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The List, 2020 Edition

Thought leaders for the Internet era.

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 mit.edu. 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.

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

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Market Riot

How the crisis inspired an entirely new set of big ideas on big money.

The financial markets may have survived 2009; the same can't be said for the ideology of the market. No surprise, then, that the big ideas and big thinkers of the year are an entirely different bunch than Foreign Policy might have collected before the Great Recession.

For a generation, mainstream economic policy skewed libertarian. Risk wasn't just tolerated but embraced, and the assumption was that government could only stifle growth. The Washington Consensus, pushed in tony conferences across the world, held that a country could do no better than reining in government spending and deregulating its economy. That orthodoxy was already under attack, but the collapse of the global economy dealt it a death blow. This was the year that the state made a comeback.

The new consensus: We need government bailouts and radical new central banking powers to save a teetering financial system; massive deficit spending to revive our comatose economies; and constant vigilance to keep Wall Street and Canary Wharf in check. Even Alan Greenspan, a walking symbol of the laissez-faire era if there ever was one, has signed on to that last verdict. "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity," the former Federal Reserve chairman told a U.S. congressional committee, "are in a state of shocked disbelief."

Perhaps no single person has done more to bury the old worldview than Greenspan's successor, Ben Bernanke (No. 1).  Bernanke spent his academic career studying the 1930s, concluding that a wave of bank failures transformed a deep recession into the Great Depression. The lesson he drew is that the Fed must do "whatever it takes" to prop up banks in a crisis, according to biographer David Wessel. Even by that standard, though, Bernanke turned out to be ambitious. By the end of this year, he'd effectively printed more than a trillion new dollars to increase the supply of credit. Thanks to this and other unprecedented moves, future Fed chairmen will have almost unchecked authority to intervene in financial markets. Wessel suggests Bernanke has turned the Fed into a "fourth branch" of government, and it's hard to disagree.

Once Barack Obama (No. 2) took office, Bernanke gained a soulmate in Larry Summers (No. 14), the U.S. president's chief economic advisor. While fighting the Asian financial crisis as a Treasury Department official in the 1990s, Summers concocted his own version of the Bernanke doctrine: "overwhelming force." This year he put that mantra to work at home. Summers championed the largest stimulus package in history at nearly $800 billion, part of a synchronized spending spree that reached from London ($30 billion) to Beijing (nearly $600 billion).

But though governments responded, it fell to outside experts to mount an autopsy of the crisis. The diagnoses tend to run along a single theme: financial innovation run amok. Back in 2003, Greenspan famously observed that derivatives -- basically bets on the value of another asset, like a bond or a currency -- are "an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn't be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so." Others made a similar case for "securitization," which amounts to slicing up an asset (like a mortgage) and selling it off to investors.

But this year brought vindication to those who argued that, in practice, derivatives and securitization were instead transferring risk to people who didn't understand it and weren't prepared to bear it, as economics writer Felix Salmon has put it. University of Chicago finance professor Raghuram Rajan had warned that companies like AIG, which essentially used derivatives to bet that U.S. housing prices wouldn't fall, failed to see that their losses would be enormous if homeowners started defaulting. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (No. 25) observed that the investors who bought up bits and pieces of subprime mortgages knew far less about the quality of the loans than the banks that originated them. Worse, the banks had little incentive to vet the loans because they knew they were eventually going to sell them.

Why didn't the world's biggest financial institutions do their homework? The fact that many were too big to fail had a lot to do with it. Because these banks knew their governments would have to bail them out, they built their business around a series of suckers'' bets: Heads, they win; tails, taxpayers lose.

Which brings us to the business of preventing future crises. It was a bumper year for ideas on how to fix the financial world -- from new consumer watchdogs to checks on executive pay. But at the heart of the discussion was a debate over how big is too big. In one camp were those like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (No. 29), who reconciled themselves to bigness and hoped to exact "boringness" in return -- in other words, to make banks behave more like local savings-and-loans than highly leveraged hedge funds. In the other camp were those like Simon Johnson, the mit professor and former IMF chief economist, who insisted that bigness can't be managed. The bigger the bank, the greater its political power, and the more difficult it is to regulate.

In the end, though, maybe the solution to what ails us has less to do with any particular piece of the financial system than with our notions of economic progress itself. In September, Stiglitz and fellow Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (No. 58) released a study questioning the value of gdp as a measure of human welfare. According to Stiglitz and Sen, simply measuring economic output glosses over the things we really care about -- namely, the average citizen's quality of life. It also ignores the toll that growth takes on the environment and whether growth is even sustainable. Worst of all, it encourages the belief that more material goods are always better, the mindset that helped create the bubble. As Stiglitz told reporters, "If you don't measure the right thing, you don't do the right thing." Suffice it to say, there must have been an awful lot of mismeasurement going on during the boom.

Mario Tama/Getty Images