Uses This

1213 interviews since 2009

A picture of Margaret O'Mara

Margaret O'Mara

Historian, professor

in historian, mac, professor, windows

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm a historian of the modern United States and a professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I write and teach about American politics, the technology industry, and the connections between the two. I'm interested in how power works, how change happens, and how states and markets interact.

My writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Public Books, and other public and academic venues. My most recent book is The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

What hardware do you use?

For Gen Xers like me, modern computer history is personal history, too. I first touched a computer keyboard in a junior-high BASIC programming class, and the first thing I produced on a computer was a high-school term paper written on a Commodore 64. The first computer I owned was a beautiful beige Macintosh 512Ke, purchased at the end of my freshman year in college, when printing involved taking a floppy disk to the campus computer center and its dot-matrix printers. After graduation, I migrated back to the world of blue screens and blinking cursors with several years of MS-DOS on my work computer, then Windows laptops in graduate school, then back to Mac as Apple surged forth in its early '00s Jobsian renaissance.

I use my 13" MacBook Pros until the keys wear off (the "N" is always the first to go) and am still in the honeymoon phase with my newest. Yes, the M1 chip is just as good as they say, although we users remain cursed with multiple dongles to properly adapt all the peripherals.

Although the laptop is a staple, it is rather remarkable how lightly I now travel otherwise. Where I used to lug a portable scanner, a point-and-shoot camera, and a portable tape player to do my archival research and interviews, I now use my iPhone for all of it.

A year of online teaching and Zoom everything introduced me to essential new hardware. I use a Rain Design mStand for my laptop to keep conversations at eye level and a Blue Yeti external microphone for recording lectures and podcasts. After a lot of trial and very public error, I settled on the old-fashioned wired Apple headphones as the best and most reliable way to hear what's happening. I tried, then abandoned, a mechanical keyboard; now I use the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that came from our old iMac desktop, and it works fine.

Indispensable analog technology includes multicolored Post-it notes for quick reminders and chapter storyboarding, Leuchtterm1917 notebooks for meeting notes and taking a break from screens, and black Uni-ball pens.

And what software?

For teaching, I love collaborating with students using Google Docs and Slides. We annotate historical documents, collaborate on book notes and discussion, build reading lists, and share research ideas. For my own writing and editing, I use Microsoft Word, although so many of my favorite writer friends recommend Scrivener that I really need to try it. I archive online sources at Perma.cc so that future readers won't encounter broken links. Everything, and I mean everything, gets backed up on Dropbox once and on iCloud again for good measure.

I now have fourteen years' worth of research notes on Zotero, which means I'll probably keep using it forever. After trying many different kinds of software hacks for systems for jotting down stray thoughts and writing ideas, I realized simplest is best, and now just use the Notes app on my iPhone. Other smartphone apps I can't live without: Scanner Pro for scanning anything to PDF, Spotify for a writing and thinking and running soundtrack, and Focus Keeper and Freedom to keep online distractions at bay.

What would be your dream setup?

Working at my desk: surrounded by screens and words. I'd have at least one additional external monitor for research notes and a sturdy book stand for keeping print sources out and open to the right page. Sun at the window, good music in the background, encircled by shelves of books for quick reference and general comfort.

Working elsewhere, which is often: a laptop, headphones, a good cup of coffee, and a reasonably flat surface. I've long gravitated towards working in coffee shops - fortunately, I live in a town that's full of them - and I cannot wait to return to these spaces once the pandemic recedes. The ambient hum actually improves my focus, and sitting amid a bustling cafe makes the solo work of writing a little less solitary.

And not working at all: in our backyard L.L. Bean hammock, just out of the range of the home wifi, for offline reading, writing, and simply gazing up at the trees. In an age of information overload, sometimes it's good to back to a time when we didn't have the world at our fingertips.

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