The List, 2020 Edition

Thought leaders for the Internet era.

Flickr user Erik (HASH) Hersman under a Creative Commons license
Flickr user Erik (HASH) Hersman under a Creative Commons license

The world’s next great thinkers may well be just as brilliant as the ones on this list, but they’re likely to come to our notice in very different ways. Take William Kamkwamba, a 22-year-old from Malawi who already exemplifies a new generation of global leaders. A few years ago, he came upon an illustration of a windmill in an old textbook in a language (English) he barely understood and built one for his family so their house could have electricity. Soon he was thinking of ways to mass-produce his invention for distribution as ready-made kits.

Twenty years ago, Kamkwamba’s story might have stayed local. But instead he had the fortune of colliding with today’s Web-enabled global structure of intellectual intermediaries. In 2006, an innovation-focused blog called Hacktivate stumbled upon a write-up about Kamkwamba’s windmill in a Malawian newspaper. It took only a few months for a network of global thinkers and entrepreneurs called TED (full disclosure: I am a TED fellow) to pick up the story. In 2007, Kamkwamba spoke at a TED conference in Tanzania, where he mingled with Bono and Jane Goodall, and in 2009 he cowrote a best-selling book about his experience called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Will Kamkwamba be the next Sergey Brin? We don’t know yet. But his story suggests just how dramatically the Internet era has transformed the very process of becoming a global thinker — that is, the process of learning to get smart and heard at the same time — and how much those changes are for the better.

In the old, pre-Internet model, aspiring thought leaders and idea entrepreneurs had to establish residence either in one of the big cultural metropolises or, failing that, a college town with a decent library. Now, however, the very prospect of living in an “intellectual metropolis” has become nearly obsolete. As Harper’s Bill Wasik pointed out recently, “[The Internet is] a place that courses with all the raw ambition and creative energy that the hard times seem to have drained from New York.” As long as you pay your Internet bill, you might as well live in Skjolden, Norway, or in a hut next to Walden Pond.

The Internet is also democratizing education, making overspecialized and prohibitively expensive graduate schools ever harder to justify. With the Kindle, printable e-books, and now potentially Google’s scanned world library, the price of books is rapidly approaching zero. Just as the invention of the printing press allowed books to be mass-produced for the first time, making them readily available for the middle class, the new economics of the Web make books freely available to anyone with access to a computer. And English, the lingua franca of today’s intellectual world, is easier and cheaper than ever to learn, with millions of potential tutors just a Skype call away.

Many leading American universities are also publishing content from their best professors online. Now anyone can watch historian Donald Kagan’s lectures about ancient Greece on Yale University’s Web site or match wits with Paul Krugman’s old economics exams at Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel is releasing online video lectures of his oversubscribed course on justice, supplementing them with online discussion guides. A cursory look at peer-to-peer networks like Demonoid or even the infamous Pirate Bay — most commonly used for file-sharing — reveals that much of the content swapped on them is educational, from 1970s BBC documentaries to the eclectic courses produced by the Teaching Company. Judging by the comments on the file-sharing sites, many of their customers are in the developing world.

The world’s next crop of thought leaders will also have superior tools of transmission at their fingertips. Getting your piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times or an essay into the New York Review of Books is no longer the only way to credential yourself as a serious thinker. Starting your own blog, contributing to a site like the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast, writing a Web column for a newspaper, or penning an occasional guest post somewhere online can help to get your name out there much more quickly and, perhaps, even more effectively.

And once you’re out there — even if, like William Kamkwamba, you don’t have access to the Internet yourself — the Internet has sprouted a number of influential intermediaries, aggregators, and bloggers who can take you the next step. TED — and its growing collection of video talks, distributed to legions of iTunes fans around the world—is just one example. Another is TED’s competitor PopTech and its Social Innovation Fellows program.

This revolution in access to knowledge means that in 10 to 15 years, the global landscape of ideas will look completely different. It will no longer be centralized in the West because schooling in everything from the classics to windmill construction to modern art will be available to people in any country without leaving home. The ability to work from anywhere also makes the life of the mind a good deal cheaper. The new generation of public intellectuals, though still cosmopolitan in outlook, will be much more firmly embedded in their own locales, without the inferiority complex of old about their Western peers; in other words, expect more Pankaj Mishra than V.S. Naipaul.

Their debates will also be entirely different. A decade from now, instead of factions of Western (or at least Western-trained) thinkers arguing it out on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times or the lounges of Davos, we may well see this new generation of intellectuals from the developing world, home-educated but globally minded, speaking publicly and forcefully from blogs, columns, and their own intellectual reviews. The debate on climate change would no longer be dominated by a Danish economist fighting a former U.S. vice president, but instead might feature a Chinese environmental blogger and a promising Indian scientist.

The Internet may not turn us into a global village, but a global intellectual salon it already is.

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