Too rich to be good?

In all the fuss over the Redmond Menace (please, Judge Jackson, don't break 'em up; you don't understand how hard it is to come up with good nicknames), I neglected to inform you that not only are Seattleites evil these days, we're stupid too. I'm going to tell you a little story; I encourage you to find the moral for yourself.

The stupidity rap comes from MIT Tech Review, which this month announced its list of the "TR 100," a group of under-35 "innovators who exemplify the spirit of innovation in science, technology, and the arts." Language-sensitive readers around the Puget Sound are cringing at the duplication in the previous quote, which shows an all-too-casual acquaintance with Mr. Thesaurus. However, that relationship is positively cuddly compared with MTR's familiarity with Seattle and environs.

Simply put, we're not on the list. No one from the Web community. No one from software. No one from hardware. No one from biotech. No one from materials science. We haven't got so much as a Microsoft millionaire in the throng, which means we're none of us fit to keep company with the likes of Marc Andreessen, Linus Torvalds, and Jerry Yang. (The list is at www.techreview.com/tr100 if you'd like to see it for yourself.)

Frankly, I'm hurt. I keep telling people that Seattle is the best place in the country to write about technology. After all, if I tire of high tech there's always biotech; if I tire of biotech there's genetics; if I tire of genetics there's always aviation; if I tire of aviation there's astronomy and space research. (If I tire of astronomy, I plan to launch myself off the Bainbridge ferry, as I'll clearly be tired of life at that point.) And then these . . . these . . . these Massachusetts-dwellers tell the world that it's all a terrible lie.

According to MTR, the list (which includes only those who will turn 35 on or after January 1, 2000) came together through nominations from readers of both its Web site and the magazine as well as the staff itself, a process that garnered about 600 candidates. That list was boiled down to 200 souls, who were in turn evaluated by a panel of judges that included three Nobel laureates, a couple of college presidents, and other graybeards. The whole process took about a year.

It sounds like sour grapes to say that such lists are a marketing gimmick rather than serious journalism, especially when the process here was clearly several cuts above the hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-list process used by magazines like Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly, but there you go. Lists— most this, best that, hottest what-you-will—make publicists and advertising departments happy, entice newsstand buyers to pick up a publication they might ordinarily ignore, and set writers and editors to squabbling and sulking. (Actually, the presence of oxygen sets editors and writers to squabbling and sulking, but for god's sake let's move on.)

Whether they turn up on MTR or VH1, these lists are mainly useful as brain candy. If they do any good, they momentarily spotlight obscure but worthy folk amongst the others you've already heard of, giving readers the pleasant tandem sensations of feeling in the know and learning a little something (the Information-Glut Age equivalent of a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down).

Otherwise, lists are an index of their keepers' own blind spots—in this case, about what's going on in non-Cambridge environs (23 awardees are in Massachusetts) that aren't Silicon Valley (37 awardees). To be fair, the list includes folks from 16 states and eight or so countries: Other regions represented by more than one awardee, while we were not, include the DC area, Southern California, and Georgia. Let me repeat that: Georgia.

As an experiment, I sent the MTR link to a few friends around here, asking who, specifically, got left off. Since this is Seattle, I heard a few names and a great amount of soul-searching. Are we too old here? Too overshadowed by Microsoft and Amazon? Too . . . old?

I have another answer. I'm not saying that the people on the list aren't necessarily worthy (though the enthusiastic innovator who told Forbes that her inspiration is "being obscenely wealthy by the time I'm 30"—jeez, I'm glad she's in the Web business and not aeronautics or drug research). On the other hand, I don't believe that these folks are truly the 100 best and brightest. What I do believe is that what the Puget Sound region makes up for in innovation it lacks in highly placed schmooze. After all, the MTR judges hailed mainly from Massachusetts and Silicon Valley, too, with representatives in the DC area, Southern California, and . . . Georgia.

 
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