If your work never gets the world-historical acknowledgement it deserves, don’t worry. You’re in good company.
Kristina M. Johnson
Paul B. MacCready
Stanford R. Ovshinsky
Gary D. Sharp
Do you know who any of these people are? (No Googling!) Hint (not really a hint!): They are all about to join the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Which proves one thing: Fame ain’t what it used to be.
Part of that has to do with how media works, but it also has to do with how the world works. Advanced technical societies like ours rely on specialization a lot, which has the effect of hiding an unbelievable amount of expertise and achievement below the radar of most people, who couldn’t grasp its importance if they tried.
Say you change the world for millions of people who benefit from your work—most likely no one will know outside a handful of other experts in your line. The best you can hope for these days is field-dependent fame.
Fellow Messager Zeynep Tufekci coined the above term for this phenomenon. “Brian Kernighan” — (who?) — “came to a talk of mine once,” she said. “He’s soooo big to me, but unknown. Anyway, I later tried to explain to him how it felt. He was like, ‘Oh, I guess how it felt like when John Nash came to my talk.’”
That’s what scientific fame amounts to today: You won’t be famous for 15 minutes or even 15 seconds; you’ll be famous to 15 people. Eventually you might rate a biopic.
Probably the most famous example of field-dependent fame is the Oscar’s Technical Achievement Awards. Recipients of the technical awards invented pretty much everything that makes movies these days, but they don’t get a statue. They get a collective paper certificate, with the names of all of the other people who contributed to their award-winning work on it. (Thanks, Academy!)
This is how serious scientific people share credit, by the way, not by electing one individual to the limelight while consigning the inevitably long list of collaborators to a piece of paper unfolded from a tuxedo pocket.
Actual achievements are almost never individual efforts any more, but the reality is that sharing credit kills narrative. If you think this is unfair, consider that Hollywood — and its significantly up-leveled brand of fame, celebrity — has more cultural influence than field-famous scientists toiling on headache-inducing technical problems where the facts tend to muck up the storytelling. It’s how an actor like Brad Pitt becomes a bigger name on climate change than a former NASA scientist like James Hansen (no relation).
“In all fairness inventors are soooooooo boring,” Message co-contributor Paul Ford eye-rolled when I first shared the idea for this post, and the list of names up top. (More on them soon — and points for recognizing Ovshinsky, Paul!)
He’s got a point. If drama and good story are born of conflict, just imagine the plight of the script-writer tasked with revealing the creation of history-changing software code. We’ve all seen it: A Unix terminal flashes on a screen somewhere as fingers fly across a keyboard. Brows are furrowed. Bottles of Jolt are consumed as a Facebook is birthed to the world.
Or something like that, probably.
Fame has become so closely associated with fiction in the public eye that Hollywood is now having a ball playing with the opposite side of the coin — stories involving shadow histories where the truth can never come out. In this version of the fame fantasy, the higher the achievement the greater the price of obscurity our heroes must pay, their feats locked forever inside a black box of government secrecy: Private fame as the ultimate high, the connoisseur’s fame. (This may be more blessing than curse. See related story, “The Cost of Fame,” also in The Message, by danah boyd.)
So it is that when Benedict Cumberbatch and team break the German Enigma code in The Imitation Game they have not only assured the Allied victory but — even better — no one can ever know.
Stewart Menzies: And you’re going to trust of this all to statistics ? To maths ?
Alan Turing: Correct.
Joan Clarke: And then MI6 can come up with the lies we will tell everyone else
Alan Turing: You’ll need a believable alternative source for all the pieces of information that you use
Joan Clarke: A false story, so that we can explain how we got our information, that has nothing to do with Enigma, and then you can leak those stories to the Germans
Alan Turing: And then to our own military
Stewart Menzies: Maintain a conspiracy of lies at the very highest levels of govt ?… Sounds right up my alley
Whenever Hollywood starts using tropes, it’s clear something is up. In this case, what’s clear is that the relationship between fame and achievement, ruptured for quite a while, has completely forked in our time. This even applies— especially applies? — to athletic achievement, with its dismal shadow history of steroid cheaters.
It’s not all doom and gloom for glory-seekers. We still love to celebrate achievement regardless of how it maps to fame — forever, fleetingly or never at all. For a fun and convincing demo, just visit any random Hall of Fame. There are well over one hundred in the U.S. alone, celebrating some of the most obscure achievements you could ever imagine.
The Croquet Hall of Fame in West Palm Beach Florida has been discerning the most important contributors to the sport since 1979, including some actual famous people. (Hello, Harpo Marx and Sam Goldwyn!)
As of Sept. 14, 2014, the National Mining Hall of Fame had inducted 227 men and women into its ranks. “Consideration is given to prospectors, miners, mining leaders, engineers, teachers, financiers, inventors, journalists, rascals, geologists and others,” its Web site notes. (Rascals…nice.) You’ll be hard-pressed to recognize a-one, yet their accomplishments will leave you beggared — particularly if you specialize in Applications of Computers and Operations Research in the Mining Industry (APCOM) — congrats 2014 inductee Dr. Alfred Weiss, deceased.
Perhaps nowhere has the bar been set higher than at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin, where nominees must survive a gauntlet of 35 recognition criteria, including this unicorn:
“Magnitude or importance of endeavors [that] stand out among contemporaries as being avant-garde, unparalleled, unprecedented, transcendent, and served as an inspiration to others.”
With so much achievement, and so little fame to go around, I want to take just a moment to acknowledge the fine accomplishments of the 2015 inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, listed above. You will collect your honors on May 12, but as of today, you’re all famous to me.
(P.S. — You can Google them now, and probably should.)