Questions for Davos

Davos Conversation notes…

: John Robb asks: ‘Is Davos relevant?’

With global economy running itself (where it is going, nobody has a clue), bottoms up organizations are forming to solve local and global needs, and states being pushed to margins, you can’t help but get the sense that Davos is hideously anachronistic — from a seemingly long ago time when big ideas, big people, and big states ruled the world.

: Antonio Gould says the Davos Conversation is what the web was made for:

Traditionally a fairly closed event, the WEF have decided to get communicating with the wider public. . . . Nice to see the world’s great and the good actually making an effort to listen to people for once (it doesn’t seem to happen very often, especially in the UK nowadays). Whether they actually will or not remains to be seen.

: Andrew Keen wonders whether opening up is the best thing to do:

Is nothing sacred from the digital democratizers? The Davos Conference (aka: The World Economic Forum), historically the private networking event (a so-called “closed session”) of the rich, powerful and famous, has been invaded by the Web 2.0 crowd. . . .

Time magazine’s YOU is now headlining at Davos. The closed session has been blown open to gaze of anyone with a broadband connection. Nosey parkers on the internet can now watch the historically closed panels live from their computers. We will all be able to post our comments in “real-time” to Davos participants like Angela Merkel, John McCain, King Abdullah of Jordan and Tony Blair. We can give them our view of the environment, of the Iraq War, of the global economy, on the afterlife and the pre-life. We can lecture Bill Gates about computers, Rupert Murdoch about media, Bono about celebrity, Mohammed El Baradei about atomic power and Gordon Brown about economics.

The problem, however, is that if Tony Blair, King Abdullah, John McCain, Angela Merkel et al know that we are watching them, then they will say what we want them to say (meaning that they will say nothing different from what they always say on television). The whole raison d’etre of Davos — of powerful people getting together to talk in private about the world’s problems — will be undermined. By democratizing Davos, by turning it into an always-on event, the Web 2.0 crowd are transforming a historically important date on the calendar into a self-celebratory media circus. At Davos 2.0, everyone will feel great about their horizontal networks and nothing of any political sustance will get done. . . .

: Seamus McCauley puzzles over the optimism gap he sees in the survey data released by the WEF, which leads to a fascinating argument about the falling fortunes of newspapers:

But back to the 53% of Western Europeans who think that the world will be less prosperous in the next generation. What is is that inclines us to so fear the future? I’ve mentioned before Michael Chabon’s article The Omega Glory, in which his notes that,

“If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says–floods, storms, desertification–but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now.”

There’s nothing new in a pessimistic view of the future. Christianity is at heart an apocalypse cult and much of the fundamentalist revival in the US focuses on an allegedly imminent rapture. The late C20th lived in the shadow of the bomb. Different armaggedons seemingly haunt every generation. Only last week conversation with friends over dinner turned to survivalism and contingency plans for the collapse of civilisation (remote, fortified Greek islands featured prominently).

I’ve posited before that our culture’s future-pessimism might explain the decline of the newspaper industry. An interest in current affairs is indissolubly bound up with the connection the reader feels with an imagined future to which those affairs might relate, and newsprint is suffering particularly from the evaporation of that connection. Chris Charron recently asked the LinkedIn community about the future for newspapers:

“When does the circulation drop below a point where the editorial, classifieds, and advertising models collapse and our vehicle news needs radical innovation?”

Vidar Hokstad gave, for my money, the most interesting answer – that newspapers face “not just a technological challenge, but a cultural challenge”. Indeed. The cultural challenge for newspapers is to present a vision of the present, and therefore a vision of the future, that resonates with their readers and inspires them to engage with the news every day. Western media owners have the hardest job in the world – 53% of their audience think that the future will be poorer than the present. Chinese media owners have the easiest – a massive 86% are optimistic about their future prosperity. Getting people who think that every day is a little bit better than yesterday to enthuse about the news that is taking them there should be shooting fish in a barrel.

: Which causes Ron Davison to riff:

Until the West has shifted its economies to more directly go after improvements in quality of life, this sense of pessimism in the West may only get worse.

: Comment is Free readers are sending lots of questions and comments to Davos. Please do join in, in comments or in video. Here‘s a video from Lithuania and another from Scotland.