What do military strategist Henry Kissinger, tech entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, eco-influencer Greta Thunberg and rapacious dictator Joseph Stalin have in common? I should hope not very much. But behind this rather incoherent collection exists a unifying factor: each has been recipient of Time Person of the Year. Since 1927 the magazine has sought to locate the central point of influence every year: who had the most tangible impact; who best reflected trends and changing tides; who “for better or for worse” dominated global events?
This is not an accolade designed to reflect moral virtue. Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khomeini and Adolf Hitler were selected for aspirational ethical frameworks. Instead, this is an exercise in working out who matters. And it is hardly a revelation that influence and malevolence are common comorbidities.
Cynics might suggest the whole thing is artificial, contrived. The Great Man of History narrative is terribly unfashionable these days: power is complicated; historic causality remarkably fiddly to determine; how foolish to think a single figure can be elevated as the most important. Fair, in a narrow sense perhaps. But singular figures reflect the mores of a time and wield more agency than we might like to admit. And thinking about 2023 through the lens of its towering individuals is a good practice in much-needed introspection. So, who might make the cut?
In the long, swooping arc of history we might cite 2023 as a revolutionary turning point. Sam Altman – the 38-year-old chief executive of Open AI – would certainly believe so. Tech people always say that, but this time it is different. In the very least, the advent of ChatGPT and the astonishingly rapid improvements in artificial intelligence will frustrate politics; become invaluable tools in education; complicate the already tortured battle with so-called misinformation; and eradicate certain jobs from the economy.
In the fullness of history AI may prove to be far, far more disruptive than that. Whether Altman is the right figurehead for this revolution is a secondary concern – when the magazine hits the stands he has a worthy claim to the cover.
Meanwhile, 2023 is still emerging from the rubble and the ashes of the pandemic years. The idea of shared cultural experience was already hanging in the balance. Netflix and streaming services were making cinema seem a doomed endeavour; lockdown came to cast the final blow.
But thankfully, a knight in shining armour! The Barbie Movie was the story of the summer; reminding us all of the effervescent joy of sharing art and media with each other; painting the town in its signature candy pink. As culture traipses sadly into algorithmic feeds and solo-Netflix binges, it somehow took a toy from the 1950s to remind us that it needn’t be this way. The year 2023 felt like a cathartic middle finger to the malaise of the pandemic years. And Barbie has emerged as the unity candidate for Person of the Year.
Speaking of a return to monoculture, even the stoniest of cynics would find it hard to ignore the hegemony of Taylor Swift. Her Eras Tour has smashed income and attendance records across the United States, pouring cash into local economies. After her first 53 concerts, Bloomberg estimated US GDP rose $4.3 billion. Quite the impact. But Swift’s legacy is far deeper than can be tallied and quantified via numbers and data. It is the songs – how they speak to female adolescence, taking the plight of the teenage girl seriously – that are the core of her artistic longevity. Like Barbie, Swift is a unifying figure in a disjointed culture. Unlike Barbie, Swift is an actual person.
Back to reality. The fizziness of Swift and Barbie are a welcome distraction from the looming darkness in European politics. Across the continent the populist right wing – once relegated to the shadowy sidelines – are enjoying electoral momentum. Alternative für Deutschland has seen a 10 per cent increase in voter share; Vox in Spain saw success over the summer; Viktor Orban still sits comfortably aloft Hungarian politics.
Even in Ireland – a country that has long considered itself immune to this style of populism – we are seeing the first, creeping influence of it all. But if this movement has a spiritual figurehead then it must be Giorgia Meloni – a young woman with a compelling story who has read the tea leaves, mixing trenchant social conservatism with a surprising pro-Nato stance.
Of course special mentions must be afforded to King Charles – the modernising monarch with a fondness for English folk mysticism and Presocratic philosophy; the perennial strongmen of global politics Xi Jinping in China, Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, Narendra Modi in India – all obvious, all uninspiring as a pick; and then of course the hubris of the former crypto-billionaire, now criminal Sam Bankman-Fried whose spectacular fall from grace shocked the markets and perhaps dealt the deathblow to the cult of crypto currency. Volodymyr Zelenskiy still cuts a heroic figure; Elon Musk, another previous winner, can’t stay away from the front pages.
But the entire exercise of picking a person to represent the year is useless if it does not have an eye to the future. This is a list of the good and the great and the malign. When we think in the long term there is only one answer: Altman, the avatar of AI itself, and a world soon to be unrecognisable from its current form.