Davos hubris

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2010
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".

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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.

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