“MIT Seeks to Flatter Wealthy Businessmen”

… is what the headline should have read on this Boston Globe article, “Stars of invention – Walk of Fame in Kendall Square celebrates technology and the entrepreneurial spirit”.  Apparently MIT and the city of Cambridge have set up a kind of Hollywood Stars walk in the square close to MIT:

Gates WoF star in Kendall Square, CC DanBricklin.  The quote reads “Never before in history has innovation offered the promise of so much to so many in so short a time”

They’ve put seven of these into the sidewalks, ones for Thomas Edison, Bill Hewlett and David Packard of HP, Bob Swanson of Genentech, Mitch Kapor of Lotus, and the inescapable Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  The idea for it came from Bill Aulet, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center.   He says “We retire baseball players’ uniforms and have all kinds of celebrations for sports figures, but there’s no place to celebrate entrepreneurship.  These are the celebrities people will look up to.”  He continues “This is about honoring these people, yes, but it’s more about the stories about them to inspire young people. Children are great imitators, and we need to give them something great to imitate.’’

Ah, so it’s for the children, children who might not realize that making billions of dollars is something that American society values.  The athletes are well-known, as are the musicians, as are the actors, but who will speak up for the unknown plutocrats?  Don’t they deserve the kind of attention that all these other groups with their professional staffs of publicists receive?   Well, actually they also have professional publicists, but they still need more attention.  Maybe if MIT gives it to them, they’ll give a little attention back, attention with a lot of zeros after it.

Unfortunately for the plan, the plutocrats don’t seem all that interested.    Of the four living honorees, only one, Mitch Kapor, showed up, and I’m afraid he’s the most minor of the seven.   Although he has had a long and interesting career, he was only head of Lotus for four years, and Lotus itself had neither the first or the best spreadsheet.  The other honorees didn’t even send flacks.  Dan Bricklin, creator of the first spreadsheet program, spoke in honor of Bill Gates, even though he never worked for him or even with him.  His gracious and balanced speech about that controversial figure is here.

The other backer of this project is the city of Cambridge, which hopes that the Walk will make it better known as a center for startups.   If Grauman’s Chinese Theater can become famous for having a Walk of Fame, why can’t Kendall Square?  Unfortunately, the choices here don’t back up that hope.   Kapor’s Lotus started in Cambridge, but only lasted there for 14 years before IBM bought it, and its sad remnants are now in Westford MA.   All the others came out of  Silicon Valley, except for Edison.  Shouldn’t this Walk be in Menlo Park CA instead?  That’s where most of these people did their work, and it’s even named after the site of Edison’s lab in New Jersey.

The larger question, though, is why such a Walk is even needed.   All of these people are well known and rich.  Why do they need even more stroking?    MIT should be honoring people who have not made billions, and yet whose innovations have really made a difference.  People like Richard Stallman, who as the creator of Emacs, GNU, and the Free Software Foundation has done at least as much for computing as Bill Gates, and maybe more.   He’s also actually connected to MIT and Cambridge.   He’s a difficult character in person (I’ve had the honor of being insulted by him at dinner), but he’s the sort who should be a role model for students, and who deserves a star in a sidewalk.

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3 Responses to “MIT Seeks to Flatter Wealthy Businessmen”

  1. mtraven says:

    Man, that is ridiculous. Best quote from the article “Gates was chosen because he created the software industry”.

    How about an alternative piece of public art, dedicated to the largely anonymous ordinary engineers who make things and reduces theory to practice on a daily basis? As you say, Jobs and Gates don’t need additional honors, but the worker bees do.

    • jlredford says:

      I can see it! The sculpture would have to be done in Soviet Heroic Realist style, with pixel-stained technopeasants striding towards the future, keyboard in one hand and coffee cup in the other.

  2. Rich says:

    Perhaps it will attract the attention of the undergraduates for a good hack, inscribing Stallman, Shannon, Rivest, Stata, Olsen, …

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