As TIME Magazine joins dozens of other storied periodicals in their weary march toward post-digital irrelevance, one time-honored and colossally arbitrary tradition has held firm: The selection of “Man of the Year” and its bastard cousin, the TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people. Despite years of embarrassing choices, today the magazine continued the latter franchise with a list that, as in years past, lionizes mass murderers, sadistic dictators, and corrupt political powerbrokers in the same breath as actors and pop stars. And by treating war criminals and despots as if they were as innocuous as celebrities, TIME obscures the dire human costs wrought by history, as well as those casualties to come.
But the offensiveness of equating Kanye West to Kim Jong-Un is only one reason these lists must be stopped. They’re also hugely inaccurate, existing as incredibly poor indicators of influence, particularly in the spheres of commerce and industry.
Never one to miss out on the zeitgeist, a few years back TIME began including a handful of tech founders and CEOs on its list of influencers. And in what’s either a reflection of the New York media’s scene shallow understanding of Silicon Valley or a reflection of the larger capriciousness of this list and lists past, 2015’s selections representing the tech scene are, as expected, almost entirely random.
Unsurprisingly, Apple’s Tim Cook makes an appearance — his second along with a place on 2012’s list — though his inclusion seems to have as much to do with his vocal stance on LGBTQ issues as it does with leading a firm with a $ 700 billion market cap. Which is fine, but if progressive social politics are a requirement for inclusion, what possible explanation is there for including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who, along with running a company that fades in relevance with each passing year, once advised women looking for a raise to quiet down and trust the system?
Looking beyond Big Tech, TIME made an overture toward younger companies by putting Airbnb’s Brian Chesky on the list, but went no further in highlighting the new unicorn class of companies. And while Airbnb is undoubtedly one of the most important and innovative startups in the world, it’s surprising that TIME would include Chesky but not Travis Kalanick who, for all his faults, runs the highest-valued private company in Silicon Valley*. Last year was certainly the year he — ahem — made the most news and raised capital at a jawdropping $ 40 billion valuation. Meanwhile, Airbnb continued to chug along quietly behind the scenes.
The techies are supposed to be the “titans” and “pioneers,” but Chesky was the only Silicon Valley startup founder on the entire list — odd given the age of unicorns and deca-corns we live in. TIME did include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, but the professional social network is well past its IPO, and Hoffman is as much a VC these days as a founder.
Maybe it’s because Chesky, along with Hoffman, are among the “nice guys” in the Valley. And in keeping with the feature’s techno-utopian bent, the magazine perhaps aims to cast Silicon Valley as a warm and welcoming cradle of innovation, not a center of industry that can be as coldly capitalistic as Wall Street. But if that’s true, it constitutes a shift from last year when Kalanick appeared on the list as did Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel — despite the fact that in the past twelve months Spiegel has grown enormously in maturity. Last year, he was still just a guy who ran a sexting app and sent emails about “large kappa sigma dicks.”
Speaking of Hoffman, he’s the only investor on the list — no Ben Horowitz, no Marc Andreessen, no Peter Thiel, not even Forbes’ recent poster boy Chris Sacca. Furthermore, the blurb devoted to Hoffman doesn’t even mention his investments, only his status as founder at LinkedIn, where he’s since handed the reins over to CEO Jeff Weiner. TIME must consider it more romantic to focus on the cult of the founder than the wallet of the VC.
There’s little to complain about the group that comprises the rest of the tech set which included Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, who became one of the central targets of the hateful garbage-movement Gamergate. One of the upsides of the list’s erratic makeup is that it also happens to highlight diversity in tech, whether intentionally or not.
If wanting to send a message about tech’s bad boy behavior was the goal, it’s a bit rich. And we say that as a publication that published 6,000 words about the Valley’s increasing asshole culture last year. At least these guys are just threatening journalists, illegally suppressing wages, and abusing troves of data on their worst days.
This is after all a magazine that saluted Adolf Hitler as “Man of the Year” in 1938. And 2015’s list features such dishonorable names like Kim Jong-Un whom, along with threatening nuclear assaults against the United States, leads the most repressive regime in the world and is the cause of untold amounts of misery for his citizens. There’s also India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who as implicated by Human Rights Watch and others played a gruesome role in the mass killing and displacement of minority Muslims. And TIME couldn’t possibly leave off the world’s favorite “celebrity-despot,” Russian President Vladimir Putin who in pursuing what Pando’s Mark Ames calls a “Nixon Strategy” with regard to Ukraine has helped send “a steady stream of mangled Ukrainian fighters” to hospitals and morgues. And as for honorees causing agony in the US — albeit of a less existential nature — TIME also gave a nod to Charles and David Koch who have arguably introduced more corruption into the American political system than anyone else alive.
I understand TIME’s insistence that it is merely assigning points based on influence, whether that influence is positive or needlessly, cold-heartedly, evilly negative. And yet the language often used to describe these men makes them sound less like war criminals and more like naughty pranksters. In 2012, TIME called Syrian President Bashar Assad a “rogue” as if he belongs in a Wes Anderson movie, the old swashbuckling scamp. That’s the same Assad who is overseeing a civil war in his country that has left 200,000 people dead, and counting.
And that same year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the list — though he wasn’t considered mischievous enough to be considered a “rogue” like Assad. Instead, Khamenei is described by TIME’s Fareed Zakaria in a blurb as a “savvy political player.” What Zakaria failed to mention was Khamenei’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law, which among other things mandates that women found guilty of adultery — even if they are raped — are to be buried in the ground up to their necks so that men can throw stones at their heads until they are dead. In the face of these entries, it’s difficult to gripe that TIME failed to honor, say, Elon Musk or Marc Andreessen.
As offensive as it is inaccurate, the TIME 100 is among the most outdated and unsettling media phenomena in the world. And though I’m not sure how long TIME will continue to exist, it’d be nice to see the tradition discontinued sometime before the magazine’s demise. Because while listing dictators and despots alongside Kanye West and Bradley Cooper by no means condones their crimes, it paints a misleading portrait of world politics where the stakes are no higher than in a game of Risk, and the players are as glamorous and blameless as celebrities.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]
*An earlier version of this post stated that Uber was the highest-valued private company in the world, not Silicon Valley. As a reader points out, Cargill has a higher valuation.