active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

And the horses too

One of my current hobbies is reading old copies of OMNI, the populist science and technology magazine that was published between 1978 and 1995.


What’s astonishing is not just the mixture of beautiful art and design, intelligent articles and features, interviews with everyone from Stephen Hawking to Terence McKenna, and fiction by the outstanding SF writers of that period.

It’s that, unlike the rest of the world during those 18 years, OMNI never dumbed down.

Just as surprising, but perhaps forgivable since it was looking in a different direction, is that while OMNI had its gaze fixed on our potential future, the greatest revolution of modern times was taking place unnoticed all around it.

I’m talking about the rise of the desktop computer. From the start, OMNI ran ads by computer companies — Amstrad, Sinclair and other home hobbyists at first, but soon hard hitters like CompuServe that would shape the interconnected world as we know it. Meanwhile, 1980s ads for Universal Security Instruments’ Intelli-Phone, Casio’s Databank Watch and Volkswagen’s self-parking car show that nothing truly new has been added since, whatever the hype.

As a kid, I started writing seriously the moment I persuaded my parents to buy me a manual typewriter. Later I realized just what the first word processors could do, more than just copying and pasting and making remedial changes. They could redefine the very process of writing. (See my post Adventures in composition for more.)

I spent most of my early adult life working with some very clever companies to develop and document the desktop computer: IBM PC DOS and GEM first, then the early iterations of Windows. I loved new technology, and I was never happier than when I was stripping down and rebuilding my own PCs, tweaking settings, getting the hood off.

All the same, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the Windows platform for good, abandoning my beloved blue screen Word Perfect 5.1 For DOS. Even today, my fingers reach instinctively for those function key combinations.

But what made this revolution so important is the liberation of women.

It’s amazing to think that, just 30 years ago, every company would have a pool of secretaries, usually little more than girls, whose role was to type letters. These girls would actually get their jobs based on how fast they could type. Since when does anybody mention their typing speed these days? Instead, nowadays everybody taps in their own letters — by which is generally meant emails — and the typing pool has vanished.

What happened to all those women? They didn’t just vanish off the face of the planet, like millions of horses did when they became superseded by cars and trucks. They weren’t all trotted off to the glue factory. They didn’t narrow their options to go back to becoming wives and mothers. They became office staff, working alongside men rather than subservient to them.

Surprisingly, the liberating effect of the computer has only come to Japan itself, crucible of the hi-tech revolution, in the past decade.

Before then, women were largely employed by companies to do menial office tasks and provide girlfriends and wives for their male workers — and woe betide any girl who hadn’t hooked herself one of those drones by the time she was 25. Now women hold equivalent positions to men, and they’re finally working their way up the channels of power.

That’s how profound technology can be. Not, as was feared, replacing jobs, but empowering and liberating people.

And it’s something that was driven overwhelmingly by the PC: by Microsoft and IBM and Intel. Apple always talked a good talk, but it played no significant part in this achievement.

Today, in my opinion, the golden age of computing has passed. Instead of reaching out to liberate the rest of the world, computer companies have become jealous and exclusive.

I mentioned that one of my joys was building my own hardware. I still do it, which is why I’m devoted to the PC. You can’t do that with an Apple, any more than you can now pop the hood of your car and do more than fiddle with the peripherals.

Apple doesn’t want you to pop the hood at all. It wants you in a straightjacket, as far as the technology is concerned.

Steve Jobs was open that this was his vision: lock customers into Apple products so they can’t migrate away, just as “direct debits” aren’t intended to make your life easier, they’re intended to make it hard to move your account to a different bank.

I don’t want to disparage Apple’s devotees, and I applaud the company’s branding expertise, but it’s not the way I would have chosen to develop this technology.

With both IBM and Microsoft lacking anything that seems like a coherent vision, and Google merely scattershot, it’s hard to see where the next technology revolution will come from.

There’s a tendency when reading old technology magazines like OMNI to get depressed that we didn’t achieve the glittering futuristic world they promised us. But actually, take away our woefully small steps into space and half-hearted development of renewable energy, and our world is far beyond much of what OMNI predicted.

It’s going to get better still. But first we need something new — something we can all take the hood off.


Robert Maas is the author of the thriller Biome, available to buy at Amazon.


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