physicists and the atomic bomb.

If we give a bunch of millenials from Silicon Valley the key to the minds of billions of people they ought to understand and deeply think about the possible ramifications of their work on society, democracy, the world. Those designing the technology of tomorrow ought to listen to what ethicists, philosophers, historians, and people in social sciences have to tell us about human behavior.

Issue #18 of Offscreen Magazine
Issue #18 of Offscreen Magazine

We are all getting overloaded with information these days. How can digital publications become better for their readers? What does digital have to learn from print?

Personally, I enjoy digital content that is not competing in the rat race for attention. By participating in clickbaity headlines or cheap content marketing strategies you’re disrespecting my attention and I don’t want to reward you for doing that.

Good digital publications understand that trust and loyalty by readers have to be earned – through thoughtful design, language, and marketing. They understand that 100,000 disengaged users may not be as valuable as 1,000 true fans willing to support you financially and otherwise. Good publications find ways to create a niche for themselves in which they become a respected voice for that community.

Sounds a lot like indie magazines, huh?

Why did you decide to take a break publishing Offscreen? Any current plans to resume publishing in 2019?

While making an issue is still by no means an easy undertaking, it’s become a very set and predictable process for me. I also would like to collaborate more with other creative people. Flying solo is great, but after so many years a bit of company would be nice.

So right now, I’m just putting myself out there, talking to different people and organizations and exploring my options. I still believe in Offscreen’s mission and there is a good chance that there will be more issues in the future – maybe after an extended break or maybe in a different format.

Tell us a bit about your new project — Dense Discovery. How do you find all the content for every newsletter issue?

Dense Discovery grew out of an idea to stay in touch with readers in between Offscreen issues (which only come out every four months). I started the newsletter under the name ‘The Modern Desk’ more than three years ago and have sent out an email every week ever since.

Because I do a lot of research on the web for Offscreen, I come across a lot of apps, projects, tools, and ideas that don’t fit into the magazine. Through the newsletter, I collect and share those with my audience.

Despite what everyone says about overflowing inboxes, I love emails. I love communicating this way with readers and contributors. And I think the newsletter is an underappreciated form of digital publishing. Newsletters are personal but not invasive. They don’t demand immediate attention. There are not subject to algorithmic tweaking to change my behavior.

What is one message you would like to pass along to all the digital designers?

There is a lot of design BS out there. Think less about aesthetics and more about the impact (good and bad) of your work. Always check on your privileges and biases.

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.