It’s 2015, and this AD thing we’re doing has been going on for a while. Which makes it pretty impressive when someone born before AD is not only known to us, but universally famous—over 2000 years after they were alive. To name a few: Buddha, Confucius, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Jesus Christ. So the question is:
In the year 4015, everything before the year 2000 will be as far back in the past to the people then as everything BC is to us now. Who from our modern era—let’s say from 1700 to the present1—will be not only be known, but universally famous to 4015 people?
A follow-up could be: Which people from before 1700 who are universally famous now (everyone from those ancient people I mentioned to Galileo, Columbus, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, etc. more recently) will still be universally famous in 4015? All of them? Or will some only be known to history buffs by then?
Some people think the human world might be long gone by 4015, but for this question, let’s assume it’s doing just fine.
This is a supremely difficult question. There are a lot of contenders:
- Older artists, writers, and musicians like Van Gogh, Monet, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Twain, Mozart, and Beethoven
- Older world leaders like Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Peter the Great, George Washington, and Queen Victoria
- Older thinkers like Darwin, Kant, Adam Smith, Marx, Emerson
- A large slew of more modern people: Gandhi, Edison, Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Einstein, Neil Armstrong, Henry Ford, Martin Luther King, Orwell, Salinger, Picasso, Elvis, Sinatra, and Walt Disney, to name a few
- The hardest are the most modern contenders, many of whom are alive today, because it’s hard to ever imagine someone so contemporary being as famous in 2000 years as Julius Caesar: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Mandela, Bin Laden, Obama, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and a ton more I can’t believe I’m considering
- I’m probably missing some obvious non-Western contenders, so I hope people will discuss them in the comments
Before I discuss any people, let’s understand the challenge at hand. Here are five reasons this is so hard:
People from our era who are legendary in 4015 may not be that famous right now. There are two ways a modern person might emerge into timeless fame: 1) They’re incredibly famous now and it sticks, or 2) They’re not that famous now and emerge later for other reasons. For #1, it’s not at all for sure that people who seem obvious now, like Mozart, will stick—in the scheme of things, Mozart (1756 – 1791) is super modern, and that might be part of the reason he’s such a big deal now. That’s hard enough, but #2 is almost impossible to figure out—maybe Philip Glass is one of the top 5 most famous ancient composers in 4015 and one of the things people know about him is that “he wasn’t fully appreciated until a few centuries after his time”—and there’s no way we’d ever know that now.
It largely depends on what happens in the future. We don’t know now what grander movements we’re a part of that will significantly affect the world in 4015. Caesar is so famous because the Roman Empire turned out to last 500 years and dramatically alter the world in a way that is still very important. If the leaders after Caesar had botched it and the empire had fallen much earlier, no one today other than serious history buffs would have any idea who Caesar is. So when thinking about someone like George Washington, he might have potential for Caesar-like fame if the era of US prominence ends up being a truly history-altering thing that stands out when looking at multiple millennia. Given how much impact any dominant country will be able to have in the future, I don’t think we know the answer to that yet. And depending on how that goes, Washington could either become much less of a thing or much more of a thing. Caesar might be a more mythic character today—partially due to Shakespeare—than he was in 200 AD.
Luck plays a huge role. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle stand out amongst all other philosophers of their time—but why, with so many philosophers in ancient Greece, did those three rise to such ridiculous heights? I’d bet that the answer is a lot more complicated than, “They were simply more profound and more influential than everybody else.” More likely, it’s that they, or maybe some fan of theirs later, were very clever about pushing their work into long-lasting prominence. Or maybe it was an important influencer in the world of 4th century academia who re-discovered their works and brought them onto a much bigger stage, and then maybe there was some king three centuries after that who decided he liked what they said, so he made it a mandatory part of his kingdom’s curriculum—and that’s how they got to their level of recognition today (this is only a hypothetical example—I don’t know that particular progression of history or how it actually happened). The point is that there were a lot of smart philosophers in ancient Greece, and I don’t believe it’s just that the best ones endured. There are a bunch of factors that lead to one school of philosophy becoming mythic 2000 years later and most of the other schools being completely forgotten. As for Jesus, what if Constantine hadn’t decided it was strategic to embrace Christianity, and instead set his mind on defeating it? What would that have meant for Jesus being well-known today?
We don’t know which of our current industries will prove important or compelling to people in 4015. We know ancient writers like Homer, playwrights like Sophocles, military or religious leaders like Alexander the Great or Jesus, thinkers like Aristotle, mathematicians like Euclid, etc. But I certainly cannot name a famous ancient athlete and I doubt you can either. So does that mean Michael Jordan or Pelé or Tiger Woods don’t have a chance of lasting to 4015? Clearly, one of the factors here is that a playwright or philosopher could record their work in writing that could be passed down while a stunning 200BC athlete couldn’t put their highlight reel on YouTube. But it’s also about what’s valued in 4015. If basketball is still huge then, Michael Jordan might be mythical. If basketball is some odd ancient sport only a 4015 sports historian could tell you about, Michael Jordan will vanish from recognition. Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg? Seems ridiculous, but it totally depends. What will something like Facebook mean in 4015? Completely unknown, or one of the great founding brands of the Connected Era?
Our technological ability to record and document life now will provide the future with a vast amount of information that ancient times weren’t able to provide—and it’s hard to figure out exactly what that means for this question. As mentioned above, in the past, physical writing turned out to be a great indicator of what could last through the millennia and what was forgotten. But how about a 4015 world where a simple database search could pull up an obscure 2005 blog or photo album or video? How will it change things when you can watch an interview with any ancient person you want? Does it mean it’ll no longer be possible to achieve mythic status? Or will those who last be even more legendary because people will be able to know them so much better? With 20 centuries between now and 4015—and god knows what kinds of technologies will emerge that will make recording life even easier—what will determine what will be lost in that endless pile of available info, and what will endure? With so much access to the vivid and unwavering truth about ancient times, will the concept of history itself become a different thing?
One way I think this factor will affect things: you know how back in the 60s, everyone was counting the days till The Beatles released their next album, and then when it came out, everyone got it and listened to it right away—and how now, the music world has completely changed and no one band is as widely listened to as The Beatles were then? I think it’s gonna be like that. In the same way that more musicians today have some level of audience but fewer of them are Beatles-level famous, I think more people from our time will be famous in 4015 than the number of ancient people who are famous now—but people’s increasing level of access to history will mean that in 4015, very few of them will reach Cleopatra’s level of fame.
So the only reasonable answer is that I have no idea—but I’ll give my best crack. I’ll use three questions to help me:
– What will this era be known for?
– When people in 4015 ask, “How did the world get to be the way it is?” which answers will draw them back to our era?
– Who in our time might be the first to do something in an area that’s still well known in 4015?
Using those questions, here are my scattered thoughts:
- First, it’s true that this may be known as the era we used up all the fossil fuels or destroyed the environment or blew ourselves up or first created our future robot overlords, but for this question, that doesn’t help me identify any individual people who will be known for that in 4015, so those aren’t the right things to focus on
- Given the amount of access 4015 people will have to the next 20 centuries of art, I’d guess that today’s artists, writers, and musicians will have a very hard time being widely known in 4015—even Mozart and Beethoven might become obscure. Some will last, but I think luck will play a large part of it. I don’t think any movie stars have a shot unless a modern movie somehow works its way into longterm lore and is part of 4105 culture. Kudos to any director who pulls that off.
- It may be known as the only time literally the whole world was fighting each other. Wars got bigger and bigger until World War II, and there’s a chance that now, that type of war—nations fighting against other nations—is over. If that’s true, I think WWI and WWII will go down in history in a very serious way. And if that’s true, then Hitler, and possibly a few others, may be supremely famous in 4015.
- This era may be later known as the pioneering of an important tech age. If that’s true, people like Gates and Jobs have a shot, because they may be a part of an important era’s founding.
- As China gradually takes over the world, one of its current or recent leaders may end up being supremely important in grand history and we don’t fully realize it now.
- There’s a chance something like Communism makes a comeback in the future, or becomes controversial again way later in history, and if so, people like Marx or Lenin could end up as everlasting isms that keeps them in the public mind for a long time.
- I’m sure humans will do a lot more space-travel in the future, but there will always be only one first time a human stepped on another heavenly body, so I’d give serious consideration to Neil Armstrong lasting through the centuries.2 If that’s true, it means he’ll be much more famous later than he is now.3
- Along those lines, putting the first man on the moon is just one of a bunch of potential achievements (some good, some bad) that the US may be known for in 4015—if ancient US turns out to be a well-known thing in 4015, the biggest US leaders have a shot of being known by everyone then. A bunch of other world leaders (like Napoleon) have a shot as well, but again, since it all depends on what the larger storylines end up being, it’s very difficult to predict. I’m sure people in the year 750AD were sure some leader you’ve never heard of from 620AD would last through history—it’s just hard to know at the time.
- One of the safest bets for me is Einstein. People responsible for humanity’s collective “Aha!” moments about our existence don’t tend to be forgotten, which is why I don’t think figures like Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, etc.—or Einstein—are going anywhere. I’d say the same thing about Darwin, although with one notch less certainty.
- Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford—they’re all supremely famous right now, because we use lightbulbs, telephones, planes and cars, and we want to know who’s the rad dude who invented it. But how about a time when no one uses those things anymore? Will those people fall into obscurity? If no one even knows what a telephone is in 4015, why would they care who Alexander Graham Bell is? I’d say of those four, the Wright Brothers have the best shot of enduring, because people will still want to know who took the first human flight.
My top three bets: Einstein, Hitler, and Neil Armstrong.
Okay, your turn. Who from our era do you think will be well-known in 4015?
You can sign up for the Dinner Table email list here to be notified about the new topic each week, and remember to submit future topic suggestions to email@example.com.
I could have gone bigger with the range to include the more full modern era of 1492 to the present—this would include the Renaissance and the more full period of European Imperialism. But I find the more modern centuries more interesting, because the lines of history are even hazier and it’s an even harder question.↩
His name backwards is Gnorts Mr. Alien.↩
So annoying for Buzz Aldrin.↩