Felix Salmon

Davos hubris

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2010

On Friday, Lance Knobel rose to the defense of the World Economic Forum. On Saturday, I was cornered by a particularly aggressive Young Global Leader, who had taken the oath, and whose plans for making the world a better place I developed a severe aversion to quite early, at exactly the time that he used the word “platform” as a verb. On Sunday I talked to another YGL who had also taken the oath and was happy to defend it. And today I stumbled across a piece of Davos PR fluff claiming that “the Forum has reached a worldwide audience of 430 million readers online namely through the use of social networks”.

So I feel like I need to say one last time — and with any luck this’ll be my last Davos post for the year — No. No, your oath is not something which at best is a good thing and which in any case can do no harm. No, it’s not “pretty rare” to find well-intentioned people anywhere in the world. No, you didn’t reach 430 million people. In fact, you didn’t even reach 1 million, your high follower count on Twitter notwithstanding.

All of these things are part of the bigger phenomenon of Davos hubris and exceptionalism — the very thing which I think can be so very dangerous. Hang out at Davos for long enough, and you become convinced that you’re a special person who can make the world a better place and who indeed has a moral obligation to act thusly. If you start believing everything that people in Davos say to you, you can eventually end up with the kind of mindset which leads to a convinction that invading Iraq is a really good idea.

Why do people go to Davos? Because being invited makes you feel like you’re a member of a select club. Because the message makes you feel good about yourself and your ability to change the world. Because people keep on referring to you as a “leader”. Because, for the minority of people at Davos who genuinely are important, it’s a place where you can let your guard down for a bit, and chat to the person sitting on the couch next to you without having to deal with them as a potential starfucker or protestor or whatever.

That’s why it’s really not in the slightest bit impressive that Percy Barnevik was nice to Lance Knobel’s spouse — Davos does the prefiltering for you, and you can relax once you’re there in your bed of vanity. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t important,” the YGL told me, with a perfectly straight face, on Saturday night, basking in the reflected glory of being in the same bar as moguls and billionaires singing loudly along with Barry the piano man. Davos is a social occasion, and in many ways it’s closer to being a four-day-long cocktail party than it is to being a place where anything substantive gets done. Besides, interesting people often have interesting spouses, and Lance is no exception in that respect; more generally, just as the most interesting panels are the ones you know nothing about, the most interesting people you meet are likely to be ones you’ve never heard of before.

The problem here is that Davos isn’t content being a place where people make polite conversation and serendipitously end up sitting next to someone fascinating at dinner; it also aspires to changing the world. Lance says that I’m “overrating the Forum’s influence and power” when I say that it was responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008 — but my point isn’t that Davos is influential or powerful in itself, just that it inculcates a mindset in its delegates where they’re convinced that they’re doing good (the oath is a prime example of this), and never stop to modestly wonder whether they’re wrong. And that kind of mindset can be very destructive: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Davos is the road crew keeping it smooth and fast.

13 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Just wanted to say well done for being the little boy pointing at all the naked kings (a well-worn analogy but none the worse for that).

Posted by Gaw | Report as abusive

>> “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t important . . .”

Yes, someone saying that would disturb me too, on several levels.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

No wonder Davos is one of the most important events of the year for teams in the advertorial business. They can find incredibly powerful door-openers to a bunch of countries in one place, and most importantly, in the appropriate frame of mind that predisposes them to believe that whatever they do to inflate their own egos is good for their companies, their countries, and for the world.

Posted by AlanFurth | Report as abusive

Another puff piece about Davos? Enough with the sugar-coating, Felix. Please, finally, tell us what you really think!!

Posted by MarkC123 | Report as abusive

Ahoy Felix – well written, sir. In a piece you wrote last week, you quoted George Orwell and I’m certain that the great man would have had a field day skewering all these pompous a-holes. Barring that, your barbs have been most entertaining!

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

OK. So, it’s easy to insult many aspects of Davos. I’ve been to two WEF’s and share some of your perspectives, although I was there wearing a much different hat. Most importantly, I was not invited, but rather, I was filling in for someone receiving an award in biotech. I went to nearly every biotech event (not many), and indeed, there was an august, but sparse, representation of thought leaders – certainly not enough to make the biotech world a better place.

I hope you do one more piece on Davos and point out what would make it more successful at making the world a better place. That in itself might help make the WEF a better experience for realizing its lofty goals.

Posted by netvet | Report as abusive

There are many points that I agree with, but I think there’s a different tendency in Davos that you don’t recognize. I’ve tried to expand the point here: http://www.davosnewbies.com/2010/02/01/d avos-redux

Posted by lknobel | Report as abusive

Felix, your description sounds a bit like a religious cult, and one for which the only possible deprogramming may be the complete destruction of the Western capitalist system…

Posted by erasmas | Report as abusive

What the hell is a starfucker? and can I get one for the upcoming bachelor party?

Posted by okobojicat | Report as abusive

Starf***er is quite vulgar. A much better term would be groupie.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

Echo chambers make horribly poor listening devices, but are magnificent at amplification. Davos sounds like and auditory vanity mirror.

Posted by Nick_Gogerty | Report as abusive

yes… WELL DONE Felix. Aside of the new (and splendid!) vocab (e.g. star#@$ker) WEF jumped the shark long ago (look it up everyone if you haven’t heard the term).

We knew that at least as early as two or three years ago when India’s mobile kingpins were the flavor of the day doing their infommercial “sponsorships”, and then the Chinese with their obsequious pitch “we don’t really want to rule the world– but we’ll be happy to buy up all of your oil, tin, gold, copper, zinc, and anything else you might want to sell us so we have control over your future propserity,” showed that any real forum of “leaders” creates appeal that once monetized, undermines the whole point of leadership. This whole “oath” stuff makes a mockery of Leadership too, as real leaders don’t need an external administration to know where real principle lies, nor how to pursue it. What a joke.

And that Citibank’s Vikram Pandit gets interviewed on international news as an important person (a leader, hah!) representative of il Davos, epitomizes how meaningless WEF has become.

Bravo Felix. Keep up the good work. You and John Stewart calling it like it is.


Posted by zorevere | Report as abusive

I think perhaps it would be useful to back up and look at Davos’ original premise and ask yourself what is actually wrong with that idea? Davos started with a pretty simple premise: get the most important people in the world in one place and hope some good comes out of it. Because no one else was really doing that yet.

So, yeah, sure, a lot of annoying shit is going to happen around that premise, but ask yourself: is the premise flawed? Is there some potential utility to it? Isn’t it better to have all these people talking than not?

Posted by RIckWebb | Report as abusive

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