Fame: It`s Who You Know

Alexander paying respects at the tomb of Achilles, Panini

Book critic Dwight Garner writes in the New York Times:

There are many varieties of fame. … Pantheon, a new project from the Macro Connections group in M.I.T.’s Media Lab, is giving that a stab. It has collected and analyzed data on cultural production from 4,000 B.C. to 2010. … 

For now, you are legitimately famous, the M.I.T. team has decided, if a Wikipedia page under your name exists in more than 25 languages. We have taken a smattering of the most famous, according to Pantheon data and classifications, and wandered down rabbit holes of fame. There are many ghosts in the machine — spirits that César Hidalgo, the project’s director, likes to tend. (The ranking system takes longevity into account, which helps explain why many of its most famous people have been dead for at least 1,500 years.) 

“Poetically, we can say that Isaac Newton’s ghost — understood as information — lives reincarnated in the hard drives that populate server farms,” he says. And these ghosts gather to make a point. Even in an era of Kardashians, actually making things matters. “Tangible achievements,” Hidalgo says, “whether these are songs, books, works of art or scientific discoveries, are better tickets to long-term immortality than the accumulation of material wealth.” 

Most Famous People of the Last 6,000 Years 

1. Aristotle

2. Plato

3. Jesus Christ

4. Socrates

5. Alexander the Great

6. Leonardo Da Vinci

7. Confucius

8. Julius Caesar

9. Homer

10. Pythagoras

It`s hard to see how Mohammed and Buddha don`t make the Top Ten, but the point I want to make is:

Judging by the four Ancient Greeks in the Top Five, this fame thing is more a Who You Know, Not What You Know deal (even though Aristotle certainly knew a lot): Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle who taught Alexander. And this isn`t metaphorical: each younger man in this series probably spent hundreds of hours in the company of the older man. 

On a vaguely related topic, via Dyspepsia Generation, Kevin Simler at Ribbon Farms offers an extensive analysis of status as an economic good that can be exchanged, rather like money. There are many good insights, but I would question Simler`s assumption that “Status is zero-sum (to a first approximation).” Each of the six Ancient Greeks in the Top Ten benefit from their relationships with each other because they make for a better story we can hold in our heads. The more we know about a particular civilization, the more easy it is to learn more. For example, in my writing about the Ukraine crisis, the name Thucydides keeps coming up. It doesn`t hurt that Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War chronicled by Thucydides.

In contrast, when I flip around on the UHF dial here in L.A., I`ve noticed from all the historical costume dramas on the Korean language stations that Korea has, evidently, had a whole lot of history. Indeed, there`s no a priori reason to assume that Korea has had significantly less history than Greece. But my pathetic base of knowledge of Korean history—”There have been a bunch of guys named Kim” (rather like my knowledge of contemporary Ukrainian affairs of state: There are a bunch of politicians with Ys and Ts in their names)—doesn`t conveniently facilitate my learning more about Korean history.

For example, Anne Boleyn makes the MIT top 100. She was an interesting person, but she`s there for her relationship to two other people in a fascinating story. Ann was the second wife of Henry VIII, for whom Henry broke England away from Roman Catholicism, and the mother of Elizabeth I (who was the monarch of Shakespeare, who is pretty famous himself). Anne is a central figure in a gaudy story. And fame has much to do with coherent narratives.

For example, on his conquests, Alexander is said to have visited the tomb of Homer`s hero Achilles at Troy. That makes for a good story and thus augments the historical status of both. Similarly, Bill Clinton and Bono like to be photographed hanging out together because it`s a positive sum status dealing for both.
Getting even further afield, here`s Eric Falkenstein`s 2010 mega-blogpost “Why Envy Dominates Greed” on how, among much else, financial economics theory would fit the data better if you assume that portfolio managers are less concerned with optimizing return v. risk and more concerned with optimizing status v. other portfolio managers. Among much else, this offers a more compelling theory of the formation of bubbles, such as the Recent Unpleasantness. Achilles certainly would have agreed that status dominated wealth in his considerations, and that he looked at it as a zero sum game. (And yet poor Hector retains considerable status to this day for having been the loser in Achilles` drive for status dominance.)