MIT Media Lab project plots history's most popular personalities

According to a new dataset, the big names in technology lag well behind actors, politicians and athletes in terms of global cultural significance

A data visualization from the Pantheon project showing which professions produced the globally well-knowbn people born since 1970, the results of which are discussed below.Image credit: MIT Media Lab
When it comes to producing well-known people, tech is lagging behind other professions

Technology seems to be dominating our culture these days. Likewise, some of the people that are making (and convincing us to buy and use) all of this technology, like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Marissa Mayer, seem to be everywhere. But, in the grand scheme of things, how culturally significant are techies, as compared to artists and athletes and politicians and other types of people? Based on a new project from MIT, it turns out that tech folks still don't resonate with everybody quite as much as you may think.

Pantheon is a new project by the Macro Collections group at MIT's Media Lab, whose goal is to collect, analyze and visualize datasets "that can help us understand the process of global cultural development." You can now browse the first big dataset they've assembled of thousands of the most globally well-known people through history. The website provides lots of ways to look at the data, from simple charts ranking people by their cultural significance, to data visualizations of which countries and professions have produced the most people with cultural impact.

They provide a description of the data and their methodology, which you can review for the gory details. In a nutshell, they looked at the 11,000 or so people who have Wikipedia profiles in at least 25 different languages. The researchers then developed a Historical Popularity Index (HPI) score for each person, which is based heavily on the number and distribution of pageviews of that person's Wikipedia bio across languages. The higher one's HPI, the more significant one is globally.

The data and the visualizations are fun to play with, and, in a lot of ways, the results aren't so surprising. Based on their methodology, the most well-known person in all of history was Aristotle, followed by Plato, Jesus Christ, Socrates and Alexander the Great. If we look at which "domains" (basically, professions) produce the most well-known people in all of history, politicians are first (22% of people on the list), followed by actors (10.5%), soccer players (9%), writers (8%) and religious figures (4.5%).

As you can see, technology, and technology people, don't the top the list. Since tech is a more recent phenomenon, I restricted things to people born since 1900. Even then, big names from the technology world are still missing. The top five most well-known people born since 1900 (out of 6,491 in the dataset) are Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley, Salvador Dali and Walt Disney. The top five professions for the most well-known people born since 1900 are actors (18%), soccer players (16%), politicians (15%), singers (7%) and writers (5.5%).

So, where are the techies on this list? Well, computer scientists made up only 0.5% of the most well-known people born since 1900. Looking through the entire list of people, Bill Gates is the top tech person on the list but, in general, tech's big wigs don't seem to have as much cultural impact as you might expect. Here's where Gates and other big tech names land on the list (I looked for both people tagged as computer scientists and business people in the tech world):

  • Bill Gates #97

  • Alan Turing #377

  • Steve Jobs #597

  • Tim Berners-Lee #1072

  • Paul Allen #1324

  • Linus Torvalds #1831

  • Larry Ellison #2052

  • Steve Ballmer #2853

  • Grace Hopper #3094

  • Larry Wall #3258

  • Eric Schmidt #3575

  • Larry Page #3894

  • Mark Zuckerberg #4169

  • Guido van Rossum #4191

  • Sergey Brin #4230

  • Michael Dell #4345

  • Timothy Cook #4485

  • Jerry Yang #4850

  • John Carmack #4981

  • Jeff Bezos #5087

Of course, this whole exercise is essentially arbitrary, and these data are based on Wikipedia, so take it all with a grain (or handful) of salt. But, still, I find it to be well thought out, pretty rigorous and, above all, very interesting. Despite the huge impact companies like Microsoft and Apple have had across the globe, the people most identified with those companies, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are far less culturally significant, at least using this metric, than the guy who starred in Kindergarten Cop, Conan the Barbarian and Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger (#56).

The Pantheon researchers point out that they will be constantly revising and updating their results, so maybe this will change over time. I would expect that techies will become more well-known and more culturally significant as the years pass. They may have a hard time, though, ever surpassing the global popularity of the Terminator.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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