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Star Wars, Ada Lovelace, DNA, Or The Internet: The Geek Debate Continues

Daniel Terdiman, senior writer, VentureBeat, authors Austin Grossman and Chris Taylor, and blogger Rusty Blazenhoff continue our Geek Debate.

Star Wars, Ada Lovelace, DNA, Or The Internet: The Geek Debate Continues
[Star Wars Episode VII: Disney Films; Ada Lovelace: via Wikipedia; DNA: Flickr user Thomas Wensing; Cat: Flickr user Helga Weber]

There were 32, and then 16, then 8, then four, and now two finalists.

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All this week, Fast Company readers have been casting their votes to help decide what the Greatest Geek Moment in History is. From 32 initial possibilities, we’re down to just two.

And to be clear, for those that are wondering, when we use the word “geek” we’re using one catchall word to encompass everything from science to science fiction, pure technology to entertainment. The same goes for “moment.” It could be an invention, a movie, an event, a brand, even a clock that tells time really slowly. If it can be summed up in a sentence or less, it counts.

Now you have one last opportunity to be heard, and possibly push your favorite over the top.

But all week, a group of some kick-ass technologists and cultural commentators have been making their own cases, in a series of debates, for what they thought should be the greatest geek moment.

On Sunday, Fast Company will announce the ultimate winner, simultaneously online and during a South by Southwest panel, coincidentally called “The Greatest Geek Moment in History.”

For todays debate, let’s let the panelists make their cases for the final four entrants in this geekiest of competitions (Star Wars, the Internet, Ada Lovelace, and the discovery of DNA’s double helix). Two of those entrants will be out by the time you read this, but each of the four are worthy of being defended.

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Please come back after 6:45pm ET on Sunday, March 15 to find out which moment won. Even if it wasn’t your personal favorite, I’m sure you’ll agree it was worthy.

Read on!

Daniel Terdiman, senior writer, VentureBeat: I love Star Wars. Truly. And the world wouldn’t be what it is today without programmers. Understanding DNA? Holy cow, think of the medicine and the health science, and the genetics that are possible because of that.

Yet…as much as I cherish the fact that I was at the Coronet theater in San Francisco the day the original Star Wars opened, on May 25, 1977—I think I earned a pretty special geek merit badge for that—I’m going with the Internet.

It’s what ties us together. It makes research easy, or at least easier. How many times have I tried to think about what it was like to do research before Internet access was simple and shuddered at the memory? Too many to count.

I feel connected to so many people around the world, and can find out information in just seconds about almost anything I want. Because of the Internet. It has its downsides, of course–spam, pop-up ads, Rickrolling. And of course all the inherent security holes. But those problems are so far outweighed by the benefits that, to me, this is a no-brainer.

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Austin Grossman, author, Soon I Will Be Invincible: I’m not choosing DNA. It’s a straight-up history of science milestone, fine, but does it stand out against relativity, calculus, or X-rays? I don’t see it happening. And it doesn’t have any specific place in the geek subculture. And then there’s the controversy over who gets the credit.

The other three make for a tough choice. 

Star Wars is, to me, both the culmination and undoing of geek culture. Sure, it was explosively great and put nerds on the map in a new way. Visually astonishing, a whole design aesthetic, roughed-up Syd Mead, realized at one go. A huge feat of imagination, it conjured a whole cosmology at one go. Throwaway lines like “The Kessel Run” spawned whole sub-narratives in my 8-year-old head.

At the same time, it realized nerd culture as consumer demographic, a money machine, an economic sector to be profiled and pandered to. It made us powerful and mainstream and taught the wrong lessons, like that geek media should become a Joseph Campbell factory cranking out annual generic $200 million light shows. And it’s now a nostalgia industry, dragging us back to being spoiled 8-year-olds instead of creative adults. It was wonderful in its moment; now it’s a weight around our necks. It’s the One Ring and it needs to go into the fire.

I’m very conflicted about Internet/Arpanet, because like Star Wars it contains the best and worst elements of geekdom. It’s Cold War science, partly there to be a distributed system that wouldn’t be wiped out by a nuclear attack. But scientists basically built it themselves so they could share results, and is there anything geekier than that? It’s become a Petri dish for so much. Colossal Cave and Zork and NetHack came to life there, and fanfic, and thousands and thousands of tiny geek subcultures. We all found each other there.

Maybe my hesitation comes from being part of the last generation of geeks not to grow up with the Internet. My early geekdom was profoundly isolated; I felt like the only geek on the planet, and that shaped the experience. It made me proud of inventing and upholding my own weirdness. It’s different now and the Internet made it different.

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And of course the Internet gave us hate mobs and harassment, Gamergate and catfishing. It turned geek passions that were hard-won and private to the point of sacredness into gifs and tired memes. Best and worst. I don’t know. It’s bigger than geekdom obviously, it’s almost too big to think about. Maybe if we’re thinking about a “moment,” the moment of invention rather than what came after, it can win.

Then last, Ada Lovelace. It’s a really tempting option. Not because she contributed anything on the scale of Arpanet, but because she was a geeky woman in the early Victorian period when that was unlooked-for on a level we can’t really conceive at this point. She was geeky and she didn’t have to be, she didn’t get anything for it. She had three kids but for the hell of it translated proto-computer science articles from French to English and added her own work, made friends with Babbage, and predicted a crapload of contemporary computer stuff.

I’m picking Ada because of the four, it’s closest to geekiness for its own sake—because it’s cool to think about numbers and logic, and because she liked writing to Babbage, and it was a cool friendship.

Chris Taylor, author, How Star Wars Conquered The Universe; deputy editor, Mashable: I hate to be that nerd who gets all technical about the rules, but … aw, who am I kidding, this is time to celebrate the passionate intensity and righting of wrongs that is the beating heart of geekdom. This is that nerd’s moment.

And moments are exactly what we’re supposed to be talking about. The greatest geek moment. So even if I were an impartial observer, and of course I’m not, I would point out that three of these things are not like the other. 

The Internet? Greatest geek *invention*. DNA double helix? Greatest geek *discovery*. Ada Lovelace? Greatest geek *hero.*

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But none of them have particular moments associated with them, points in time you’d want to return to and revel in. Maybe I’d like to hop in my TARDIS and share a pint with Watson and Crick at the Eagle & Lamb on the night of their discovery (but then again, given Watson’s racist shtick and their shameful shunning of Rosalind Franklin, maybe not). The impact of programming and the Internet was the definition of slow build. Where’s the eureka? To look for one misses the point. 

Star Wars, though–I don’t need to remind you how much of a bright splotch of color that was in a horrible, gray cultural desert. It was, as Richard Marquand, director of Return of the Jedi put it, the Beatles of the 1970s and 1980s. Utterly unexpected, unabashedly wonderful, a riot of life and imagination. Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

But perhaps I do need to remind you, because I often forget myself, that all of this grew out of an indie movie with a tiny budget. That no one, least of all the maker (George Lucas), expected it to succeed. That it didn’t even have a premiere. There was a modicum of marketing, but mostly this was a spontaneous carnival that shocked the Hollywood establishment and spread out across the globe from its starting point, which is the imagination of one shy, perfectionist San Francisco nerd. 

So as the momentary guardians on the gate of geekdom, let us send the other three candidates on their way. Let us give them Yavin throne room medals for all they’ve done for the world, but let us not confuse them with moments of sheer geeky glee. 

If there’s anything to debate, really, it’s which Star Wars moment we’re talking about. Release day in just 32 theaters? The moment Lucas cannily fought for sequel rights at the expense of salary, ensuring his eventual domination of the merchandising, which made him a billionaire? The moment he hired John Dykstra or Ralph McQuarrie or Harrison Ford?

To my mind, it’s the moment he abandoned the turgid Bible-like verse that opened his third draft, and replaced it with a fairy-tale intro, later edited down: “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, an amazing adventure took place.” 

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That said so much to geeks. It validated all those nights we stared at the sky, dreaming of what might be out there, of the alien empires that must have risen and fallen already. The universe is so impossibly large, it said, this amazing adventure probably did take place somewhere. Dreams like this are real. 

Rusty Blazenhoff, culture blogger: Hands down, I believe, the greatest geek moment in history is the invention of the Internet. I can’t imagine answering this any other way and I’ll tell you why. At this moment in time, I believe it’s the most significant system we’ve ever built. The human race has created this amazing system of tremendous magnitude that connects the world–in fact, the universe as we know it–and it’s significant to all living beings in ways we can’t even fully comprehend yet. I’d guess we’re only in the “Industrial Revolution” stage of its development, still quite new. Innovation is at a high and we’re progressing faster because of the Internet. Just 20 years ago, only an elite few were using it, and look at our lives now, we take it for granted. All things considered, 20 years is a extremely short period of time in the whole span of humanity. Try to imagine what place the world will be in 20 years from now. It’s kind of mind-blowing. 

Star Wars, on the other hand, while deeply culturally significant, cannot be considered the greatest geek moment because it’s really just a sliver of the pie. This is not to say that it’s not important, but, come on, a lot more lives have been altered by the Internet than this movie. There is no doubt that when future generations look back at the major advances in civilization, they will not be pointing to Star Wars over the Internet. I’m confident in that.

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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