Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Most Famous Person of the 20th Century

Ok, here's a parlor game you can play the next time all of the stations on your car radio are playing commercials and NPR is airing Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

The game is to answer the question, Who will be the best known person of the 20th century in 5000 years? It's somewhat like asking who will win the Super Bowl in 2050, but better. The famous person question relies on principles that are probably pretty constant over time. The principles that make someone famous today probably made them famous 5000 years ago and will do so 5000 years from now. The object of the game is to figure out what those principles are and, to answer this particular question, who will benefit from them most.

Today the most famous person from the 20th century is probably Hitler, Pele, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. Their name recognition is above 90% around the globe. But in the year 7003 no more than a fraction of a percentile will know who these athletes were, and there will probably be many more horrific and brutal people to dilute Hitler's infamy. (I'm not confident we'll be able to keep powerful weapons out of the hands of evil men forever -- especially not for 5000 years. The man responsible for leveling London will be famous for a long, long time.) Hitler's fame also rests largely on the fact that he's not truly history yet -- so many people now living witnessed him and his horrors. That living link gives him salience that will erode over the next thousand years. And as soon as there's a more resonant placeholder for the proposition that evil really does exist in the world, Hitler's role in the popular imagination will wither away.

It's possible that the winner is a sleeper -- someone who's scarcely above the noise now. The fame of Muhammad and Van Gogh has grown exponentially over time. Who knows, maybe Glenn Reynolds's star is just rising.

My best answer for the question is a person who today might be known by 50% of the world. Maybe a lot more or a lot less. I'm sure he's not known by 98%, like Muhammad Ali supposedly is, but he's not a dark horse, either. But in 5000 years I suspect he'll still be known by a significant number of people, and he'll certainly be better known than Einstein, Churchill, FDR, Pope John Paul II or any living athlete or entertainer.

I'll give my answer in the Shout Outs, as soon as they're working. In the mean time, think of someone with staying power.

17 Comments:

Blogger Ben said...

Definitely Paul McCartney or John Lennon

5:49 PM  
Blogger Tan said...

Definitely, Paul McCartney and John Lennon

6:23 PM  
Blogger Zerobelow said...

Kurt Cobain

12:32 PM  
Blogger Nikita Pirogov said...

In my personal opinion it's suppose to be a Hitler just because of the World War II and his regime.

4:31 PM  
Blogger SAILAway said...

Chairman Mao

7:40 PM  
Blogger Devok said...

MICHAEL JACKSON !

6:36 PM  
Blogger Devok said...

devok is obviously correct

MJ is the one!

11:52 PM  
Blogger Nicola said...

Jackson, Michael

9:31 AM  
Blogger Anders said...

I think that hitler is a qualified guess. I think that it has to be a person that did something very big, but still is easy to define. Like: Cobain? yeah, he wrote a couple of #1 songs and killed himself. Hitler? Yeah, he used his propaganda to make an entire nation his army, started a world war, conquered several countries, and killed 5 million people. So i think that i will be some kind of dictator or world leader, more than it will be Lennon or Cobain.

Sorry for any typing errors or weird word use, as i am from Denmark. I Hope that you know what i mean.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

No-one comes close to ELVIS.
Not only was he the greatest singer but also the greatest American cultural icon. This world would be different for the worse had he not been born. He truly was adn always will be THE KING.

11:40 PM  
Blogger lexi, lex said...

michael jackson. for sure.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

It would be the one and only einstine!!
The best genius world has ever hold!!
His theories and inventions are remarkable as even after centuries every thing he has ever invented proved to be true!!

12:46 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

It would be the one and only einstine!!
The greatest genius world has ever hold!!
His theories and inventions are remarkable as even after centuries every thing he has ever invented proved to be true!!

12:49 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

It would be the one and only einstine!!
The greatest genius world has ever hold!!
His theories and inventions are remarkable as even after centuries every thing he has ever invented proved to be true!!

12:49 PM  
Blogger haroon said...

Micheal Jackson

4:14 AM  
Blogger Jakob The Wise said...

You all know the name, but just dont think of it. It has been known for more than a thousand years already, and will always been known. Julius Caesar, all who know of religion know of Caesar, all who know of history know of Caesar. Caesar also holds the record of being single ruler of the most land.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Michael Harris said...

Neil Armstrong. In 5000 years July 20 1969 will eclipse every date in the last 1000 years, no doubt about it.

7:55 PM  

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