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Academy Awards For Geeks
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

We Need To Find New Ways To Celebrate True Innovation

A hushed silence washes across the room. Guests in glittering gowns and brilliant black tie hold their collective breath as the announcer slowly walks to the podium. "And the winner is" he starts, then pauses again just for effect, "...to one of the creators of asymmetric digital subscriber line technology, John Cioffi!" The room erupts in applause as the music booms and Cioffi makes his way to the stage to accept his award.

Awards were subsequently given to people like the inventor of a technology to recycle plastics from complex waste streams, the duo who perfected PayPal's fraud protection and risk management processes, and a lifetime achievement honor for the guy who discovered the connection between human papilloma viruses and cervical cancer.

The laughter! The tears! Yes, I was at the Geek Academy Awards, otherwise known as The Economist's Innovation Awards 2010, late last month in London, England.

What a great idea. There's an awards ceremony for almost every burp artists make, and most of those events commemorate nothing beyond the very moment of their celebration. That's what makes the Oscar, Tony, Effie, and whatever else so much fun; we know they're irrelevant to us flyover people. Entertainment honors matter to those in the entertainment communities to which honors matter. They matter more to the marketers who get busy the next selling the stuff that just won.

The Economist's Innovation Awards recognize technologies that matter...to all of us.

What a shame, though. There's such a gap between geeks and what else we celebrate in our culture. Imagine the gals and guys who win their high school science fairs every year and then go on to study geeky subjects in college and university. There's absolutely nothing that celebrates their behavior; in fact, popular media does little but denigrate it when it's not ignoring geeks altogether. Sure, the kid genius character sometimes saves the day in movie thrillers, and the slacker caricature in advertising presumes some innate intelligence, but it's very hard to make sexy the realities of studying and experimenting.

The keys to success are to be good looking, lucky, and single-minded about wanting to be successful.

Yet there'd be no Facebook, fresh tap water, lights or longer lifespans if it weren't for the work of people get turned on (and rewarded) by being innovative. Creating new technologies isn't a business behavior but a creating new technologies behavior, and it requires a level of self-reliance and reward that is truly humbling. People invent technologies almost in spite of what our culture tells them is rewarding behavior.

I'm biased: I went to a technical high school and spent my Friday nights programming a PDP8 via FORTRAN on punch cards. I was honored to play a small role in the event as a speaker during the summit that followed the dinner, at which I debuted my thinking on some of the ways ideas have spread through communities (a component of my new book, Histories of Social Media).

But we need more events like it, whether they include me or not. And we need to find ways to understand and express the drama and nuance that plays a part in the birth of every innovative technology. We need more role models in popular entertainment who save the day by toiling away at exploration for days, weeks, and even years...and still get the girl (or guy).

More glitz. More coverage. More geeks. Award goes to The Economist for showing the way.

Added: 22nd November 2010

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