It’s common, at the end of a professional conference, for participants to agree with squealing laughter that maybe they didn’t solve all their intractable problems, but “it was like group therapy!”
But we expect more from the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, more commonly known as Davos. That’s a lotta private jet fuel to expend for group therapy. And though it’s probably healthy for the captains of the universe to meet face-to-face regularly, is it too much to also expect that they make one another smarter, too?
Almost perennially and probably obnoxiously, I refer to a piece I wrote this time of year 14 years ago, titled, “Guessers Gather at Davos to Guess Together.”
The piece gets its name from a 2005 Kurt Vonnegut essay in which he called world leaders professional “guessers,” and wrote, “It is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on, because it is now their turn to guess and be listened to.”
Back then, it was Google CEO Eric Schmidt doing the oral guessing. In 2010, Schmidt acknowledged that he and his fellow Davos participants didn’t share “any settled view of how to overcome the challenges our world faces. … Instead Davos mirrors the uncertainty in the world in general. The real story this year was not arrogance but anxiety over how we could channel turbulent global forces in a more positive direction so that everyone gains.”
In the wake of Davos this month came a Politico piece last week, that echoed both Vonnegut’s point and Schmidt’s uncertainty. It’s titled, “Why the Davos Smart Set Sounds So Dumb.”
“Fifty-four years ago, when the World Economic Forum’s genius convener started these gatherings,” writes Politico’s global editor-in-chief John Harris, “it was probably true that elites learned things at Davos or meetings of the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group that most people couldn’t easily learn for themselves. This hold was weakened by cable news and demolished by social media.”
Now, in between “an infinite roster of speeches from world leaders and earnest panels on topics such as ‘Treating Soil as a Precious Resource,'” Harris writes, Davos participants stand around just like parents at soccer games or jamokes at the corner tavern, chewing conventional cud about the discouraging U.S. presidential race shaping up, all the trouble universities are having and whether or not AI is going to ruin everything.
It is not that the observations and arguments are notably dumb, though it is rare to hear something arrestingly smart. The signature of most conversations about current events is how emphatically commonplace they are. Business leaders, scientists, public intellectuals, cabinet ministers and the roster of operatives who accompany them all to Davos tend to be very high news consumers. Many of these people are themselves frequently in the news or have regular access to principals of government and industry. Outsiders, however, should liberate themselves from the illusion that these insiders really know the score. Their views are no more banal than the average person who also follows the news, but they are typically no less so.
Harris concludes: “That may be the real lesson of Davos: Everyone is winging it, experts and schlubs alike, muddling through with at best fragmentary understandings of a fast-moving world and its inscrutable future.”
Sounds like guessing, to me.
But what about to my friends in executive communication? You’re the ones who wrote all those speeches and prepped your bosses for all those panels. Is Harris being too dismissive here? I reported on the most interesting stuff I heard out of Davos, in the Executive Communication Report. It seemed like pretty thin gruel to me. What did I miss?
For possible publication at ProRhetoric.com, I’m happy to have your first- or secondhand thoughts on the dialogue at Davos—for attribution, or not. Write to me at david dot murray at prorhetoric dot com.