Rage Against the Superlative: Kai Brach of Offscreen on What He’s Reading and the Folly of “Ultimate” Lists
Bots trace our trajectories across digital time and space, taking careful account of what we like, what we don’t, where we linger, and whom we love, all in the service of presenting us with a portal into the internet that’s cut to our affinities and dimensions.
But take a look at what the Web at Large seems to like most and you’ll see a lot of top ten lists and ultimate guides. What’s lost in the effort to craft content that resounds for many (and, of course, gets attention) is the uniqueness that those fancy algorithms are meant to serve.
In 2012, then-designer and now-publisher Kai Brach stepped in with his one-man magazine to stem the rushing tide of impersonal digital content.
Offscreen is a lovingly wrought print-only periodical that searchingly and intelligently explores the life and work of the people that use the internet to be creative and build successful businesses. It’s a place to discover what goes on behind the scenes of the technology that makes our digital lifestyle possible. Not least of all, Offscreen is an invitation to turn off your devices, make a cup of tea, and meet the people behind the bits and pixels.
Kai’s composed Offscreen to be different: intimate, personal, and adamantly not one-size-fits-all, which is in keeping with his philosophy toward reading.
“A friend once said to me ‘Learning new things is not about finding answers. It’s about formulating better questions.’ And that’s how I like to approach reading in general,” Kai explains. “That’s also why I kinda despise the trend to hyperbolic, oversimplified listicles on Medium and Buzzfeed. The idea of one book or person being able to come up with a set of answers to solve everyone’s problems is misguided.”
For this edition of The Spark, we felt it only right to sidestep hyperbole and avoid exaggeration. Instead of asking Kai about the book that changed everything or for a list of ultimate reads, we invited him to share what’s inspired him and what he’s enjoyed reading lately. His responses run the gamut from hardcover to blog, and to honor the uniqueness (and damn good writing) of his responses, we’re sharing them below.
Q: What have you been reading lately?
Kai Brach: My current read is The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli which reveals all the cognitive biases that we’re constantly exposed to. It really opened my eyes to how bad we are at making seemingly objective judgement calls and decisions. It’s fascinating to think that every decision we make is influenced by factors we mostly can’t control or are unaware of. While it might not necessarily prevent failure, I think especially for entrepreneurs being aware of certain biases helps them make more informed decisions.
Q: Is there something you’ve read that’s shaped how you run Offscreen or impacted the way that you work?
KB: A book I read last year that I really enjoyed and have taken a lot of inspiration from is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.
Up to that point I had only briefly heard of the concept of Wabi-Sabi but I never really bothered reading into it. The more I did, the more I realised how gentle the WS philosophy is on the creator. Its core message is the acceptance of imperfection and impermanence. Deeply engrained in the Japanese world view, WS embraces the asymmetric, the rough, the simple, the modest, the transient and the natural. A great summary can be found here.
As a self-taught designer who discovered his creative genes on a screen, the idea of a design philosophy that encouraged imperfect, natural objects was somewhat foreign. I always thought of myself as a perfectionist, and to some extent I carried that emblem with pride, especially when talking to clients. Being able to create “pixel-perfect” designs is a skill a lot of digital designers boast about. And that perfectionism affects us in many different ways in real life, too: a small scratch on our shiny new Macbook seems to instantly diminish our appreciation of it; the food we eat is more enjoyable if it complies with general Instagram aesthetics; and our relationships are not worth keeping if they don’t resemble the latest romantic blockbuster.
Discovering the WS view helped me be ok with the less perfect. It helped me appreciate all the little quirks of objects that aren’t mass-produced. Most of all, it helped me be ok with my own creative imperfections. Since I started Offscreen I had to come to terms with making irrevocable mistakes: what’s printed is printed, and I can’t change it. When I now find typos or other production faults in my magazine, it still pains me, but I understand that’s part of making things. It gives it character. It’s a small reminder that there’s a human being at the other end.
Q: And what do you read online? Is there anything you go back to regularly?
KB: One I turn to quite often is The Book of Life, which is essentially a large collection of thoughtful self-help articles, but without the hyperbolic language that you usually find in this category.
The Book of Life analyses everyday topics and more complex psychological issues from a philosophical point of view and with simple language. It looks at history and the arts to explain the big problems of our time, and it does so without ego or judgement, and that’s why it’s such a refreshing change from all the “Here is how you achieve X” posts on Medium and co. A great example of their thoughtful content is this little video/post.
The Book of Life is part of The School of Life, an organisation founded by Alain de Botton, a person I deeply respect.
I also really appreciate the frank and unambiguous writing of Tim Urban, the writer behind waitbutwhy.com. One of my favourite posts on the internet is his post on The Fermi Paradox, which I think should be part of every school’s curriculum. There is no better way to remind everyone of our place in the vastness of the universe by questioning our role and our future in it.