Editor’s Letter: The challenge of calculating clout
Our annual search for the year’s most influential Torontonian is always a heated debate. This year, three contenders were neck and neck for the top spot
I confess I like it when readers get in touch to roast us for being beholden to one ideology or another. In response to a Q&A with some developer, one reader accuses us of being slobbering capitalists. Another reader is convinced that our feature on the rental crisis means we’re bleeding-heart socialists. I interpret such opposing critiques as a good sign. Jon Stewart once described the staff of The Daily Show as neither blue nor red but “passionately opposed to bullshit.” Now that’s a manifesto we can get behind.
Debate and dissent are essential to what we do at Toronto Life. As a staff, we regularly spar over all manner of topics. One of my favourite annual traditions begins in midsummer with the kick-off to our search for the year’s most influential Torontonian. It’s a frothy verbal fisticuffs where opinions aren’t worth much without facts to back them up. Eventually, out of the fray emerge contenders for the top spot. This year, by late August, we had three compelling options.
One of them was Tiff Macklem, the governor of the Bank of Canada. Over the course of 12 months, he had juiced the key lending rate 3.5 points to sit at a ghastly five per cent. The tick-tock of a rate hike may not be cinematic, but its effects certainly are. By the morning of July 13, anyone with a variable rate was sweating profusely. Financial planning was thrown into chaos, as were grocery bills, car loans, vacation dreams and retirement. In terms of influence, the guy with his hand on everyone’s wallet makes for a convincing case.
Olivia Chow was another serious contender. At the end of June, she fended off a late surge from Ana Bailão to win the mayoralty. It had been a long time coming for Chow, who had served as a city councillor and MP and then run for mayor in 2014. Her victory was also historic: she became Toronto’s first non-white mayor. For a city in the throes of an affordability crisis, the ascent of a left-leaning candidate made plenty of sense. Now she’ll be graded on what she can do to effect the changes she’s promised.
Ultimately, both were eclipsed by Geoffrey Hinton. On May 2, he appeared on the front page of the New York Times, announcing that he was leaving Google with an urgent message. Artificial intelligence, of which he is widely known as the godfather, had spread so fast that Hinton feared what it meant for humanity. Our dominion over planet Earth could soon be reaching an end, he warned, subsumed by AI’s urgent, rapacious growth and the lack of guardrails to contain it. His klaxon wasn’t without risk. He knew he might be branded a Chicken Little, but he didn’t care—Hinton could be the flag-bearer for persons passionately opposed to BS—as the stakes were too high. Humanity was in the crosshairs, and we needed intervention before it was too late. Within days, his warning had reached the halls of power in Ottawa, London and Washington. Trudeau took him out for dinner. Elon Musk got him on the phone and talked so long that Hinton had to beg off. He appeared on 60 Minutes, CNN and the BBC, and he soon received so many interview requests and job offers that he just started saying no to everything.
It’s becoming clear that AI will be one of the most consequential developments of our time. That the man who nurtured it is the one now railing against it is a Gothic turn worthy of Mary Shelley. Paradoxically, Hinton’s genius and courage made him our runaway choice for most influential Torontonian—and yet we can only hope he’s wrong.
Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be reached via email at editor@.