ANT in the Wild: Time’s “Person of the Year”

Time Magazine is not exactly an outlet for high-fallutin’ science studies theorizing. Yet, a quick glance through the Person of the Year list suggests that Time Magazine and Bruno Latour might have a lot in common. Perhaps the most contentious argument made by Actor-Network Theory* is that non-humans have agency, and that the relevant units of analysis are “actor-networks” that enroll individuals, organizations**, scientific theories, machinery, and more, all on potentially equal bases. So, a mosquito, a scallop, a mass spectrometer, and a federal agency may all be actors in a particular network.

What about Time Magazine? The first person of the year (then called “Man of the Year”) award was given out to Charles Lindburgh in 1927. In 1936, Wallis Simpson was the first woman to win the honor. FDR won it three times.*** In 1950, the award was first given to a collective actor: “The American Fighting-Man”, a feat repeated a few times after (e.g. 1960’s “American Scientists”, 1966 “Baby Boomers”). In 1982, just as Latour and Callon were pushing the first influential Actor-Network Theory articles (e.g. “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan”), Time Magazine gave its person of the year award to… the Computer!

Thus far, the only other non-human or human collective to receive the honor was “The Endangered Earth” in 1988, an influential actor mobilized in a great many important networks. Still, I think Time’s willingness to include these non-humans, along with more contingent amalgamations like “Baby Boomers”, and “You”, suggests a kind of openness to the idea of what constitutes an important actor (“person”****) that is lacking in most social theory. So, kudos to Time!

* Which, to be a bit more precise, is more of an “infra-language” or ontology than a traditional theory. It’s a way of talking about what is in the world, not as much a set of causal claims or anything like that.
** As Brayden King grudgingly notes in a ScatterPlot comment about organizations’ ability to speak: “Using actor network theory as a guide (and I never thought I’d say that), an organization’s position as actor is uncontroversially not that different from saying an individual is an actor.”
** A trivia question, “Who won Time’s “Person of the Year” the most times?” inspired this trip into the history of the award. Getting it correct also helped our team win Pub Trivia and $50 last night. See Mom and Dad, sometimes being an academic pays!
****Although Time did rename the award those years to “Machine of the Year” and “Planet of the Year”. Wikipedia still, appropriately I think, places the awards in the same category, since the Computer and the Endangered Earth received awards instead of a particular person or group.

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