My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the absurdities of Davos

When I went to Cannes last year, I thought nothing could be more absurd. I was wrong; Davos is much much much more absurd.

Much to my shock, I was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum this year, all because of a talk that I gave at AAAS. Even though I was on travel ban, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Given how many folks have asked me about it, I also figured I should do a trip report. This is that. In very brief high-level form.

Structure

Getting to Zurich was surprisingly easy, thanks to a direct flight from LAX. From Zurich, I hopped a bus with a bunch of other attendees. Imagine SF-Tahoe, complete with the traffic jams and snow piles everywhere as you go up into the mountains… only the bus is full of brilliant people that you admire deeply.

When I got to my hotel, I was a bit surprised to find that my $350+/night hotel room was crappier than the $39.99 ones that I mastered in rural America. There wasn’t even working internet and the lobby smelled foul. Le sigh. That’s what I get for going for the “cheap” option. The funny thing that I learned as the week went by is that many of the hotels are shite. There was something utterly absurd about realizing that the world’s leaders pay obscene prices to stay in crappy hotels (except for those lucky enough to have connections to get an apartment in town or those unfortunate enough to have to get a place outside of town and commute in because the crappy hotels are filled).

Security is omg overwhelming and everpresent. There are police officers at every door, street corner, and lining every hotel. Probably 1 police to every 2 people. Metal detectors and bag scanners are everywhere (along with coat checks and badge scanners). Not all of the events take place in the same building so every 2-3 hours, you end up going through a new set of security/coat check, making regular trips to the airport seem like cake. Oddly, by the second day, it just seems normal.

Content

There are different kinds of sessions: big lecture sessions, workshops, breakfast/lunch/dinner discussions, and private events. Most sessions have a cap so you have to wake up at 7.30AM to sign up for sessions for the next day using kiosks that are everywhere (in hotels, in the lobby). You can print out your schedule on the kiosks too.

The big lectures are rather boring, but this is where many of the big politicians speak. I only went to a few of these after I realized that they were boring and that politicians couldn’t afford to say anything that they wouldn’t say on TV. Seeing Condoleezza Rice speak was dreadfully painful – I hadn’t think it was possible for my opinion of her to sink any lower. She spent the entire lecture telling Davos about why America was stable and on the right path. I walked out. The best lecture that I attended was a discussion between Al Gore and Bono about their respective activist projects – finding commonalities and connections between global warming and poverty. Twas neat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also pretty rad. There was also a panel featuring six youth from around the world which was super great to see, especially since these kids are at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum to the teens I normally interact with. These young folks were full-blown activists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers. Intense!

Workshops are the bomb. They are topically oriented and everyone works in small groups solve a problem. I attended two of these – one on technology and development and one on status. At the tech & development one, we were to imagine how to address the problems of a fictional village (called Tupointo… 2.0). We were split into groups – villagers, government, NGOs, funders, and tech companies. Not surprisingly, I was assigned to be a villager. After working out our needs as villagers, we all compared our goals and then had to split up with reps from other groups to negotiate. Our villager group rocked, but when we had to compromise, I nearly killed one of the guys from the tech sector for not understanding villagers. Turns out he’s a pretty powerful tech guy in RL… oops.

The second workshop on status was structured as a game where we were given gems that we had to trade to work our way up the status latter. It quickly became clear that some were born wealthier than others. I was a member of the poverty class. Realizing we would never win by getting money and realizing that whenever a member of our group did well, they were shipped off to another group, our group decided to aim for bottom, maximize happiness and conversation, and laugh at the other groups going crazy. The wealthier classes were much more invested in succeeding and one of the members from the upper-middle class nearly went ballistic over how the game was rigged and she wasn’t able to win. Gotta love a room full of Type A personalities. Anyhow, this provoked a fun conversation and my table got to talking about the status structures of badges (not unlike those at tech companies where there are permanents and contractors and temps and whatnot).

I attended two dinners and one lunch (in addition to the dinner that I helped moderate). These sessions are structured around tables where a moderator leads a discussion and then, at dessert time, everything switches to more lecture-style. Both these and the workshops are really great to get to know folks who are also interested in the topic, even if that’s not what they actually do. At the one on technology and education, I sat at Negroponte’s table. At one on spreadable chronic diseases, I sat with a guy from Kaiser Permanente. At the cultural leaders dinner, I sat with Yo-Yo Ma and Homi Bhabha. Each sessions proved to be utterly fascinating and a great opportunity to get to see issues from a different perspective. I was completely blown away by some of the amazing people at these sessions, both at my table and those moderating other tables. At the cultural leaders dinner, Emma Thompson showed a new short movie on sex trafficking which really blew me away. (Her PSA called I Am Elana is also mind-opening.)

Of the private events I went to, the best was a small discussion with Yo-Yo Ma where he talked about how successful people have fears and how challenging it is to be so successful so young. This was for the Young Global Leaders and so it turned into a fantastic discussion about issues related to being young and successful. I’ve decided that Yo-Yo Ma is a god – he is extremely playful and equally present and engaged. I found talking to him to be soul-enhancing.

On top of these structured events, there were also all sorts of different kinds of schmooze receptions and parties. I found that I was dreadful at these. I’m not so good about wandering around schmoozing people, although it was astonishing to watch some people who were tremendously good at it. I did OK at the parties where I knew folks (and there were a decent number of tech folks there), but otherwise… eventually I decided that I would be better off focusing on the small things involving intimate interactions with new people or friends of friends. I got to attend two non-structured dinners which were really great for getting to know new people and diving deep. Because Davos is cold and slippery, there are all of these shuttle buses that go everywhere. I found that I had many fun conversations sitting in those shuttle buses. This was much more up my style than the schmooze affairs so I decided to do some extra rounds on the buses a couple of nights.

At Davos, I was not a VIP by any stretch of one’s imagination. In fact, I was pretty close to the bottom of the attendee pecking order. It was pretty entertaining to see how people’s eyes would gaze over when they looked at my tag – politicians and heads of very important companies are significant; researchers.. not so much. Those who did want to engage me on my work usually wanted to get advice about their kids; I did a lot of parent therapy at Davos which was fine by me. But it really was weird to watch the hierarchies operate there. All the same, folks were relatively down-to-earth.

Another thing about Davos was that it became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system. The conversations of the conference were heavily focused on environmentalism, inequality, terrorism, and doing good to solve the world’s problems. What I found was that many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills. It was weird… I couldn’t tell if such folks were clueless or delusional. I still need to chew on this a bit more. But it was fascinating to see that most businesspeople at Davos genuinely believed that they could help the world.

Many people at Davos wanted to know who I was going to vote for – our election is extremely interesting to non-US folks and I was completely shocked to find that most non-US business people that I met at Davos strongly preferred Barack to Hillary. I wasn’t expecting that. As for the U.S. Republicans… they too preferred Barack if they had to choose a Dem. Even though we weren’t in the U.S., the U.S. was overly present there. Our economy, our elections, our politics… all of these were front and central from the global audience. Very strange.

All and all, I got little sleep but had a fantastic time meeting interesting people and talking about ideas and watching how some of the most powerful people in the world network. It really was just downright absurd and I still can’t get it through my head that they allowed me in. ::laugh:: Now I must process what to do with what I learned there.

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18 comments to the absurdities of Davos

  • manuelg

    > What I found was that many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills. It was weird… I couldn’t tell if such folks were clueless or delusional.

    Basic, realistic self-awareness is the ticket to the game.

    Wouldn’t you say that their self-image makes them desperately want to _seem_ like they “desperately want to help solve social problems”?

    And they were selected for their positions of power because their lack of basic, realistic self-awareness prevents them from undertaking actions that would be risky to shareholder value?

    Or is that way too cynical?

  • ShaneMcC

    Thanks for the great insight on Davos. Sorry about the hotel.

    How come you’re surprised about on-US people favouring Obama? My Dad is for Clinton, for the experience; I’m for Obama, for the change. Although the president is one person, I think Obama will bring so many more people with him than Clinton, that it will make up for any extra experience that Clinton (Bill) has.

  • “Another thing about Davos was that it became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system.”

    I’m really interested to see what else you have to say on this point because I think that you’re really on to something. I have to believe that most business people, and people in general, have some compassion for others and want to be part of a solution/offer help on different social/enviornmental issues; however, often the most helpful thing they could do would be to evaluate their own practices and change a few things about how they do business. I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts.

  • anon

    “Another thing about Davos was that it became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system.”

    Who is John Galt?

  • Tex

    Frankly, I think most people are unaware of their place in the system. How many times have I heard people decrying the ills of global warming while punching their left fist in the air, even as their right clutches a disposable cup of coffee purchased for $4 from a mega-corporation?

  • You wrote:
    It became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system.

    I write:
    That’s cuz they think if they throw enough $ at their Philanthropic CSR model and brag on it in their anual reports to their investors, then everything is a.o.k. And I guess it is. Investors respond very enthusiastically to that crap.

    Sigh. I’ve got to chew on it some more as well. I mean, with CEOs making 300 times more than their employees, I guess it’s a lot to ask these guys to see how these profits are made AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS. Ungh…

  • You wrote:
    It became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system.

    I write:
    That’s cuz they think if they throw enough $ at their Philanthropic CSR model and brag on it in their anual reports to their investors, then everything is a.o.k. And I guess it is. Investors respond very enthusiastically to that crap.

    Sigh. I’ve got to chew on it some more as well. I mean, with CEOs making 300 times more than their employees, I guess it’s a lot to ask these guys to see how these profits are made AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS. Ungh…

  • This kind of post is exactly why I love your blog! Great observations — I’ve always wanted to hear what those events feel like from someone who’s more on my wavelength.

    “[security] … making regular trips to the airport seem like cake. Oddly, by the second day, it just seems normal.”

    Not surprising but frightening.

  • hollie

    wow, Yo-Yo Ma!!!! He is such a great advocate of music education, and does a lot to further that cause. I would LOVE to get a chance to sit with him at a dinner! So jealous!!!!!

  • joe

    can we get a short post sometime?

  • > What I found was that many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills. It was weird… I couldn’t tell if such folks were clueless or delusional.

    It seems that’s the subject of the post.

    People really get kinda upset when I present folks with a Higher power variety of determinism. (Its not god that determines… its these people… the people “upstairs”)

    And when I took my MBA-styled communication class, I was amazed at how much folks were not aware — but still good intended. They truely believed that capitalism will save us all, and feed the 3rd world. They didn’t want to face the idea that all the “good things” they’ve been doing … writing checks like indulgences, subsidizing education when a community needs farming, Supporting the WTO because money is always good, right?

    I think if this message ever did sink in, If people actually realized their parts, there may be a rash of suicides almost upper echelons — the the actual upper echelons, are, too used to it. And it will take an apocalypse to enact change. (Unless you have a multi-generational view of time — which is not a very western/capitalist kind of thing)

  • Fascinating. I knew you were there (from Scoble’s photos) and I did not stop to think what the occasion might be and what the experience would be (just as I don’t imagine myself there).

    That people in businesses don’t recognize the externalities of their conduct (often described as features, such as starbucks switching from paper bags for beans to environmentally-frightful plastic bags) is not surprising. I think your sense of looking inward rather than outward is right on.

    Thank you for the report. At the end, I was overcome by an intense sadness. I don’t know what that is about.

  • Great post, happy to have you back.

    Regarding the impact of US politics, I believe it’s even greater then that: most people around me know everything about the Democratic caucuses, including details like Florida, race/sex/age vote breakdown, etc. Among the very same, many can’t give the name or the full title of most ministers in our own government, or the political concerns, head of state and election pattern of the neighbouring countries.

    There are many reasons why Obama has the lead, but two feel obvious to me:
    First, he understands Arabic and Islam: business people know how essential this is – at least, he seems. Second, he is the only candidate to mention US image abroad. More generally, the candidate the most on the left is often preferred abroad: laissez-faire tax rates & heavy-handed interventionism doesn’t seem so popular far from home.

  • I’m afraid business people are not the only well-wishing unaware people roaming around the globe: Tex describes it simply.
    The differences are between the impact a decision from a leader can have, and the behaviour of the crowd.
    But we’re all self-righteous, aren’t we?

    @Bertil: I enjoyed your first paragraph 😉

  • Le Blase: I was only trying to take the point of view of a the manager of an international company. Others do care; others are hardly invited at Davos.

    Danah, I do hope you can come back to Swiss away from all that Bonefire of Vanity.

  • roy

    many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills…

    I think that most of them see their roles as very limited. First of all they are looking out for their own best interest as far as money and/or power are concerned. To the extent that they realize that their own self interest is served by helping to address these problems, then they are likely to act. However, if working to address these problems has only an indirect effect, or no measurable effect, or a negative effect on them then taking such an action would be completely out of character.

    It is the rare enlightened CEO who decides to do anything that makes his product or service less competitive even when it is the right thing to do.

  • Enjoyed your observations – and as to why you were there, you have a lot to offer. A lot to share. The bottom line for business leaders is profit – for those of us not in business, it’s our role to help encourage them to share the wealth. and speaking of wealth, get this: my “handbag” was lost or stolen at Zurich airport. Perhaps the intense security in Davos put my normal citysmarts to rest. No matter, my docs and wallet were not in the purse. I do hope that whomever found/took the loot was able to feed their family a yummy meal. Keep up the great work and please don’t tire from chatting to parents about their kids – otherwise, you’ll seem as false as some of the people you describe above.

  • This is an interesting take on Davos, and , in fact, a pretty good advertisement. The fact that executives suddenly realize that they are not fully aware of their position in the social structure is the kind of epiphany that is likely to make them more sensitive in the future. At least it gives them the inkling of an opportunity not to become totally lost, or as the CEO of Campbell Soups once put it, “not to suck in one’s own exhaust fumes.” Davos is, I think, a creative environment in which the real learning process comes from contact with one’s peers, if not in the business world, at least in the human race. This is, of course, the creative model of the future. Klaus Schwab had originally wanted to use the forum to introduce American ideas to European business, but he soon realized that what European businessmen really craved was social interaction. They realized that money and power did not connect them to the creative power of artists, writers and thinkers, which is what life is really about. We remember our writers and poets. We forget our CEOs. So Davos became a giant source of connections. My sense at this year’s conference was that there is a certain injustice that the conference is so select. You have, perhaps, 3,000 people, chosen from among the most brilliant in the world, and they receive this sudden charge of creative energy from each other–a kind of creative plasma. They leave with a definite advantage, which makes the gap between them and the isolated poor even greater. The real question is: once we have this gift of insight, and the power that comes with it, what do we do with it? How do we use it?