Felix Salmon

Why it’s safe to ignore Davos

By Felix Salmon
January 26, 2010

Lawrence Delevingne has got Davos completely wrong: his list of “The Only 12 Davos Panels Worth Paying Attention To” is in fact a list of the 12 panels which can be safely ignored by just about all the delegates here. Larry Summers is more likely to turn up with only one chin than he is to commit anything approaching news in his Saturday discussion with Charlie Rose. People looking for interesting investment ideas would probably be better served by something like the “What is Life?” panel on Wednesday — and they’ll certainly find it much more interesting.

As Davos has embraced increasing numbers of journalists over the years, the alpine gabfest has developed a public face where CEOs and VIPs give us all the benefit of their best thinking on issues of global importance. But that’s not really what Davos is about. At its best, Davos is a way of learning a great deal about things you didn’t know you had any interest in; of meeting people you’d never otherwise meet or even know existed; and of giving human three-dimensionality to people whom you’d previously thought of just as simplistic caricatures. (At its worst, of course, Davos is a malign enabler of systemically-damaging hubris, but that’s a different story.)

In any case, if you think of Davos as some kind of Sunday-morning talk show where you passively sit back and listen to Important People talk about international capital flows and the global macroeconomic outlook, you’re pretty much missing the point. When Davos works, it does so by bringing interesting people together and sparking conversations. But those conversations usually happen on the sidelines, on couches in the conference center or in hotel bars around town. They rarely happen in the formal sessions, and they never happen in the big formal sessions with heads of state and other marquee names.

The fact is that if you’re not here, Davos is not for you. You can try to watch a few webcast panels, but you’ll probably drift off very quickly. It’s the action off-screen which keeps the plutocrats coming back.

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