I hadn’t encountered the American Dialect Society’s annual Words of the Year list before. Since blog is one of the 2002 finalists, and the “winner” in the most likely to succeed category, it will undoubtedly get huge coverage in the blogosphere. But the phrase on the 2002 that most impressed me was walking pinata, “a person subject to relentless criticism, most recently Trent Lott”. I have to find an occasion to work that one into my conversation.
I’ve finally taken the plunge and started to change the appearance of Davos Newbies. I feel deeply attached to the old design, a wonderful work of weblog friendship (from before the term weblog existed) by Garret Vreeland. But neither the title of the weblog — Insider’s Guide to Davos — nor the heavy Davos branding (that wonderful night shot of the valley) made sense anymore. I’m no longer an insider and Davos Newbies is no longer just a guide to Davos.
So why do I continue to call it Davos Newbies? Partly because it marks the origin of this weblog. No one questions why a newspaper today is called the Telegraph or the Post-Dispatch. The origins bear only a distant relationship to the current state. Over time, it would be nice to think that Davos Newbies could attain a tiny bit of the same aura. But I continue to call it Davos Newbies because I want the weblog to continue to be Davos-like, in the eclecticism of its interests, in its preoccupation with the ideas that matter to our world today and in its welcoming of dissent and debate. At least, that’s the ideal.
Yesterday I had two lengthy conversations with people who are Davos-bound. Both raised the notion that Davos is past its peak. I’ve heard variations on this theme for some time now.
Whether or not it’s true is harder to assess. Part of my answer, of course, is that Davos has never been the same since I left ;-> More seriously, there is some extent to which Davos had become a phenomenon of the boom years. Each edition had to be bigger and better than the last. But just as corporations have come to learn that you can’t grow earnings at double-digit rates forever, so Davos couldn’t follow the path of bigger and better forever.
This insight is hardly unique to me. Within the Forum, even in my day there, this was a preoccupation for the leadership. What’s far more difficult, however, is figuring out what different trajectory to take. To a minor extent in 2001 and more substantively last year in New York, the Forum tried to become more (in their jargon) process-driven. So sessions were supplanted by workshops, designed to have a concrete outcome. As I wrote last year, I find most of these workshops dissatisfying. The outcomes are either pre-cooked (in which case, so what) or are banal. Most interesting problems can’t really be resolved in a few hours, no matter how grand the assembly of brains in the room. This is particularly true when the assembly is as diverse in background and knowledge as is inevitable in Davos.
I think that is partly understood within the Forum. There are fewer workshops on the programme this year (although they are still there in numbers), but more significant is a quote from Forum president Klaus Schwab in today’s Financial Times. “Seven or eight years ago you could propose solutions. But many fewer are possible today. If we can contribute to better understanding we will already have done a lot,” Schwab says. Phew. I think that’s a far healthier attitude than the hubris that was dominant for a while that the Forum could actually be an engine for real problem solving.
Does that change the nature of Davos? I’ll be very interested to get feedback from old Davos hands that are there this week. What I fear — as someone who still has the best interests of the Forum at heart — is that the easy phrase “Davos has had its day” becomes a meme that is hard to shake off. If that does happen, then perception becomes as important as reality.
According to today’s Financial Times, Davos is adopting a more “puritan” image this year. I wrote yesterday about the elimination of the soirée, but the FT extends that to the overall mood.
“Triumphalism has been replaced by defensive introspection as the cult of the chief executive has been shattered by the bursting of the stock market bubble, collapsing profits and a succession of US corporate scandals.”