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Opinion: Here’s who should have won Time’s ‘Person of the Year’

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Taylor Swift is Time’s 2023 “Person of the Year,” and apparently, I’m the only millennial woman on Earth who doesn’t feel seen.

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But since the announcement, it’s felt like a specific corner of Spotify Wrapped got bitten by a radioactive spider and attained superhuman powers.

I’m happy for her, I guess. I’ve nothing against a seemingly pleasant person having a lovely time, and there’s no denying she’s had a stellar year. As Time’s feature details, Swift’s now made more No. 1 albums than any other woman in history, has world leaders begging her to tour their nations and has reportedly become a billionaire. “Swift is the rare person who is both the writer and hero of her own story,” says Time. That’s great. I just don’t find that story especially compelling.

Ugh, I feel so mean. I’m well aware this will upset people, and I’d never want to rob anyone else of their joy. We’ve all had conversations with people who simply don’t “get” the music or TV we’re into. Typically, my response to such complaints is, “That’s OK, it wasn’t made for you.” But part of what’s making me so squirmy is the sense that Swift, and the stories she tells through her music, are basically aimed at me. If you lined me up alongside everyone I know who’s currently rhapsodizing over her success, I’d be indistinguishable. But I’m not biting. That’s not because I think there’s anything wrong with her. If anything, my choice for Time “Person of the Year” would be more problematic.

Historically, the title’s recipient has often been a provocateur. The idea isn’t necessarily that the “best” person wins — though that’s certainly been the case at times — it’s that the person who’s had the most influence, for “good or ill” over the previous 12 months, is recognized. Previous winners have included Adolf HitlerJoseph StalinGreta ThunbergMartin Luther King Jr. and Elon Musk. This year’s shortlist included the Hollywood strikers, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Barbie, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump prosecutors, King Charles III and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Time ultimately named Altman CEO of the year. I think he should have taken the top title.

In case he hasn’t yet crossed your radar, Altman is the 38-year-old chief executive of OpenAI, the tech startup responsible for creating ChatGPT. ChatGPT is a revolutionary generative artificial intelligence chatbot that was launched in November 2022. It’s since astounded observers by passing exams at law and business schools, writing effective job applications and computer code and composing part of a political speech for Israel’s president.

The implications of that tech alone are both miraculous and terrifying, particularly given the potential for disinformation campaigns to influence the presidential election in 2024. Many companies besides OpenAI are vying for a bite of the lucrative AI market, competing to develop newer, evermore sophisticated systems. Though the Biden administration recently introduced legislation to regulate the exploding industry, the pace of development is so rapid that it’s often difficult for governments to keep up.

The mysteriousness and speed of the AI race were evidenced in November, when, less than a year after ChatGPT’s launch, Altman was fired suddenly by his company’s board. Just days later, Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest stakeholder, announced it was hiring Altman to head up a new AI team. This prompted a mass revolt among OpenAI’s staff, almost all of whom threatened to quit unless Altman was rehired. Within days, he was, and the board that’d fired him was replaced.

The circumstances around both Altman’s dismissal and rehiring were remarkably murky. In their statement announcing his sacking, the original board accused Altman of “being not consistently candid in his communications,” but didn’t elaborate on what that meant. Even more worrying, Altman’s return and the restructuring of OpenAI have been characterized as a victory for AI “accelerationists” — those who believe that the tech should be developed as fast as possible, unconstrained by safety concerns. The episode proved that Altman wasn’t just capable of spearheading potentially the most significant invention of the 21st century so far. He was able to upend the ecosystem that created it within days.

This, I think, is what’s lacking in Swift as Time “Person of the Year.” Her predominance in the entertainment industry is undeniable, but her story is essentially one of becoming mega-successful within an existing framework. As she told Time, we live in a patriarchal society fueled by money, so “feminine ideas becoming lucrative means that more female art will get made.” It’s not a million miles from, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The impression that no one’s anticipating any controversy from Swift anytime soon was reinforced in November when Gannett, America’s biggest newspaper chain, hired the first-ever Swift correspondent. The journalist in question, 35-year-old Bryan West, is a self-avowed fan. Odd though some might find it to hire someone with such an obvious bias, West has argued that it’s no different than “being a sports journalist who’s a fan of the home team.” Whether you agree with that comparison or not, it’s undeniably in his professional interests for Swift to remain popular and relevant — and it seems unlikely that the appetite for stories about her will wane anytime soon.

This is why Altman, not Swift, ought to have been Time’s “Person of the Year.” His impact on the world could be exponentially more consequential, but not nearly enough people are aware of him or the implications of his technology. Every move Swift makes, however incidental, is the subject of feverish intrigue and speculation. Over in San Francisco, Altman is making moves that could change the fate of the world. And until a month ago, most of us were unaware he even existed.

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