Thinking back 100 years

I love the kind of speculation that Chris Bertram has provoked at Crooked Timber. After the relatively uninteresting list Prospect has produced of the top 100 public intellectuals today, Bertram asks his readers for a retrospective top 100 from 1905.

When I was running the program for the 2000 Davos meeting, I wrote an article imagining the program for the 1900 meeting (which, of course, didn’t exist). It was an attempt to be humble about our ability to see what will truly be important over the next year, decade or century.

Here it is, courtesy of the great Internet Archive:

The recent discovery of the programme for the 1900 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos was surprising for a number of reasons. First, although vague stories of an earlier incarnation of the Forum have long circulated, in the absence of solid evidence Davos participants had come to accept that it had only existed for 30 years. The second surprise was the circumstances of the discovery itself: who would have thought that the battered, waterlogged box uncovered by one of vice-president Al Gore’s sniffer dogs in Davos last January would hold such a treasure? Third, of course, was the content of the meeting.

Period charm abounds in the details of the meeting. Participants in 1900 were invited to a demonstration by Guglielmo Marconi of his wireless telegraph. In the mountain fastness, this must have been the first time speedy communication was available from Davos (today’s participants, lamenting the analogue switching that still prevails in the town, may wonder whether it has even yet arrived).

In the sessions, today’s reader is struck by both the similarities and differences from today’s concerns. From the organisation of the corporate plenaries, it was already evident that the US would be one of the great economic powers of the century: huge, integrated enterprises were redrafting the notion of the firm. Fresh-minted titans like Federal Steel’s Elbert Gary, Carnegie Steel’s Charles Schwab and George Westinghouse stalked the Congress Centre with assurance. Only Germany, of the European powers, could compete: the executives from Krupp, Thyssen and Siemens often shared the platform with the Americans. Like today, an extraordinary wave of consolidation was sweeping through industry: in the US, between 1897 and 1904, 4,277 industrial firms consolidated into 257. Technology was opening up new horizons, not least in healthcare. Bayer, founded in 1891, had introduced aspirin in 1899 and was discussing it in an interactive session; William Lever’s soap was bringing inexpensive hygiene to the masses ­ the subject of a Friday dinner.

But from our vantage point 100 years later, it seems remarkable how blind the earlier organisers of Davos were. Perhaps the technological blindspots are understandable: no mention of the car (there were only 8,000 in the US at the time and the bicycle makers of France were leading the nascent industry); science sessions focused on chemistry, rather than the physics that transformed both our worldview and warfare; references to manned flight were confined to a humorous dinner led by a sceptical clergyman.

More worrying are the geopolitical and societal gaps. The Colonial Office’s Joseph Chamberlain and prime minister Ernst von Koerber from Emperor Franz Josef’s court in Vienna seemed confident that empires would preserve a century of peace and prosperity (there is no record as to whether anyone challenged Chamberlain about the Boer War). No participants attended from outside Europe and North America. There were no women and no one under 40.

Were the men (and it was just men) responsible for the 1900 programme that bad at their job? For those of us orchestrating the 2000 programme, the answer is a sobering no. The prime lesson of Davos 1900 is a warning against forecasting hubris. Charting the century is an exercise verging on the random; even a decade is largely a matter of chance. With fairly little thought, it is evident that foretelling the truly important forces for the century was impossible. Why single out the contest between democracy and dictatorship, or free markets and state-controlled markets in a world before the word fascism existed and before the Russian revolution? Why focus on the changing role of women or the transformation of Asia or the end of empire? There were, to be sure, writers and thinkers who discussed these chimeras in the coffee-houses of Vienna or the cafes of Paris, but they were hardly the people who would be invited to Davos 1900.

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