1. The Verge Fifty

  2. Welcome to the 2014 Verge 50

    Who are the 50 most important people at the intersection of technology, art, science, and culture? Who are the 50 people whose work this year will shape the next 50 years?

    That's the question we ask when we assemble the Verge 50, our definitive list of the most interesting people building the future. Answering this question is never easy, but it was particularly hard this year — 2014 was the year when technology burst beyond its niche to drive massive change in everything from politics to fashion to the basic dynamics of how we talk and fight and live and love.

    This year we wanted to showcase our 50 in the same way they made their mark on the world — by letting them express themselves. So we asked everyone to send us a selfie. These are the most candid photographs of some of the most powerful and interesting people in the world right now you'll ever see, and it's an honor to share them with you.

    It has been a strange and wonderful year. These are the 50 people who made it special.

    — Nilay Patel, Editor-in-chief

  3. Illustration by Jeremy Sengly
    game changers

    Anita Sarkeesian

    Host of Tropes vs. Women, author of Feminist Frequency

    Verge 50

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    Anita Sarkeesian is unstoppable. As the face of Feminist Frequency, her series of "Tropes vs. Women" online videos have allowed her to take on some of the most pervasive, pernicious forms of sexism in media today. However, it was her ongoing series delving into the sexism endemic to gaming culture that brought her face-to-face with some of the ugliest and most hateful of her detractors.

    She wasn't alone: over the summer, she and other notable female thinkers and game developers like Leigh Alexander and Zoe Quinn were the targets of rape threats, death threats, and the kind of abuse that can drive people away from the internet altogether. But she never quit, instead opting to fight the Gamergate opposition head on. In doing so, she helped bring the problem to the mainstream by appearing in The New York Times and The Colbert Report, forcing audiences to reckon with the issues she's been facing for years. It may be a long time before sexism is effectively erased from the media landscape, but, among so many others fighting the good fight, it's good to know Anita isn't going anywhere.

  4. game-changers

    Tim Wu

    Author, Professor at Columbia University

    Tim Wu’s campaign to become lieutenant governor of New York this year ultimately fell short. But he scored perhaps an even bigger victory later in the month, when President Obama backed Wu’s vision of an internet that is regulated as a utility. Questions remain over whether the FCC will actually act as Obama asked them to — its chairman, Tom Wheeler, has expressed concerns — but there’s little doubt that the ideas Tim Wu’s been espousing are now firmly embedded in the mainstream.

    Wu, a writer and law professor who became an unlikely candidate for office, has indicated that he will continue advocating for the open internet as a civilian. From his online perch at The New Yorker, he has advocated forcefully for net neutrality and related issues. Most recently, he examined the terrible customer service that resulted from United’s merger with Continental, and speculated that Comcast’s planned merger with Time Warner would go similarly. "Two companies, neither renowned for customer service, want to merge, with nary an indication of how this might be good for the public," he wrote. "Rather, there is good reason to think that the outcome will be another United Airlines, and that the nation’s largest cable company will offer higher prices and poorer service while trying to prevent new forms of television, like Internet TV, from getting better or cheaper."

    Wu is affectionately known as the father of net neutrality, and he’s been fighting the good fight as loudly as possible for some time now. Americans, and our government, are now listening intently.

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    Janet Yellen

    Chair of the US Federal Reserve

    What do you do with 4 trillion dollars? When Janet Yellen took over as chair of the Federal Reserve this February, that was the biggest question in finance. After decades of leadership focused on inflation, Yellen came in with an eye towards lowering unemployment and paring back the power of the major banks. Would that mean swelling up the Fed's balance sheet, as many Republicans in Congress feared? Would an activist Fed stir up chaos in the market? As she took the reins of the world's most powerful macroeconomic body, what did Janet Yellen want to do?

    In the months since, the answers have been reassuring, even for Yellen's critics. She's staked out new concerns for a Fed chair, speaking openly about inequality and the economic effects of a low minimum wage, but her actions have been measured and incremental. She's also taken steps to make economic bubbles less dangerous, so that even when we can't avoid them — and many say we can't — we can at least recover more quickly.

    Playing off what many described as a perfect resumé for the chairmanship, Yellen arrived with a full understanding of the powers and limitations of the job, and how small actions can add up to big changes over time. What will that mean for 2015? There are already massive sums of money riding on the answer.

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    Laverne Cox

    Star of Orange is the New Black

    Few Americans can claim to have shined as bright a spotlight on transgender issues as Laverne Cox. The actress and LGBT advocate, best known for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix's Orange is the New Black, became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy for acting. A month before her nomination, Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine — the first openly transgender person to do so. All along, she has been a vocal supporter of trans rights and visibility in the media.

    "What I've always loved about this country, in theory, is that this is a place where anything is possible for anybody if you work hard enough, at least in theory," Cox told Time. "We know that there are systemic things in place that keep a lot of people from reaching their dreams and achieving their goals, but in theory it shouldn't be about your race or your religion or your gender or your class that you were born into. You should be able to rise up and have your moments. It's not possible for a lot of people but I just think that in terms of forming a more perfect union and having to live up to those ideals, representation and having everyone's story told in our media is an important part of that."

  7. game-changers

    danah boyd

    Principal researcher at Microsoft
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    danah boyd doesn't have time for capital letters. She's the principal researcher at Microsoft, a gig that would be more than a full-time job on its own for the vast majority of people. Yet she's also the preeminent researcher on the behavior of teens in our modern society, helping the olds understand their kids and the youngs understand themselves. This year, boyd released It's Complicated, a book chronicling the lives of "connected teens" (which in 2014 is pretty much every teen) and what it means to grow up with Facebook, Twitter, and social media.

    She's a clever and fair observer of the next generation, which is hard to come by. "My frustration about how we approach young people is that we think that everything must be so much worse because of technology," she told us at this year's SXSW. "The funny thing is that we've had these moral panics for every generation. Comics were ruining everybody, rock and roll was ruining everybody, MTV was ruining everybody — we've had this in many different iterations. Part of the story of the book is that by and large, the kids are alright."

    If danah boyd says the kids are alright, they must be.

  8. game-changers

    Jessica Rosenworcel

    FCC Commissioner

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    If you're an American, Jessica Rosenworcel is one of five people most responsible for shaping your digital life — whether you know it or not. She was appointed as an FCC commissioner in 2012, after working under former commissioner Michael Copps. She's spent her time at the agency dealing with spectrum auctions, public safety networks, and net neutrality.

    After a year of hot debate in 2014, she, along with fellow commissioner Mignon Clyburn and chair Tom Wheeler, will be pushing for new Open Internet rules next year. We caught up with her for a few questions about the past, present, and future of internet regulation.

    [Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.]

    It seems like the FCC has suddenly come into the public eye in a way that it never quite was before. Do you feel like its role has changed?

    I feel like I have a front-row seat at the digital revolution. I feel like communications networks have never been more important in our civic and commercial lives than they are today. By some measures, communications accounts for one-sixth of the economy, but I think by any measure, it's the most dynamic sector of the economy. Try to imagine your life without having networks support just about everything you do! And as we continue on in the digital age, I think that some of the networks that the FCC oversees become more and more important, so I think that's the source of some of the attention right now.

    What were the big issues for the FCC this year? Obviously net neutrality got a lot of attention.

    I think what we do with spectrum is really important. It's the most important invisible infrastructure we have: our airwaves. And it's used right now to power every device you use that involves wireless capability. How we zone our airwaves for a future where we have many more devices is really important, which takes you into the internet of things. You have billions of devices communicating: machine to machine, machine to person, wirelessly. Making sure that our airwaves can manage all of that activity I think is really one of the more exciting things we do.

    "I think internet openness is vitally important to our economy."

    What are the issues that haven't quite come up yet but are about to be big on the horizon?

    One of the most significant tasks for the FCC today and going forward is zoning the airwaves. We have to find space for all the wireless activity that's occurring now and will occur in the future. So I work a lot on how we get more spectrum in the hands of providers who can license it and provide you service, but also how we get more unlicensed spectrum out there for uses like Wi-Fi.

    Other big issues, in more than an FCC sense, involve women and STEM. Women have half the jobs in this economy but only a quarter of the STEM jobs, and the STEM fields are growing three times faster than all others. I think it's vitally important that we find more ways to make women who have professional lives that involve science and technology more prominent.

    What are we going to see in the next year for net neutrality? What should we be looking for?

    I support network neutrality. I hope we can find a way at the agency to give that policy a stable legal home, because I think internet openness is vitally important to our economy.

    Do you think it's going to look like Title II reclassification?

    I actually don't think I can talk about that right now, but I support net neutrality, and I hope that we will have new rules in place sooner rather than later.

    Wheeler has had people blockading his house in protest. Do people come up and try to talk to you about net neutrality?

    In public settings? Absolutely. People feel this is important, and they're right. I mean, the internet is our shared platform for opportunity, it's our modern town square, it is our individual soapbox, and they care deeply about it. And there's nothing wrong with people deciding to express their interest in a civil way. So I think that's absolutely fine. Nobody's come to my house as of yet, but I don't know.

    I've spoken at public forums and public settings, and I think when 4 million people have written the FCC, that's an amazing thing. That's democracy in action. That's not something we should sniff at. I think as a nation we should be proud that people care that deeply about these issues and take the time to actually try to petition the government.

  9. game-changers

    Kshama Sawant

    Seattle city councilmember

    You almost have to wonder if Kshama Sawant ever even expected to win. The Seattle-based economics professor was running for city council on what seemed like an outlandish platform: a $15 minimum wage, more than double the national average. With Sawant's help, a once-small issue dominated an election cycle, and won her both a following of activists and a seat on the city council. It also began a city- and nation-wide conversation about how we take care of our citizens, and how wealth and equality are really created and distributed within a society. And when she's not getting what she wants, she fights for it — she was arrested in SeaTac this fall during a workers' protest over wages.

    Sawant's minimum wage plan, along with a tax on wealthy Seattle residents and stringent rent control, is a huge step in caring for a class of people too often forgotten in politics. For her part, Sawant is a loud, proud socialist who only accepts $40,000 of her six-figure annual salary. And she has a computer science degree, meaning she certainly fits right in in Seattle.

    She's still new to office and still locally focused, but Sawant's presence is being felt around the country. Other cities are already taking up the fight for higher wages, as economists everywhere have confirmed the benefits of paying everyone a living wage. But she's already onto her next mission: affordable housing for everyone. She's not thinking small this time either.

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    Malala Yousafzai

    Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner

    Two years and a day after a gunman boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and fired three shots  hitting her once in the forehead  Malala Yousafzai was named as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. At 17, she's the youngest person to ever receive the award, and the first ever from Pakistan. It's a huge milestone for the country and for the cause of education, but the real surprise may be how Malala got there: a diary about day-to-day life, published anonymously online.

    Pakistan's Swat Valley is a hard place to get the world's attention. When Yousafzi first reached a global audience, just being heard outside her village was a challenge. As the Taliban seized control of the region in 2009, Malala maintained an anonymous blog for the BBC, detailing her day-to-day life and her struggle to attend school as the new regime took hold. As much of the region was preparing for a new way of life under the Taliban, Malala was pushing back, raising awareness and gaining real concessions from the group.

    Five years after the first posts, that diary has transformed into one of the most powerful forces in the country. The shooting made Malala an international figure, taken up by the UN and the White House as a symbol of the fight for education amid political turmoil, a powerful case study in fighting religious extremism. Malala has pushed back against US interests as well, harshly criticizing the campaign of drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, and taking a broader stand against economic oppression across the globe.

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    Matthew McConaughey

    Star of Interstellar and True Detective

    When did Matthew McConaughey’s "McConaissance" become part of our cultural vocabulary? Somewhere around his best actor win for Dallas Buyers Club? Or back a little farther, to his role in Magic Mike, where he played an ex-stripper named Dallas? It doesn’t matter. This year, McConaughey’s career went both literally and figuratively into orbit, and it’s suddenly hard to imagine the pop culture landscape without him.

    First, there was Rust Cohle. The brooding investigator of HBO’s True Detective could have easily devolved into a hammy caricature in the hands of a less capable actor. Instead, McConaughey gave Cohle sharper edges than a crushed beer can. Fans responded, and McConaughey’s ponytailed philosopher has since become a candidate for most-memed of 2014. When he mumbled out "time is a flat circle," the internet, rightfully, swooned. (The natural Texas twang in his delivery didn’t hurt, either.)

    Now he’s capped off the year with a move to the other side of the genre spectrum, starring alongside Anne Hathaway in the Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic Interstellar. If McConaughey’s character is an archetype — the farm boy turned astronaut —  his folksy demeanor keeps the movie grounded. In the midst of it all, he proved he's certainly the only actor who could make a Lincoln commercial worthy of a three-part SNL parody. Maybe now’s the time to reevaluate pre-McConaissance films. Failure to Launch, anyone?

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    Singer, performer, everything else

    For pop music, it was the year of Beyoncé. Isn't every year? You could argue she's always been the queen of pop, and her show-stopping Super Bowl 2013 performance was proof of that. But 2014 has been exceptionally hers, beginning just before the year began: in the very early hours of last December 13th, with no warning and nary a whisper, Beyoncé released a 14-song, 17-video opus exclusively to iTunes. The album is categorically pop but the content itself is edgier, more personal, and more socially conscious. Put another way, the queen rethought the throne. It also did very, very well — no other album this year sold more than 300,000 copies in a week until Taylor Swift's 1989.

    It didn't even matter that Beyoncé missed the eligibility window for this year's Grammy Awards. She opened the show anyway, performing "Drunk in Love" with her husband Jay Z. How could she not be a part of it? It was all people could talk about at the time. And then she and Jay spent the summer touring stadiums, taking turns playing their greatest hits and showing off their daughter, Blue Ivy. It all culminated in a massively popular HBO special and a "Platinum Box Set," which basically serves as a scrapbook for her best year yet.

  13. entertainers

    Brittany Furlan

    The Queen of Vine

    Brittany Furlan is Vine's biggest female star, with more than 7 million followers on the platform, and one of its funniest personalities. That following has earned her lucrative partnerships with advertisers clamoring to reach the service's millennial audience, but she's not an ad-making machine  instead, she tries to create authentic six-second videos at least once a day.

    That means goofy interactions with her dogs, sketches like her Ghetto Dora the Explorer, or collaborations with other big Vine stars. She's exploring a new media form in an entirely different way, and has found a level of celebrity almost no one can match. Expect her to take on TV next: she's currently developing a sketch comedy show with Robot Chicken's Seth Green.

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    Felix Kjellberg, King of YouTube

    In a brand-dominated world, the modern person is starved for authenticity, something or someone unquestionably real. That's why a brash, high-pitched Swede who goes by PewDiePie and screams at broken video games is the most popular person on YouTube. As of writing this piece, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg has 32.6 million subscribers and 6.9 billion video views.

    Despite his staggering popularity, if you're an adult you probably haven't seen a PewDiePie video. They are, to undersell it, loud. Designed for a specific audience of teens and tweens, the videos pop, sizzle, and cut with the speed of a power drill. Kjellberg has bright eyes, a soft face, perfectly groomed scruff. He speaks in a comically shrill voice that betrays any pretense. Fans are intimately familiar with him from the shoulders up, his head floating in the corner of most videos as the rest of the screen shows a new video game. He's human, passionate, and authentic — a 20-something who does most of the legwork producing his video game playthroughs, often from the comfort of his girlfriend's home.

    In the last three decades, video games at large have become both exhaustingly grand and frustratingly serious. Kjellberg's success comes from locating the cracks, literal and otherwise, the moments in which a character falls through the digital floor into a pixelated abyss, these tiny incidents that betray the seriousness of video games. He also specializes in introducing much smaller, stranger games, ones that feel like they were made by a person, not a corporation.

    Kjellberg's real talent is finding the human within games. He's just a normal person, finding the authentic in games for an audience that are desperate for a little more humanity.

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    Emma Watson

    Actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador

    Feminists faced a hard fight this year. Between Celebgate, the nude photos of more than 100 celebrities leaking online, and GamerGate, a smear campaign that boiled over into a full-blown culture war, women have taken the brunt of some of the internet's most violent tendencies. But to not speak out against the rampant sexism in today's society is to help perpetuate it, and Emma Watson was among the many making her voice heard.

    On September 20th, Watson spoke before the UN, where she's been appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. In a brilliant 11-minute speech, she launched the HeForShe initiative, a campaign aimed at encouraging boys and men to join the feminist cause and support gender equality. "Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation," she said. "Gender equality is your issue, too." So far, nearly 200,000 men have signed onto the campaign, and the goal is to reach 1 million by next summer. At a time when it's still not safe to be a woman in so many corners of our world, her efforts are brilliant and all too necessary.

  16. entertainers

    Jimmy Fallon

    Host of The Tonight Show


    NBC's 11:35PM time slot, which has been hosted by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and (briefly) Conan O'Brien, has been so full of drama as to spawn two books and a movie. But the most recent transition, from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, was notable for a decided lack of notability: it just happened. There was no bang; there wasn't even a whimper.

    Much of that credit goes to Leno's graceful exit, but the continued success  and in fact the show's surge in ratings  is all Jimmy Fallon. His affability is unparalleled. He's the one host that can play beer pong with Diane Keaton and then seamlessly begin to yodel with Brad Pitt.

    Fallon has done the unthinkable: he's made late night cool again. That's thanks in large part to how much the show "gets" the internet, and embraces it wholeheartedly (the show even won an Emmy this year for its efforts).

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    Kim Kardashian

    Reality star, video game mogul

    The commentariat rushes to discount Kim Kardashian. "She’s just a reality TV star," they say. "She’s famous for being famous." But the haters can hate — she’s proven herself to be a savvy media mogul slowly connecting to every part of our lives. She’s very, very good at being famous.

    Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a mobile game released this year, could’ve been a crass money-grab on the mobile game market. Instead it was a deft parody of Hollywood, and exposure for everything Kardashian. It was also potently addictive, which helps explain why players shelled out millions of dollars in in-app purchases to get the full experience. At one point, the game was reportedly raking in $700,000 a day, and may have been the biggest source of Kardashian’s income. (That may soon be eclipsed, however, by the 352-page book of selfies she announced is coming out next year.)

    We can assume that’s only the start. Kardashian now has a hand in television, fashion, and tech, all given a bump by the Kardashian brand. With Kanye West, she’s half of one of the Hollywood’s most powerful couples. As if to prove her dominance over the world, she posed nude for Paper magazine under the tagline "break the internet." The reaction proved that wasn’t hyperbole.

  18. entertainers

    John Oliver

    Host of Last Week Tonight

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    At first glance, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver looks almost exactly like the parody news shows that have needled the issues for the last decade. Oliver had made his name with a well-regarded stint on The Daily Show, even hosting the show last summer. But what's so incredible about Oliver's half-hour HBO news show is that where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert poke fun at the news and do journalism almost incidentally, Oliver not only does journalism with intent but also does the kind of in-depth journalism and analysis few others  supposedly serious or otherwise  can match.

    It's no wonder, at this point, why almost all of his long-form stories tend to go viral. Armed with a muscular understanding of how the internet works, he's able to mobilize people on issues like net neutrality that even forces people in power to respond. If that's not innovation in media, we're not sure where else to look.

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    Mindy Kaling

    Star of The Mindy Project

    As a writer and a star on The Office, one of the most influential comedies of the past decade, Mindy Kaling hit the big time. But it’s everything she’s done since that’s cemented her as as one of this generation’s indispensable entertainers.

    She’s the central character of her own show, the romantic comedy series The Mindy Project. Meanwhile, she’s notching up more film roles, with appearances in Wreck-It Ralph and the upcoming Pixar flick Inside Out, where she’ll play an animated embodiment of the emotion "Disgust" and likely put the well-honed tone of The Office’s Kelly Kapoor back into action. Meanwhile she’s been involved with Made With Code, working with Google to get younger girls interested in computer science. She’s even a fount of app ideas, like Shazam for Perfumes and Factsbender, an encyclopedia of facts about Michael Fassbender.

    But it might be social media where Kaling has most effectively connected with her fans. On Twitter, she keeps them up to date on her working life — "Ugh I have so much work, i should just gone girl myself" — while occasionally dispensing wisdom in under 140 characters: "Don’t worry about having perfect taste," she wrote this year. "People with perfectly curated taste usually have no original voice." Kaling is loud and powerful, and no one could accuse her of not being an original voice.

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    Stephen Colbert

    Host of the Colbert Report, next host of The Late Show

    Stephen Colbert has been offered the job of a lifetime, as successor to David Letterman's 21-year run on CBS' Late Show. The Stephen Colbert we'll see there, however, is very different from the one who's occupied Comedy Central's post-Daily Show slot for nine years. That "Colbert" is an angry conservative that uses bravado to satirize our political system and media coverage thereof. That "Colbert" created a Super PAC to highlight the problem with campaign finance law, coined the term "truthiness", and has won two Peabody Awards and two Emmys. Satire, in this case, has made a tangible impact on our culture.

    But that "Colbert" is retiring this year. The clever and quick-witted Stephen Colbert, human, will make his debut on CBS next year. Nine years is a very long time to wear a mask. We’ve met the man before, of course, when he took a moment to offer advice to young girls or to get very excited about the new Star Wars trailer. (He’s the original fan, he says.) By all accounts, we’re going to like the real Stephen Colbert even more than the one we’ve been watching speak truth to power for all these years. And while he didn’t run for office during the midterm cycle in 2014, we’d probably vote for him in 2016 if he decides to run again.

  21. entertainers

    Taylor Swift

    Singer, music industry defender

    Verge 50

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    Her album is called 1989, but Taylor Swift's year was 2014. First, she proved herself the master of hype-building, using Instagram (and a skywriter) to leave clues about the day and time she was scheduled to appear on Yahoo! to reveal her new album's title and lead single. Then she dropped "Shake it Off," which became the song of the summer despite barely making it in before school starts. On October 27th, 1989 began its takeover of the world, debuting to the largest first-week sales in 12 years and making Swift the first artist ever with three million-album-selling weeks to her name.

    While she was busy dominating the music industry, Swift also started to change it. When her label, Big Machine, pulled all of her songs from Spotify, it prompted a global discussion about how we listen to and pay for music in 2014. She claims she's fighting for artists' rights to be paid for their art, and Spotify claims it has compensated her more than fairly. No matter who's right or who wins, their debate has changed the way streaming services think about paying artists.

    Throw in Swift's music-video-cum-app for her second single, "Blank Space," and the time her eight-second track of white noise hit #1 on the Canadian iTunes chart, and the message becomes even clearer: Taylor Swift can do whatever she wants. Taylor Swift is the music industry.

  22. scientists

    Miguel Nicolelis

    Neuroscientist at Duke University

    You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of his work. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University, is one of the thinkers and researchers behind the robotic exoskeleton that made it possible for Juliano Pinto, a paraplegic 29-year-old, to deliver the first kick during the opening World Cup ceremony this past June. We caught up with Nicolelis to find out what he thinks the future holds for this kind of technology.

    A lot has happened in the past year, in terms of your research and its reach. What are you most proud of?

    I think it has to be the fact that I got friends from all over the world — scientists — to collaborate on the Walk Again Project down in Brazil. We got eight paraplegic patients to learn how to use brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton. They all became proficient in using this machine to walk again for the first time since they had had their accident. And the pinnacle of this was when we had one of our patients, Juliano, delivered the opening kick at the World Cup on the soccer pitch, in Brazil. That gave the whole world a glimpse of this technology’s potential for the neurorehabilitation of humans patients who have suffered a spinal cord injury.

    What does the World Cup kick represent for you? What place does in hold in scientific history?

    Well, we created the concept of brain machine interfaces in our lab about 15 years ago, together with my good friend John Chapin. And when we published the first study in 1999 showing that rats could learn to control very simple robotic levers using brain activity, people thought that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. But the paper now has more than a thousand citations, and it has become a classic. And soon after, we did the same thing with monkeys, and people were still doubting the whole thing. Then in 2002, John and I published a Scientific American article saying, you know, in a decade we may see this becoming a clinical application. That means that we were off by two years!

    Of course the World Cup was just a gesture of good will, but the work that we are about to publish with the results that we obtained in Brazil will change the field. It’s going to show that there are very important components that we have neglected in the brain machine interface; the tactile feedback that we provided for the patients was crucial to letting them assimilate the exoskeleton as if it were a part of their body. They actually walk, and they tell you that they feel that they are walking by themselves because the feedback is inducing their brains to generate this phantom limb sensation. They literally tell us that they feel that their legs are moving and that their feet are touching the ground, even though it’s the exoskeleton carrying their bodies.

    And it’s that illusion that makes them want to be in the exoskeleton, that makes them want to use it. A lot of paraplegics drop out of using their prosthetics legs because they don’t feel like it’s a part of them. So by creating this feedback, we are basically providing the means through which the brain can assimilate the machine as an extension of the body of the patient. When these results are published, they are going to create a big revolution in the way that we view neuroprosthetic devices in the future.

    In the past, you have published studies in which monkeys were able to control robots and wheelchairs with their brains. This was done using "brain pacemaker implants." How long do you think it will it take for that technology to work in humans?

    It will happen the moment these implants become amenable to patients — the moment they are safe, miniaturized, and there’s no issue in terms of side effects… The algorithms and everything we need from a computational point of view is already here!

    Everything we need from a computational point of view is already here

    Soon, patients that are "locked in" — patients that can’t move a muscle but can still think — these patients will be able to take advantage of this technology. So imagine that you could live in a house in which every single appliance is controlled by your mind: your dishwasher, your air conditioning, your stove... This is something that could happen very soon, because from a scientific point of view, it’s all worked out. The issue is engineering and, of course, the biosafety of chronic implants. They should be able to last for decades to be beneficial. And just think about that! Fifteen years ago, nobody could say this and here we are basically talking about this. But it’s already happening.

    And more than that, something where we are going to see a lot of development, I think, is in using your mind to direct computers. We are going to be part of the operating system, and keyboards are going to disappear. Typing and even voice-activated interfaces are going to be gone very soon. We’re going to interact on a virtual-reality basis with our operating systems thanks to our brain waves, and we will receive tactile visual feedback. And because of that, whatever virtual environment you are in at that moment, you will feel like you are there, literally. It’s not your avatar, it’s you. That’s the next frontier for the computer industry.

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    Elizabeth Spelke

    Psychologist at Harvard University

    For Elizabeth Spelke, the best way to study human cognition was to start with its youngest and least adulterated form: the infant mind. For over 30 years, the Harvard University researcher has studied the mental abilities of children and babies to understand the origins of human knowledge and cognitive processing. For instance, her work has helped scientists determine that infants possess sophisticated mental skills that allow them to understand very simple math problems and compare large sets of symbols.

    This year, she published a study in which infants were asked to look at pairs of computer-generated faces. Spelke and her colleagues found that by the age of three, children have the ability to judge whether a person is trustworthy or not based on their facial features alone. And even more surprising was the fact that the children in the study were pretty consistent in their judgments. She also won the first-ever National Academy of Sciences Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences for "her groundbreaking studies of infant perception, infant representations of number, and infant knowledge of the physical and social world, as well as studies of continuity and discontinuity in ontogeny."

    Yet Spelke isn't just well-known for her research. Many outside her field came to know her in 2005 when she challenged Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard at the time, for suggesting that men have innate cognitive advantages that allow them to surpass women in math. In the aftermath of Summer's assertions, Spelke painstakingly combed through results from past experimental studies to see if there was evidence that might support this idea. She found nothing to support that sex differences might be giving men the upper hand.

    Later that year, her arguments were laid out front and center during a famous debate in which fellow academic Steven Pinker defended Summers' ideas. Just before the debate, she reminded the audience that the conversation that was going to follow wasn't going to debate the existence of sex differences. Rather, the academics were gathered to debate whether these differences could "add up to an advantage for one gender over the other." Years later, she repeated her position to a New York Times reporter in a delightfully concise way. "There is no cognitive difference and nothing to say about it."

  24. Illustration by Jeremy Sengly

    John Kovac

    Astronomer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Verge 50


    In March, scientists working from the South Pole made a huge announcement. They had seen evidence supporting a key element of the Big Bang theory known as "inflation" — what's colloquially called the "bang" in the Big Bang.

    Physicist and Harvard associate professor John Kovac is the leader of that team. He's been going down to the South Pole for over two decades. For the past several years he's served as principal investigator for the BICEP2 telescope, one of the latest instruments used to scan the sky for signals from the early universe.

    The March results have since been called into question, with space dust potentially accounting for a large portion of what they believed to be gravitational waves. But even if only a small fraction of the signal they detected isn't dust, it's a stunning discovery.

    We spoke with Kovac by phone in late November, using a patchy satellite connection to the South Pole. He's there setting up the next, even more powerful BICEP telescope.

    How's the South Pole right now?

    It's spectacular. It's just been beautiful weather down here the last two-three weeks since I got here. Clear blue skies and minus-40-degree temperatures. I'm sitting in a conference room right now at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which has been upgraded in the last decade. Beautiful new facility. So I've got this spectacular view out of the elevated station windows of the conference room.

    "The exciting thing is those new datasets are coming very quickly now that we've achieved this breakthrough sensitivity."

    What are you doing this year to set up BICEP3?

    This year we have a team coming in that is preparing the BICEP observatory - we've had two previous telescopes, 1 and 2, of course - to hold a much larger machine, BICEP3, that has a focal plane five times as powerful as BICEP2.

    It's coupled with another machine called the Keck Array, which has been operating at the South Pole for the past three years now, which is also five times as powerful as BICEP2. And the Keck Array has been operating at different frequencies. So the combination of BICEP3 and the Keck Array is going to be at least 10 times as powerful as BICEP2 was, and the data from the Keck Array is going to be coming out very soon, within the coming months. This is a fast-moving field. We're rapidly advancing the sensitivity.

    How greatly does the improved sensitivity help your research?

    That mapping speed is extremely important. BICEP2 was able to see the B-mode pattern [ed: a signal from the early universe] at high confidence, very high signal to noise, only in one frequency and only in one small part of the sky. So now, the key questions require us to follow up that pattern at multiple frequencies and over a larger fraction of the sky.

    "We've only observed 2 percent of the sky so far"

    You need a larger census population, if you will, to get good statistics on what the early universe was doing and so the only way to do that is to observe as much sky as you can. We've only observed 2 percent of the sky so far, so our plan is to expand that with BICEP3 and the Keck Array.

    You'll be able to start doing that next year, when BICEP3 is ready?

    We plan to start doing that in January with BICEP3. BICEP3 will be installed. We're starting right now. It should be commissioned in January and fully operational by February, we hope. It closes in mid-February. [The problem] with coming down here is that you get only three months every year to come and install and upgrade your new instruments and then you turn them over for nine months straight to the winter-over crew.

    Of course, what everybody wants to know - us included - is when we're able to separate out the components with high confidence, what will be left over? Will the B-modes that BICEP2 saw so clearly be entirely explained by galactic dust or will there remain high-confidence evidence for a contribution from inflationary gravitational waves? That's the key science question that we're working on.

    The goal is to continue investigating inflation, even if the results are less encouraging?

    Whatever fraction of the signal that BICEP2 initially saw turns out to be attributable to dust, this is still an incredibly exciting field to pursue. We've reached breakthrough sensitivity, and we know now that our telescopes are capable of detecting signals that bear on incredibly fundamental physical questions. I suspect it will take multiple rounds of results to answer the question of what I was just speaking about, what fraction of the BICEP2 signal is down to galactic polarization and what fraction may be primordial gravitational waves.

    The exciting thing is those new datasets are coming very quickly now that we've achieved this breakthrough sensitivity.

    What is it that you find so interesting about investigating this subject? Why do you find it to be so critical to investigate inflation and these early portions of the Big Bang?

    It seems to me there are hardly any bigger questions that we can ask as humans than, "How did our own universe start?" As a physicist, it's incredibly exciting to ask questions about the fundamental laws of our universe and specifically about how general relativity, which governs gravitational waves as we understand them, and quantum mechanics may have been united in the first fractions of a second of our universe to produce and explain the phenomena that we see in the universe today.

    These are really big questions. The fact that we are able to build machines, relatively modest machines, that rely on very clever high technology that can be built by our own hands still, with small teams of scientists, and we can take these machines to the South Pole and make observations that can bear on these huge questions - we feel very fortunate to be able to do this.

    Where do you see this research going next year or in five years or ten years? Do you have a clear picture of that?

    Where it goes with respect to inflation is hard to predict at this point, and we will have to see where the data lead us. It could lead us in a direction where we are setting a large signal with a high enough confidence where we can really map out the inflationary process, or it could lead us in the direction where we are able to exclude a broad class of inflationary models and rule out that class of simple, large-field inflationary models, the models where inflation is happening at grand unified theory scales with high confidence.

    Either one of those results would be pretty stunning. But the second result, of course, would still yield a wealth of information in the signals that we do observe because we're learning now better and better with every year how to turn these telescopes into fantastic, high-energy physics experiments.

  25. scientists

    Mark Smith

    Microbiologist at MIT, co-founder of OpenBiome

    Mark Smith is one of the MIT microbiologists behind the OpenBiome project, a stool bank that stores frozen fecal matter from healthy individuals so they can be used to treat people suffering from persistent and recurrent C. difficile infections.

    His efforts have made the procedure — one that's surprisingly effective — far more accessible than ever before. Prior to 2013, when OpenBiome started the project, people suffering from a C. diff infection had to try to find their own donors, and the stool sample had to be fresh. But Smith and his colleagues changed all that. He calls OpenBiome "Red Cross, but for poop," and it has the potential to turn poop into something truly life-saving.

    The project has provided more than 1,000 samples to hospitals and physicians around the globe. Fecal transplants have yet to gain FDA approval: the agency has made an exception for patients with C. difficile infections, but people with other types of infections have to try other types of treatments. That is something that Smith hopes to change. Earlier this year, he argued in an editorial published in Nature that stool should be classified as tissue, not a drug, and therefore shouldn't need FDA approval or clinical trials. Whether his efforts will pay off is still unclear, but his willingness to stick his neck out for the treatment make it very hard to dispute his role as a leading force behind the fecal transplant movement. Which, believe it or not, is a movement very much worth following.

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    Neil DeGrasse Tyson

    Director of the Hayden Planetarium

    Erudite, entertaining, and endlessly engaging, Neil deGrasse Tyson deserves a spot on this list every year. Whether it's through talks held at the Hayden Planetarium, lectures across university campuses, or his popular Star Talk Radio podcast, Tyson continues to stoke the public imagination and interest in science like no other. In 2014, with the support of famed animator Seth McFarlane, Neil Tyson finally realized a longstanding goal of his by bringing a new Cosmos TV series to American screens.

    This 13-episode sequel to Carl Sagan's classic 1980 documentary series explores what we know about the vast expanse beyond our planetary limits and presents it in a modern and digestible way. It's the perfect exhibition of Tyson's talents as a translator of arcane scientific discoveries into relatable knowledge for the layperson. Airing on Fox and National Geographic channels internationally, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has been one of the biggest recent efforts — both in terms of budget and audience reach — to rekindle our love affair with the exploration of the unknown.

    Scientists rarely achieve celebrity status, much less astrophysicists like Neil Tyson, but he has done it by retaining an infectious curiosity about the universe and a charming sense of humor. As articulate and captivating an orator as Tyson is, however, his greatest influence may be indirect. There are few members of the scientific community in the public eye and even fewer of an African-American origin, so Tyson's presence and admirably amiable demeanor present an excellent (and unfortunately rare) role model for others to emulate.

  27. titans

    Adam Silver

    NBA Commissioner

    Adam Silver v50

    The excellence of NBA commissioner Adam Silver is best appreciated alongside the incompetence of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

    Under Goodell's watch, the NFL has become a parody of itself. He doled out severe punishments for players smoking marijuana, but slapped Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice on the wrist with an initial two-game suspension for brutally punching his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. Goodell has spent much of this season clumsily trying to right obvious wrongs and recreating the mirage that the league has a fleck of care for women, victims of domestic abuse, or the health of its players that are likely to suffer brain damage from playing the sport.

    Adam Silver began his NBA commissionership in February of this year. In his first nine months, he enforced a lifetime ban and maximum fine to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments; oversaw the NBA's innovative $24 billion media rights deal with Turner Sports and ESPN; continued the league's intelligent, lucrative, and forward-thinking strategy of making its content digital and broadly available; and recently made a call for legal sports-betting reform in an op-ed for The New York Times.

    Silver's decisions aren't universally popular, but the commissioner is widely praised because he takes bold stances quickly and isn't afraid to innovate. When faced with a problem, he faces it and fixes it rather than spinning it. The NFL may be the dominant sports organization in the US today, but under Silver's leadership, the NBA is making an earnest effort to compete.

    And that's what you want in sports.

  28. titans

    Cindy Holland

    VP of Original Content at Netflix

    If you're a fan of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, you have Cindy Holland to thank. Holland is the head of Netflix's original programming division, and she's transforming both the future of Netflix and the definition of what a TV show can be.

    Under Holland's leadership this year, Netflix not only continued to establish itself as a home of great content, but it also lined up some flashy titles for the future. That includes a talk show from Chelsea Handler that's supposed to reimagine the old format for a streaming audience, and the first comedy from Tina Fey since 30 Rock. Netflix dabbles in documentaries and talk shows, drama and comedy, and is rewriting the rules for how to make and distribute great shows.

    Netflix's content budget is big, as is the amount it's willing to dedicate to original programming. That means Holland has quickly become a very important name for anyone trying to make an unconventional TV show. And that's really why what she's doing matters: unique series like Orange is the New Black might only be able to find a home on Netflix, and Holland is willing to foster them so that they can make the next big wave of TV.

  29. entertainers

    Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine

    Founders of Beats By Dre, newly minted Apple employees

    The rise of the Beats by Dre empire reached its zenith this year with the completion of a $3 billion sale to Apple. In the space of just six years, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine turned what looked like yet another gimmicky celebrity endorsement into the most widely recognized brand of mass-market headphones. Super Bowl quarterbacks, NBA champions, and platinum-selling musicians have all fanned the flames of the Beats brand, endorsing it in a more personal capacity by wearing the headphones as fashion accessories before games and during interviews.

    Today, Beats commands the lion's share of the premium headphones market, which it helped to create and expand. The company's signature, bass-heavy sound appalls musical purists, but it was strategically chosen by Dre and Jimmy as the one that would please the broadest possible audience. With an infusion of brash color — and a virtually unmatched advertising campaign — to match the brand's individualist attitude, Beats has quickly outgrown the boundaries of its product category and become a status symbol and a fashion icon in its own right. It all sounds a bit like, well, Apple.

    Apple's purchase of Beats nets a big windfall for the dynamic duo of Dre and Jimmy, but it also affords them the resources to be more ambitious with their future projects. Beats Music got its start in January this year with a unique approach built around editorial curation. Now, under the Apple banner, the Beats impresarios can help to determine the next step in how we listen to music. Other headphone makers are trying to catch up and the whole personal electronics industry is now keenly aware that gadgets have to be fashionable as well as functional, but it was Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine that saw this coming before everyone else. Now, at Apple, they have the influence and resources to steer this trend to their whim.

  30. titans

    Elon Musk

    CEO of Tesla, CEO of SpaceX

    Elon Musk is a billionaire entrepreneur with an overactive imagination. What sets him apart from most others is that he’s worth listening to. As the founder of SpaceX, he ushered us into the age of the privatized space race. As the founder of Tesla, he brought the electric vehicle into the mainstream (and made some great rides to boot). This year he unveiled the Model D, an all-wheel-drive version of the company’s Model S sedan, and is reportedly considering a deal to beam internet down to earth from orbiting satellites. Elon Musk lives in the future, and he's building it in front of our eyes.

    But he’s not just a pie-in-the-sky Silicon Valley denizen. Musk has warned us off some ideas about the future this year: he made the case against flying cars ("There would be a greater probability of something falling on your head") and sounded the warning siren against artificial intelligence, which he says is "potentially more dangerous than nukes".

    Not everything he says comes true — we’re still waiting on the high-speed Hyperloop transit system — but the remarkable thing about Elon Musk is that nothing he says ever seems crazy. If he can dream it, he can probably build it.

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    Gwynne Shotwell

    President and COO of SpaceX

    The race toward commercial spaceflight has been long and full of false starts, but the finish line appears to be in sight. No one is running faster than Gwynne Shotwell, who has led SpaceX on a frenetic and remarkable trajectory in 2014.

    In March, SpaceX and NASA confidently proclaimed that they can build a Red Dragon capsule to deliver equipment to the surface of Mars. And they'll do it soon. SpaceX is a bit busy in the meantime, though: it signed a 20-year lease on the Apollo 11 launch pad in April, and a month later announced its first manned spacecraft, the Dragon V2. It can carry seven astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and will land softly anywhere on Earth — it's an incredibly high-tech, totally reusable spaceship. (It's also adorable.) Meanwhile, Space X became the only company to successfully complete resupply missions to the International Space Station. Which it did twice, just for good measure.

    Space travel might seem like enough for one executive and one company, but for Shotwell and SpaceX there are always new projects. Like the micro-satellites that could provide internet to currently disconnected places around the world. Or the "real-life X-wings" that will make rockets easier to land. Or the spaceport drone ships that turn into seafaring landing pads for those rockets.

    Elon Musk may be the CEO and the face of SpaceX, but by all accounts Shotwell calls the shots. She's in charge of the $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS, and of the company recently valued at $10 billion. She's tantalizingly close to turning commercial space travel from a pipe dream into a very real reality. We're going to Mars, and Shotwell's going to be there waiting for us.

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    Jack Ma

    Founder and Chairman of Alibaba

    Alibaba's charismatic founder led his company to the biggest IPO in history this September. It raised $22 billion, made Jack Ma the richest person in China, and made Alibaba more valuable than Amazon and eBay combined. The IPO was the capstone on one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in contemporary China: an English teacher who flunked the college entrance exam multiple times, Ma founded Alibaba in his Hangzhou apartment in 1999 after a visit to a Seattle friend turned him onto the potential of the Internet.

    The company owns the Chinese equivalents of Amazon and eBay, plus a wide range of other ventures from mapping to department stores to music streaming. Its sales last year represented 2.6 percent of China's GDP, and it's responsible for more than half the package deliveries in the country. Ma himself has become a celebrity, a symbol of astonishing financial success with a charming public persona, famous for doing things like dressing up in wigs and dresses and serenading stadiums of employees with Elton John.

    This year Ma has been expanding into media and entertainment, searching for movies and shows to buy rights for Alibaba's set-top boxes. He's also expanding Alipay, his PayPal-like service, into what he hopes will become the go-to payment service for small businesses around the world. (Ma stepped down as CEO before the IPO, though he remains Alibaba's executive chairman.)

    For his next act, Ma has promised to give most of his wealth to charity and says he wants to turn his attention to the many environmental threats facing China. "In the past decade, we measured ourselves by how much we changed China," he wrote to potential investors in September. "In the future, we will be judged by how much progress we bring to the world."

    It's a big goal, but Jack Ma's never really been known to think small.

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    Marissa Mayer

    CEO of Yahoo

    Since she left Google to become CEO of troubled internet pioneer Yahoo, Marissa Mayer has worked to build a coherent strategy for the company's somewhat motley assortment of websites, apps, services, and ad products. There are signs it's working: revenues, which declined for years before she took the helm, ticked up slightly in the last quarter. And Mayer successfully stewarded Yahoo's investment in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba through its successful IPO, which netted Yahoo an estimated $5.1 billion. If the progress continues, it could validate Mayer's big idea: that Yahoo can reinvent itself by successfully navigating the shift to mobile devices.

    After growing Yahoo's mobile team from a paltry 37 to 500 people, the company launched more products in the last year and a half than it had in the previous  five years. (Some, including this year's Yahoo News Digest, are really quite good.) Yahoo now has 550 million monthly mobile users between Yahoo and Tumblr, which Mayer acquired last year. That's up 17 percent on the year, and time spent on mobile — a key metric for advertisers — is up 79 percent. Mayer is still under pressure to find new sources of income, and ad revenues haven't grown as fast as investors would like. That could mean trouble in the New Year, but all things considered, Mayer had a very good 2014.

  34. titans

    Jeff Bezos

    CEO of Amazon

    bezos v50

    Jeff Bezos started this year off with a bang, announcing in December of 2013 that Amazon would be creating delivery drones able to send packages to your doorstep within a half hour. It was a huge surprise and an ambitious project, more like a Google-style moonshot than anything you'd expect to come out of Amazon. The company is hiring test pilots even as the FAA plans regulations that would make delivery drones all but illegal. But though a fight — or at least an unprecedented lobbying effort — is likely brewing, the drones signaled a turn for Amazon. Not content to be the "Everything Store" and the owner of the Washington Post, Bezos wants to shape our connected future.

    With that kind of ambition, it's no wonder the hype surrounding the Amazon Fire Phone was off the charts. The phone launched in June to a puzzled world: was this it?

    The phone's flop contributed to a rough quarter for Amazon, the sting of which was made all the greater because Amazon's biggest global competitor, Alibaba in China, posted profits in the same period. In fact, Alibaba earlier in the year had the biggest IPO in history and could pose a serious threat to Amazon outside the US, and maybe someday inside it as well.

    The misstep with the Fire Phone was a rare one. Amazon's other consumer electronics products may not have the flash of a big smartphone launch, but the company's Kindle e-readers and tablets have quietly sold millions. Amazon even surprised everybody late in the year with a quirky speaker, the Echo, that acts like a personal assistant for your home.

    A bad year for Bezos is a great year for anyone else

    Under Bezos' leadership, Amazon has become the rare company that can provide an entire digital ecosystem. Only Apple and Google can match it, and they don't have Amazon's growing library of exclusive TV shows.

    More than anything else, 2014 will be remembered as the year that Bezos' contentious relationship with book publishers came to a head. His company's huge legal battle with Hachette (widely seen as a proxy for the rest of the industry) stayed in the headlines for months, ending only in mid-November. It looks like a small win for the publisher, which gets to set its own prices, but now that Amazon has settled with the major houses, there's less room for a competitor to come in to the ebook market. Even when he loses, Bezos wins.

    2014 wasn't the best year for Amazon's CEO, but that's the point: a major fight with a publisher, a widely-derided smartphone, a bad financial quarter, a huge IPO from a major competitor, and even looming regulations haven't dampened Amazon's prospects as a dominant player in e-commerce and consumer electronics. (They haven't done as much damage to its stock price as you might expect, either.)

    Bezos took some punches this year. But that's why he matters: he's still in the ring, a little bloodied but not broken, and still looks more than capable of outlasting all contenders.

  35. titans

    Satya Nadella

    CEO of Microsoft

    No tech industry figure rose further, faster in 2014 than Satya Nadella. Microsoft's new CEO has been at the company for over two decades, but his appointment took many by surprise; the soft-spoken, Indian-born Nadella couldn't be much further in style from his predecessor, the booming Steve Ballmer. He came from the enterprise side of the company, too, with little experience with flagship Microsoft products like Xbox, Skype, or Windows. But Nadella has made some shrewd moves in his short time at the helm of Microsoft, signifying a willingness to break with the past and recalibrate the company to the realities of today's tech landscape.

    "There is no tradeoff; it's reality for us," Nadella told reporters when unveiling the long-awaited Office for iPad in March. He was acknowledging that Microsoft missed mobile, but also arguing that it can still be relevant in the space. Microsoft is a software company, after all, and it has entire new categories of devices through which consumers can get hooked on its services. It became clearer than ever that Nadella is comfortable with this reality when Microsoft made Office for iOS almost entirely free this month, and said it would do the same on Android.

    In other signs over his brief tenure that Nadella truly gets it, Microsoft announced a surprising cloud partnership with ostensible rival Dropbox; detailed plans to roll back many of the unpopular interface elements of Windows 8; removed Windows licensing fees for phones and small tablets; stunned the gaming world by purchasing Minecraft developer Mojang; killed a "mini" version of its flopping Surface tablets; and released a well-received Pro edition that focused on the needs of those that actually liked the Surface idea in the first place. All of these moves are sensible, intelligent steps to extend Microsoft's reach into places where it ought to be, rather than the misguided plays for consumer relevance that the Ballmer years often exemplified.

    Nadella has some serious challenges still ahead. Ballmer's decision to buy Nokia's phone business may weigh on the company like an albatross, distracting it from the truth that its battle for mobile market share is long lost. Under new chief Phil Spencer, the Xbox One is recovering from its shaky launch, but the product still seems orthogonal to Microsoft's core business. And while the recent mobile Office announcements are a positive step, at some point those products will need to make actual money on devices like the iPad. But overall, Nadella gets more than a passing grade for his first almost-year as Microsoft CEO. He's shaken up the status quo, and presented an exciting vision for how the company can thrive in a new and different world.

  36. titans

    Susan Wojcicki

    CEO of YouTube

    When Susan Wojcicki is put in charge of something at Google — the company that, let's not forget, began in her garage — it's a sure sign that that project is important. So it was no small moment when, in February of 2014, she was appointed CEO of YouTube. She's tasked with turning the world's largest and most powerful video service into a huge business for Google.

    Wojcicki wasted exactly zero time. She's taken steps to boost traffic and increase mobile optimization, so YouTube's traffic is now at least half coming from phones and tablets. But her most impressive feat, the one that will turn YouTube from meme repository into something far bigger, was turning the service's best creators into actual, real, legitimate celebrities. Under her leadership, and thanks to a huge and clever advertising campaign, Michelle Phan and Bethany Mota have become lifestyle celebrities; PewDiePie has become one of the biggest names in video games; and SciShow has millions of people learning about bison and asparagus. At the same time, Wojcicki has re-tooled YouTube's advertising tools, making it easy for high-end (and high-paying) advertisers to be next to this premium content. YouTube creators are the new celebrities, and YouTube is the new medium for a generation of creative people — and they might never need to leave to strike it rich.

    Wojcicki's already revealed the next phase of YouTube's plan, too: getting its billions of viewers to pay for things. Music Key offers non-stop, ad-free music for a few dollars a month, and turns what is already the de facto music service of choice into something even more powerful. YouTube is also looking into paid channel subscriptions, and lots of other ways for the service to make money.

    Making money is Susan Wojcicki's forte. She's now in the midst of turning YouTube from a video hosting service into a massive, powerful, and lucrative way for creative people to make money. That's good for Google, it's good for YouTube, and it should scare the hell out of every TV network and production studio on earth.

  37. Illustration by Jeremy Sengly

    Sundar Pichai

    Senior Vice President at Google

    Verge 50


    Sundar Pichai might just be the second most powerful person at the most powerful technology company on the planet. In October, CEO Larry Page put almost everything Google does under his control. Search, Ads, Android, Chrome, Drive, Maps, Docs: it's all under Pichai now, and even if you somehow manage to avoid directly using those products, they have a major effect on the entire technology industry.

    Pichai's rise to his current position didn't happen overnight. He's been at Google since 2004, starting work on the Google browser toolbar before launching an actual browser, Chrome, in 2008. After that, it was off to the races: Chrome OS in 2009 and a steady cadence of app releases. Both the browser and the operating system have achieved success in the face of stiff competition: Chromebooks recently surpassed iPads in education sales and the browser has nearly double the marketshare of its nearest competitor by some measures.

    In March of last year, Android boss Andy Rubin stepped aside and Pichai filled in the gap, putting him in charge of two of the most important consumer products Google makes. Since then, Android has made great strides in both design and features, no longer looking like the dorky, socially awkward cousin to the iPhone's iOS.

    According to colleagues, Pichai's management style is approachable and collaborative -- and therefore a welcome change from how Andy Rubin ran the Android division. That more open attitude is also a more "Googley" attitude, a better fit for the company that has prided itself on giving its employees a wide latitude to experiment and work together on new projects.

    By all indications people just like and respect Pichai

    His attitude has also helped with Google's partners. Pichai was reportedly instrumental in stopping Samsung from running roughshod over Android's UI. Simply put, Pichai has created great products and by all indications people just like and respect Pichai. That combination is much rarer amongst tech executives than you might assume.

    But an approachable demeanor and eye for products may not be enough now that Pichai is at the helm of so many Google initiatives. There are big challenges ahead: Google+ is widely regarded as a failed social network despite a small, passionate fanbase, Google's TV efforts have consistently been dead on arrival, Microsoft is finally heading in the right direction with its mobile Office suite, and the company's wearable efforts are about to face a stiff challenge in the form of the Apple Watch. 2014 was the year Pichai took over the majority of Google products that you use every day. Next year, he needs to make sure you aren't tempted to use something else.

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    Tim Cook

    CEO of Apple

    Ignore the people who want to gloss over the fact that Tim Cook, the CEO of the most powerful technology company on the planet, came out as gay in a powerful and personal essay. It matters. It matters that the CEO of Apple plans to use his power, and his company, to advocate for equality. "The company I am so fortunate to lead has long advocated for human rights and equality for all," Cook said in his essay. "We'll continue to fight for our values, and I believe that any CEO of this incredible company, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, would do the same. And I will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up."

    Even if it weren't for his brave personal storytelling, Cook is an obvious choice on a list of the most influential people of 2014. Far from just shepherding Apple, he's moved it in new directions that probably wouldn't have happened with Steve Jobs. Apple has a new spirit of openness with users and developers, bigger phones, and of course an entirely new product category that started development under Cook. The Apple Watch is a big, bold bet on the next wave of technology, and it proves that thinking different didn't end with Steve Jobs. This is Tim Cook's Apple, and it is very much still the envy of the rest of the technology industry.

  39. artists

    Ash Thorp

    Graphic designer, illustrator, artist

    If you’ve seen a blockbuster movie at any point in the last several years, odds are good you’ve gotten a glimpse of Ash Thorp’s work. The prolific graphic designer has been involved with art direction on many of the decade’s hottest films, including Prometheus, Robocop, Thor, and Iron Man III.

    Thorp even managed to make some of 2014’s most mediocre movies look fantastic: his credits this year include The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (He’s sometimes the only reason a film is worth seeing on the big screen.) Thorp has turned the modern interpretation of science fiction in film into high art.

    Ash Thorp

  40. artists

    Cary Fukunaga

    Director of True Detective

    The world didn't think it needed another adaptation of Jane Eyre, right up until it saw Cary Fukunaga's film. He coaxed remarkable performances out of his two lead actors: Michael Fassbender's manic-depressive Rochester was excellent, but the real showstopper was Mia Wasikowska. Her performance as Jane changed the character from a sheltered fussbudget who hates nice dresses (seriously, Charlotte Brontë had a thing for killjoy main characters) into a confused, awkward woman who's having her first encounter with her own sex drive.

    Not everybody saw Jane Eyre. And so Fukunaga didn't really hit the big time until he directed the first season of HBO's True Detective this year, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey — an experience that, for some fans, was like having their favorite indie band turn into a chart-topping monster. Suddenly everyone knows who he is.

    Fukunaga won't be directing True Detective's next season, which critics are disappointed about. But he's stepping away to spend more time with the big screen, with a higher profile and bigger budgets. As anyone who saw Jane Eyre knows, the big screen is where Fukunaga does his best work.

  41. Getty Images

    David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

    Showrunners of Game of Thrones

    It's not just that the showrunners behind Game of Thrones kept HBO's hit series at the top of the most-pirated TV show list this year. It's not that HBO has already signed up for two more seasons. It's not that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have taken one of the most sprawling and complicated fantasy novel series in recent memory and converted it to the screen in such an approachable way. It's not even the remarkable fact that the pair is relying less and less on "sexposition" and instead crafting narratives that make sense for TV  not to mention building the show with knowledge of the ending that novelist George R.R. Martin hasn't written yet.

    It's that Game of Thrones is probably the best example (and maybe the only one) of a show that is both appointment viewing and a massive streaming success. It's worked so well both on TV and online that it may have had a hand in convincing HBO executives to someday offer HBO unbundled from a cable subscription.

    Winter is coming, but thanks to Benioff and Weiss that's a good thing. It means Game of Thrones is back on soon.

  42. artists

    Lev Manovich

    Author, professor at The Graduate Center, CUNY

    Lev Manovich used his first computer in 1977, after two years of writing programs on paper for a programming class in Moscow. His code was impeccable, but when he typed it in, the machine spat back a failure message. He'd never used a computer keyboard before, and had typed O's instead of zeroes.

    In the 37 years since that keyboard failure, Manovich has become one of the smartest voices on the way we interact with computers. His landmark 2001 treatise The Language of New Media broke down central visual ideas like resizable windows and file menus in intricate detail, unpacking conventions that most had taken for granted. Suddenly, there was a way of talking about computer space, and how it felt to spend so much time there.

    This year, he took the same approach to the world of selfies, pulling together more than 3,000 self-portraits from around the world, cataloguing them, and publishing essays and visualizations to explore what they all meant. Women take selfies from more extreme angles, it turns out. What does that say about the way we see ourselves? Sao Paolo smiles more than New York. Are they happier there? Manovich is still working on the answers, but the questions kept us busy all year.

    Lev Manovich selfies

  43. artists

    Mallory Ortberg

    Founder and editor at The Toast

    mallory ortberg v50

    "hey im gaunting you ok
    Do you mean haunting"

    As literary arrivals go, it's a pretty good one. The line comes from "Texts from a Ghost," a piece that popped onto The Hairpin in 2012. Ortberg was already beloved as one of the site's more prolific commenters, but the post established her as something more. Hers was a new voice, a new way of looking at the world. It was funny and weird enough that it seemed like something that could only happen on the web.

    This year, Ortberg took the voice even further. She wrote a book, a series of literary riffs titled Texts from Jane Eyre, but that's only the second-most exciting thing on her plate. Joining forces with fellow Hairpin alum Nicole Cliffe, she founded a new site called The Toast. If The Hairpin had served as an offbeat take on women's media, The Toast is staking out even broader territory, mixing heartfelt Ferguson essays with photoshopped covers for Dad Magazine (a running joke that turned into a book deal for the two Toast writers behind it).

    That approach has carved out a surprisingly big niche. The site became profitable just a few months after launch, and in September, the group announced they were bringing on beloved novelist Roxane Gay for a sister site dubbed The Butter. "Right now we're very happy at the size we're at," Ortberg says. "But I have days where I wake up and think, 'Why shouldn't I employ hundreds of people? Why shouldn't I employ everyone?'" If The Toast keeps it up, why not?

    The Toast is one of the least expected, most impressive media stories of 2014

    Ortberg orchestrated one of the more successful new media stories of 2014, and easily the most unexpected. It launched on a meager budget, leaving it wholly owned by Ortberg, Cliffe, and a business partner. That lo-fi approach has left The Toast looking more like the shoestring blogs of the '90s than more modern, polished ventures. Maybe that's a good thing. Its scrappy charm lets the site explore voices and topics other sites would pass over -- and while countless more expensive sites launch and flounder, The Toast is still trucking along merrily.

    In part, that success comes down to never doubting that readers will be ready to come along for the ride. "The three of us are like the pied piper. We don't turn around to see if the children are following us because we just assume that they are," Ortberg said. Then she paused. "That's horrible. I just compared our website to the Black Death."

  44. Getty Images

    Mike Judge

    Creator and Director of Silicon Valley

    In many ways, Mike Judge's Silicon Valley is an eerie reminder that his 2006 film Idiocracy is more satire than absurdism. Silicon Valley is a biting, worryingly accurate look at the world of technology startups. (To use Todd VanDerWerff's excellent description, "It feels weirdly like a tech-world Entourage.") More than that, it's a showcase of a group of talented comedians getting to have fun with clever scripts chock-full of technobabble.

    It's the only show I can think of that'd be able to produce a dick joke epic enough to warrant a 12-page scientific paper by a Stanford research team  and have it be an actually important plot point. It's a testament to Judge's own sensibilities: he has something poignant to say, but he won't let that get in the way of a good laugh.

  45. Meredith Heuer

    Sarah Koenig

    Creator and host of Serial

    Sarah Koenig was a producer at public-radio staple This American Life for years before the show launched its first spin-off, a podcast named Serial, in October. Then, suddenly, Serial and Sarah Koenig became a phenomenon. More than a million people download the show every week, and Serial has almost single-handedly elevated the medium of podcasting to national water-cooler conversation.

    The show follows a single story over a dozen or so episodes. In its first season, it chronicles an evolving account of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a popular high school student from Baltimore County, Maryland. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of Lee's murder, but his claims of innocence, as well as lingering questions about the prosecution's timeline of events, led Koenig to open an investigation of her own. Her investigation has since launched countless others, as well as a fanatic group of listeners-turned-detectives who are searching for the answers themselves.

    Serial is a compelling listen for many reasons, starting with the truly perplexing mystery around what really happened the day of the murder. But its greatness comes directly from Koenig, whose honesty about her own doubts give the show a surprising gravity. How do we know what we say we know? It's a question that haunts everyone involved with the case, and it's the thing we're really wrestling with when we listen to Serial. Here's to season two.

  46. Illustration by Jeremy Sengly

    Shonda Rhimes

    Creator of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder

    Verge 50


    The phrase "Golden Age of TV" is thrown around a lot — shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones weave rich visual tapestries with seasons-long character studies and stories that don't neatly end with each episode. If you hadn't noticed, Scandal belongs in that category. It's over-the-top pulpy even in its fourth season, but the show is nonetheless ambitious and insanely fun to watch.

    It's also one of the few shows led by a black actress (Kerry Washington), and it's one of the few that gives real screentime to LGBT characters and gives them roles that don’t revolve around sexual preference. (There is still a lot of sex, though, same as everywhere else in Shondaland). On representation alone, it’s as much a part of the Golden Age as everything else. Rhimes has a particular style: relentless, smart, and endlessly watchable. Her ability to bring otherwise under-represented characters and archetypes to prime-time smash ratings is unparalleled in today’s Hollywood.

    This year, Rhimes managed to successfully franchise that style, co-executive producing longtime collaborator Peter Nowalk's How to Get Away With Murder, who has competed with Scandal all season for the most-viewed drama on television. The only person who can take on Shonda Rhimes, obviously, is Shonda Rhimes.

  47. artists

    Tim Howard

    Goalie for the US Men's Soccer Team

    This summer, Tim Howard galvanized and united a nation in truly unique fashion. The United States has been an almost impenetrable fortress for soccer, but Howard's heroics during the World Cup in Brazil earned him widespread appreciation and triggered an outburst of patriotic pride in the typically neglected US men's team.

    The American goalkeeper broke the record for most recorded saves in a World Cup match during the contest against Belgium on July 1st, and became an overnight web meme. Despite the team eventually losing that match and being knocked out, Howard's resolute performances throughout the tournament will ensure that this year's World Cup is one Americans will not soon forget.

    Having been briefly appointed US Secretary of Defense by a particularly ingenious Wikipedia editor, Tim Howard now continues his professional career as the goalkeeper of Everton FC in the English Premier League. For his superlative efforts on the international stage, Howard recently collected the 2014 US Soccer Male Athlete of the Year award, which topped off a year in which he broke the US career records for both wins and appearances. Somewhere, right now, he's almost certainly saving something.

  48. upstarts

    Evan Spiegel

    CEO of Snapchat

    In late 2013, Facebook reportedly offered $3 billion in cash to Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel. Spiegel and others at Snapchat had taken a simple idea — photos and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds and built it into a thriving app with over 100 million users. But Spiegel wasn't selling. He had bigger plans.

    Over the course of 2014, he turned what was once mostly described as a sexting platform into a full-on social network, complete with video chat, its first ads, and even a cash transfer service. The company is now reportedly valued at $10 billion; maybe Spiegel wasn't crazy to turn down $3 billion after all.

    This hasn't been without controversy. One of Snapchat's co-founders accused Spiegel and CTO Bobby Murphy of shutting him out of the company in a lawsuit that was finally settled this year. He's been taken to task for repeated security breaches, one of which resulted in tens of thousands of user photos being leaked through a third-party service. And like many other social media tycoons, he's still figuring out how to shepherd Snapchat into financial success.

    But Spiegel and Snapchat have managed to create something that's usually in short supply on the internet, where everything lives forever: a real sense of ephemerality and spontaneity.

  49. upstarts

    Travis Kalanick

    CEO of Uber

    Travis Kalanick’s Twitter avatars have included an Ayn Rand tribute and Alexander Hamilton’s green, stippled portrait from the $10 bill. That should tell you something: Uber’s CEO isn’t a warm, affable character — he’s a cold, calculating capitalist.

    That slash-and-burn attitude has earned Kalanick — and his ride-calling service — controversy and explosive growth in equal measure. In the half decade since it launched, Uber has taken heat on numerous occasions, spawning scandals over subprime auto loans, poor take-home pay, dirty tactics against rival service Lyft, and a leaked threat from executive Emil Michael to dig up dirt on the journalists who cover Uber negatively. Meanwhile it has expanded to over 200 cities worldwide; in 2014 alone, it has added fleets of drivers everywhere from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Cairo, Egypt.

    Through it all, Kalanick has remained relatively low-key, emerging recently to issue a meandering, 13-tweet apology over the Michael controversy. But when you’re growing a company as quickly as he has — Uber’s valuation was $40 billion at last count — you’re not expected to give your investors and your ever-growing customer base very many answers.

  50. Getty Images

    Jan Koum

    CEO of WhatsApp

    How many figures would you accept for your company? If you're WhatsApp CEO and cofounder Jan Koum, you can demand a whopping 11, after Facebook agreed to pay more than $22 billion in cash and stock for the app this year.

    Koum was relatively unknown before the mega-deal dropped, but WhatsApp wasn't: it's easily the most popular messaging service in the world, crossing 600 million active users in August. It's become a powerhouse of image sharing, too, and has begun to offer end-to-end encryption that keeps your messages secure even from WhatsApp itself.

    While competitors worried about valuations and feature sets, Koum and cofounder Brian Acton quietly built a messaging empire worth billions of dollars. Koum now sits on Facebook's board and is the highest-ranking newcomer to Forbes' 400 wealthiest Americans, sitting at a comfortable 62 with more than $7.5 billion to his name. With Facebook's infrastructure and massive user base, WhatsApp stands positioned to dominate the future of communication.

    That might make even $22 billion seem small.

  51. upstarts

    Nick Woodman

    CEO of GoPro

    This June, GoPro had the biggest initial public offering of any consumer electronics company in 20 years, and it was certainly the most dramatically filmed. Dozens of employees, including Nick Woodman, the company’s founder and CEO, held their tiny cameras in their hands, in their teeth, and on extended mounts as trading began. GoPro’s stock rose almost immediately — and it hasn’t slowed down much since.

    In a time when smartphones have eaten most of the camera market, GoPro has seen dramatic success. Its cameras do one thing, but they do it well: film high-quality video in situations that would destroy a conventional device. In September, GoPro released its latest camera, the Hero4 Black, which now shoots 4K video. Like all GoPro cameras, it’s also waterproof and has mounts for attaching to helmets, surfboards, dashboards, drones, dog harnesses, bikes, and all the other gear that now comes with a GoPro ready attachment.

    In 10 years of existence, the company has sold more than 11 million cameras, 2.8 million in the first nine months of 2014 alone. This year GoPro began its next act: its transformation from a hardware maker to a media company. Its millions of users produce tremendous amounts of video, often tagged "GoPro," much of which goes viral. Last year people uploaded 2.8 years’ worth of footage to YouTube with GoPro in the title, and that’s just a fraction of the total uploaded video from GoPro cameras.

    The company has developed a team to curate, edit, and promote all that user-generated video. They scour the web for promising GoPro videos, reach out to the filmmakers, edit their work, color-correct it, give it a soundtrack, and provide cameras for future projects. The resulting videos are user-generated share-bait, high-quality clips of people doing astonishing things you can watch at your desk. Company-edited clips of people hanging out with lion prides, firemen saving a kitten, and descents into volcanos got many millions of views this year. These videos have always served as extremely successful user-generated ads for GoPro’s cameras. This year GoPro began building a media business around them.

  52. upstarts

    Kimberly Bryant

    Founder of Black Girls Code

    Kimberly Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code, a non-profit whose mission is to bring coding and computer science to young girls, especially those of color. Over the course of the past three years, the Oakland-based organization has expanded to cities like Detroit, New York City, and Las Vegas. Bryant is leading the charge, raising awareness and bringing more women and people of color to coding.

    We spoke with Bryant about her work, gender gaps, and what we can do to make sure that more women and people of color break into the tech world.

    Black Girls Code had a big year. When you look back on 2014, what stands out the most?

    I would definitely say two things: seeing our program expand to 3,000 students was a highlight from an organizational standpoint. And from a personal standpoint, receiving the "Standing O-vation" award from Oprah and Toyota during her tour was a highlight. Being able to have our work recognized by an icon and role model like that meant a lot to me.

    Some people might not know what prompted you to start Black Girls Code. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?

    We were founded in April 2011, and it started with a really small pilot program of about 10 students right in the San Francisco Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood, one of the few remaining African-American communities left the city. We started there because I had been doing a lot of interviewing and networking in the tech startup community, and I really found that among all the folks that I was meeting with, there wasn’t much diversity in terms of women, gender diversity and also racial diversity. And in many of these meetings, when I would ask about the lack of women in these settings, people would say "oh, well, you know, we just can’t find any. We would really love to hire women but they’re just not there." So I wanted to do something to kind of feed that pipeline, and get girls interested in technology early.

    Around that same time my 12-year-old daughter was going to her first summer camp. She was interested in game design and testing, and so we found this great camp at Stanford. She attended, and it was a great experience for her. But the thing with that was that there were very few girls in that class. The class had 35 kids or so, and maybe about three or four girls. And she was the only African-American student. I don’t think they had any other students of color, period.

    "We wanted some girls that look like my daughter getting interested in computer science."

    That was a huge motivator for me to do this program because I saw that there are no girls even coming behind. So we created this program with the motivation to change that dynamic; we wanted to some girls that look like my daughter getting interested in computer science.

    Now that you’re three years in, do you feel like you’re seeing a change? Is there more discussion surrounding the lack of women of color in the tech world?

    Absolutely. In the last three years, I have definitely seen a huge shift. I see more discussions about the lack of diversity in the tech space, both in regards to women and people of color. And I think that conversation has expanded. It’s not just coming from community organizations, but also from government. And because of diversity reports from companies like Google, these conversations are also happening in the news. So the conversation has expanded from this small group of activists to a national and international conversation about what we need to do in this space to drive innovation. I definitely feel that our work has had a lot to do with that.

    But even with programs like yours, there’s still a huge gap in terms of minority and female representation in the coding world. What still needs to happen to change that?

    I definitely think there needs to be more of a focus and movement on getting coding taught in schools. There’s really only so much after-school programs like Black Girls Code can do to really drive that change. And those classes shouldn’t only take place in high school. We should make sure that we teach kids about coding at an early age.

  53. The people behind the Verge 50

    • Editors
      Nilay Patel, Dieter Bohn, David Pierce
    • Contributors
      Adi Robertson, Casey Newton, Chris Ziegler, Colin Lecher, Dan Seifert, Jake Kastrenakes, Josh Lowensohn, Kwame Opam, Chris Plante, Ross Miller, Sam Byford, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Russell Brandom, Vlad Savov, Leah Christians, Helen Havlak
    • Project Manager
      Lauren Rabaino
    • Art director
      Dylan Lathrop
    • Designers
      Dylan Lathrop, Uy Tieu
    • Developers
      Josh Laincz, Ryan Mark
    • Illustrator
      Jeremy Sengly
    • Video
      Marc Leonard, Tom Connors, Jordan Oplinger
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