How strange that, at a formal Washington awards dinner, guests in tuxedos and gowns climbed up on chairs and placed pinwheels and paper flags onto zany towering creations. How curious that an institution famous for preserving the past would fawn over futurists.
But last night the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History--and Computerworld Magazine--threw a world-class wingding for the muckety-mucks of information technology and things got a little jiggy. Innovation Awards were presented to 10 groundbreakers in various categories such as education, energy, finance, medicine and transportation.
When the winners were announced, the roomful of 700 or so techies whooped and hollered as if the prizes--misshapen crystals containing eggs of gold--were the Tonys of technology, the Emmys of information.
For the Smithsonian, it was a garage-sale chance to find new-edge stuff for the Nation's Attic. "We want to recognize achievement," said Lonnie Bunch, the American History Museum's associate director of curatorial affairs, "and use the opportunity to identify and collect" pieces of the American present that will all too soon be pieces of American history. For stale and staid Washington, it was a breath of fresh Silicon Valley air.
No movie stars stumbled up a red carpet, no spotlights swept the night sky. But there were enough backless gowns and microchip millionaires to jazz up the National Building Museum.
There was Jeffrey P. Bezos, he of the unabashed laugh and founder of the world's largest e-mail-order book store, Amazon.com. Bezos was gleefully comparing notes with Michael Hawley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab about a recent major cultural event: "The Phantom Menace."
Hawley: "I loved it!"
Bezos: "I did, too!"
Hawley: "I thought it was fabulous!"
There was John Gage, the Sun Microsystems visionary, who once said the information industry needs to figure out ways to share its enormous wealth with older institutions. The Smithsonian, he said, is an old institution. He and Sun colleague Bill Joy said they enjoy coming to Washington for committees and congressional testimony. Joy spoke like a pol of the importance of technology to America's global standing.
There was Ari Patrinos, director of the Department of Energy's piece of the Human Genome Project. He chose his words carefully when speaking of the ramifications of private companies obtaining patents on genes.
"There is something visceral," he said, "a feeling that the human genome belongs to everyone."
Along with the 10 awards honoring "innovative application of information technology to benefit society," the Smithsonian acknowledged eight leaders and pioneers--including Bezos, Gage, Joy and the genome cowboys. The annual awards were first handed out in 1989.
This was a massive undertaking, the sort of all-inclusive hullabaloo that only a gargantuan and ungainly Goliath like the Smithsonian can assemble--with help from America's corporations, of course. About 80 companies nominated nearly 500 other companies and organizations that are using technology in fast, furious, fascinating ways. By having one company trumpet the work of others, the Smithsonian has created a monstrous process that is self-congratulatory and, at times, confounding. The resulting ceremony is about as dry as a user's manual.
But the organizers of the event valiantly tried to inject some juke into the joint--with music, mirth and a white chocolate mousse.
The music was, for the most part, discordant, industrial claptrap that sounded as if it'd been written for four jackhammers.
The mirth was provided by trays filled with make-it-yourself stuff, the kind of materials that crafty parents pull from a closet shelf on rainy days. Each table was provided with a pile of wooden pieces, colorful paper, plastic straws, springs, sheets of wire mesh, rubber bands and pinwheels and rotor blades and lots of other things.
Using glue pots, clothespins and thumbtacks, these innovative people lived up to their name--and seemed to have great fun in the process--by constructing huge sculptures and towers and bizarre concoctions. Tables competed to see who could build the tallest and gaudiest monuments.
One table full of giddy grown-ups stretched a stringful of paper triangles across a corner of the room and it looked as if a gas station might open any minute. Another group lowered string from the second story and tied objects to the line. Geezers stood on tiptoes in chairs; elegant women folded paper into airplanes. Several small fires broke out on the candlelit tables, but were quickly extinguished.
Many guests became so involved with their creations, they continued to work as the wait staff served the fancy food--sea bass in a box, veal in a bag and white chocolate mousse in a sack.
There was about the scene a very un-Washington feeling. At one point, Bill Joy stood at one end of the room and tossed a cardboard glider back and forth with his 5-year-old son, Hayden. From the second story someone blew paper sleeves from straws onto the crowd below.
Eventually the lights dimmed. Daniel S. Morrow, executive director of the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards, welcomed everyone and said the room contained a "galaxy of innovators."
Patrick J. McGowan, founder of International Data Group, the company that publishes Computerworld, a weekly newspaper, applauded the room's "spontaneous genius."
As the men talked and the awards ceremony ensued, several diners held on to their towering sculptures, in fear that the objets d'art might topple under the weight of their own creativity.
The 1999 Computerworld Smithsonian Awards winners included Federal Express, MaMaMedia Inc., the National Weather Service, MasterCard, Lucent Technologies, Georg Lingenbrink GmbH & Co., Starbright Foundation, Pfizer, CTI Inc. and Continental Airlines. Leadership awards were presented to Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems and Andreas Bechtolsheim of Cisco Systems; John Chambers of Cisco Systems; John Gage of Sun Microsystems and Michael Dell of Dell Computer. Dell did not show up to receive his award. Pioneer awards went to Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and the Human Genome Project.
CAPTION: Current history: Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com was recognized last night with a Pioneer Award from the Smithsonian and Computerworld magazine.
CAPTION: The Human Genome Project's Ari Patrinos, left; and Lonnie Bunch, above, of the National Museum of American History.