Top ten brains of the digital future

Who are the world's leading thinkers on technology? Prospect has convened an expert panel to select the top ten minds whose ideas are helping to shape our future
December 15, 2010
Above: digital consumers are living for the first time in a culture where being part of a globally interconnected group is normal
When we refer to something digital—a film, a book, a song—we simply mean that it exists as a string of ones and zeroes within a machine. As ever more of our cultural and intellectual life migrates towards digital media, however, the staggering implications are becoming clear: that to live in a digital age is to live in an era of instantaneous and infinite reproduction, communication and creation. Change has rarely been at once so rapid and so universal; and many ideas that will shape the 21st century are emerging from the digital realm. In the past 12 months, the total number of global internet users has swept past the 2bn mark. Thanks to the explosive growth of mobile phones, we live for the first time in a culture where being part of a globally interconnected group is normal for most of the world’s adults. The last major medium not to have gone digital—books—has begun to make the transition in earnest. Apple’s iPad has sold over 1m units a month since its launch in April, and helped define a new kind of computing device, the tablet. The population of the world’s largest virtual social network, Facebook, has passed the half billion mark—while human-machine interactions took another leap forward with the launch in November of Microsoft’s Kinect: an affordable device that allows users to interact with a games console through movement alone. But if 2010 was important, 2011 promises still more. The US Supreme Court is currently hearing the first appeal involving interactive media, about whether selling violent videogames to minors should be criminalised. More controversies will arise as the growing power of interactive media provokes debate over not only violence, but also addiction and the “shallowing” of information-saturated minds. Beyond this, 2011 is set to see a greater intensity of both debate and legislation around personal information, virtual identities and digital public spaces—those increasingly valuable and exploitable aspects of most lives that now exist online. From privacy to data ownership, and from intellectual property to the ethics of conduct and commerce, the intersection between technology and society poses some of the most vital questions that our intellectual culture must address if we wish to describe—let alone decide—what 21st-century living means.

Digital society's top three: Tim Berners-Lee, Susan Crawford and Henry Jenkins are helping to shape the future of our wired century

1. TIM BERNERS-LEE In March 1989, the British engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published a research paper outlining his concept for “a universal linked information system” that would “allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important.” It’s an event that numbers among the most significant in recent history, for Berners-Lee’s proposal introduced what would come to be known as the world wide web: the greatest communications project in history, and an open system that today contains over a trillion unique locations and that is used by almost a third of humanity. Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee studied physics at Oxford before working in telecoms, software engineering and technical design. In 1984 he became a fellow at Cern in Switzerland, where in 1989 he first conceived of the system that would change the world. Berners-Lee was knighted in 2004 for his achievements and is revered today as “the father of the web.” Perhaps still more remarkable than his ingenuity, however—and the reason that he heads our list of the world’s most important digital thinkers—is his continuing, impassioned advocacy of the freedom and universality embodied in his creation. Once the web had begun to demonstrate its potential, rather than profit from restricting its use, Berners-Lee dedicated himself to ensuring its permanent availability to all. In 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organisation resolved “to lead the Web to its full potential” by maintaining openness and open, universal digital standards. A proud, restless parent, Berners-Lee is an advocate of what might prove the web’s next great evolution, a “semantic” network able to connect different sites by interpreting the meaning of the information within them. Most recently he and professor Nigel Shadbolt helped lead the “open data” movement in Britain, persuading the government to release vast amounts of public information online—as well as co-ordinating efforts across the rest of the world to bring ever more knowledge into the hands of citizens, complete with the tools to use it. 2. SUSAN CRAWFORD Barack Obama’s special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy until December 2009, Susan Crawford is a legal scholar, renowned blogger and thinker once described by Wired magazine as “the most powerful geek close to the president.” Currently a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City, Crawford has written extensively about issues including online identity, freedom and net neutrality—the principle that all internet users paying for a service should be entitled to an identical level of access, unrestricted by either governments or internet service providers. Crawford herself is an outspoken critic of allowing companies “private control over communications” online. Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1963, Crawford studied at Yale and was a partner at a firm in Washington before becoming a professor at Cardozo for the first time in 2002. Having overseen the expenditure of Obama’s stimulus package on broadband internet and sat on the board of ICANN, the corporation responsible for managing all internet address allocations, hers is one of the most influential perspectives around on the future of online culture. 3. HENRY JENKINS How are digital media affecting what constitutes “culture”—and what should it mean to educate the citizens of a digital world? Henry Jenkins, professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, is perhaps the world’s most influential and radical scholar addressing these questions. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1958, his early career explored how the relationship between readers and texts was transformed by new media and fan culture. Through books like 2006’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, he has since become one of the definitive chroniclers of online culture in all its frantic complexity. Jenkins is also the principal investigator for Project New Media Literacies, a group developing new educational methods for teaching engagement with contemporary media; while his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium is devoted to building links between academic researchers and the media industry in order to help the rethinking of consumer relations. 4. JIMMY WALES In 2001, American entrepreneur Jimmy Wales founded what would become the world’s most influential single information portal, Wikipedia: a free online encyclopaedia that could be both accessed and edited by anybody. Debates over accuracy and range continue but, today, the site boasts almost 3.5m articles in English and over 22m pages in total, written in 275 languages and used by over 380m people monthly. Through his campaigning, Wales has maintained the site as a free service without using advertising—making it a byword for the power of online collaboration. 5. STEVEN JOHNSON American author Steven Johnson is one of the world’s bestselling and most prescient explainers of technology. His 1997 debut, Interface Culture, was one of the first studies of how interacting with machines changed the nature of thinking, while 2005’s Everything Bad Is Good for You offered an influential defence of popular culture. His 2010 book, Where Good Ideas Come From, explored the ways in which old and new world-changing innovations emerge. As well as writing books, in 2006 he founded the online service—a “geographic web” of local information. 6. IQBAL QUADIR Born in Bangladesh in 1958, Iqbal Quadir worked in banking in the US before founding Bangladesh’s first GSM mobile phone provider in 1997—a company that today is its leading telecommunications service provider. The principle of empowering citizens in poorer countries through mobile phone access, which Quadir pioneered, has been one of the most radically effective technological innovations of recent decades. Quadir has also set up a foundation to promote innovations in Bangladesh, as well as a new company developing power generation capabilities for rural farmers and villagers. 7. JANET MURRAY One of the world’s most influential interactive designers, Janet Murray is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and specialises in connecting research work on artificial intelligence with cultural forms such as games, film, literature and television. With a PhD in English from Harvard, Murray’s work looks ahead to the newly expanded possibilities of expression created by interactive media, and is hugely influential on the cutting edge of game design, interactive television and filmmaking. 8. JIANG ZEMIN As the internet grows steadily in importance, so too do issues of censorship and cyber-warfare. And few individuals have had more influence in this field than former Chinese premier Jiang Zemin, who as China’s president between 1993 and 2003 oversaw the launch of its “great firewall” and what has become the world’s most sophisticated system of online snooping, regulation, infiltration and cyber-warfare. Understanding the nature of the modern web also means understanding these forces—how and why they began, and are wielded. 9. JOI ITO Born in Japan in 1966, Joi Ito has founded companies including PSINet Japan, Digital Garage and Infoseek Japan. He teaches and speaks widely, and is chair and chief executive of Creative Commons—a non-profit organisation devoted to expanding the range of creative works available online for others to build upon and share legally. Ito took over the role in 2008 from founding CEO Lawrence Lessig, and has championed Creative Commons as the world’s leading model for the free, regulated distribution and re-use of creative work online. 10. JILL TARTER As director of the US Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti) programme, astronomer Jill Tarter was the model for Jodie Foster’s character in the film of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, and is the world’s most prominent figure in the search for extraterrestrial civilisations. Tarter has led Seti in making unprecedented use of mass online collaboration in analysing its vast stores of astronomical data, as well as helping to develop and co-ordinate the future of the US astronomical programme. THE RUNNERS-UP Speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson was praised, as was Christopher “mOOt” Poole, the elusive founder of 4chan, the world’s most influential imageboard website. The WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, is hard to ignore; while writers Charles Leadbeater, Jonathan Zittrain and Clay Shirky are numbered among the most influential public voices exploring the internet’s impact and future. Ted Nelson was hailed for inventing the precursor to the world wide web; Premal Shah for his microfinance site; and Sugata Mitra for his inspirational work on digital learning.
The Prospect panelAleks Krotoski is a fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, doctor of social psychology, writer and broadcaster; most recently, she presented The Virtual Revolution (BBC) Ren Reynolds is a philosopher, writer, strategist, founder of, former head of digital strategy at Cable & Wireless, and consultant to several government departments Justine Roberts is a writer, journalist, and co-founder and chief executive of the website Mumsnet, one of Britain’s most successful community websites Bronwen Maddox is the editor of Prospect and former chief foreign commentator of The Times Tom Chatfield is Prospect’s former arts and books editor and the author of Fun Inc. (Virgin)