Schmooze, not breaking news

By Anatole Kaletsky (THE TIMES, 26/01/06):

CONSIDER SOME of the busiest, most harried people in the world — ministers who cannot find time for a cup of coffee with their backbench colleagues, entrepreneurs hard-pressed to spend an hour in the evening with their children, executives who work without proper holidays for years on end. Now consider that 2,000 of these impatient, time-poor people spend almost a precious week, during the most hectic part of the new year business season, travelling on creaking mountain railways up to a remote Swiss village, where nothing ever happens apart from what these fanatically goal-orientated individuals claim most to despise — talk without action, debate without decision, discussion without conclusion.Why do they do it? And does the pilgrimage of the rich and powerful to Davos justify the acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time devoted to it each year?

The obvious, cynical answers to both questions are wrong. No, these people do not go to Davos for the freebies or skiing (Klosters is better for serious skiing and they do not need to save money). And no, the media do not give such attention to Davos because they have nothing else to report. Every media organisation in the world is overwhelmed with surplus material which the editors would like to publish or broadcast, but simply cannot squeeze in.

Having rejected the cynical answers, we must also dismiss the self-important official answers offered by the World Economic Forum. No, the businessmen and politicians do not go to Davos to “improve the state of the world”, to “imagine the future”, to “think the unthinkable” or to “brainstorm creatively on the biggest challenges facing our businesses, our countries and humankind as a whole”. And no, the media do not go to Davos in order to sniff out the “mood of Davos” to prepare for the big economic and political stories of the year ahead.

If those were really the World Economic Forum’s functions, Davos would long since have closed down. Everyone is cringingly embarrassed by the “brainstorming sessions” where the delegates are split into round-table groups and invited to devise two-minute solutions to terrorism or global warming.

As for the “creative vision of the future”, this is usually a straight-line projection of the previous year’s political, managerial or financial fads — currency unification, terrorism, globalisation, outsourcing or whatever. This does not necessarily reflect a lack of imagination or creativity among the organisers of Davos, but rather a simple and unavoidable sociological fact: speakers who endorse the conventional wisdom, and make themselves sound radical simply by exaggerating ideas that everyone else already believes, are always going to sound wiser and will tend to be more successful and richer (and therefore more likely to be at Davos) than truly original, unconventional thinkers.

The combination of faddishness and consensus-orientated conventional thinking makes Davos a hopeless place for the media or financial markets to prepare for events that may lie ahead in the rest of the year. If it is useful for anything, the “mood of Davos” can be seen as a contrary indicator. The opinions that dominate at Davos are the ones least likely to cause any major shocks in the year ahead and, in financial and economic terms, the ones most likely to prove totally misguided. Last year, for example, all the official speakers at Davos without exception expected a sharp fall in the dollar, which instead promptly rose. In 2003 there were almost universal predictions of deepening recession; the world economy rebounded. In 2000 almost everyone was convinced that technology shares would keep rising; they soon collapsed.

Meanwhile, the issues that are not discussed at Davos, either because they are overlooked or because they are too awkward, are the ones that are most likely to create big shocks. This year, for example, although the meeting has barely started, it looks like more attention is going to be devoted to Googling and blogging than to the possibility of an imminent attack by Israel on Iran.

Why, then, do people go to Davos? It offers a unique opportunity to meet dozens of important people from all over the world in one place. Even for the plutocrats who think nothing of spending $10,000 a day on their trips to Davos — only to hear Gordon Brown and Bono lamenting the fate of Africans who live on $1 a day — there are big economies of time and money in spending a few expensive and inconvenient days in Switzerland if this is a substitute for half a dozen separate trips to China, America, India, Australia and Brazil. Moreover, Davos gathers all these important people in a single conference centre.

So the real purpose of Davos is perfectly simple: it is handshaking, glad-handing, eye-contact networking. That prime ministers, corporate captains and billionaires find personal contact so valuable that they are prepared to spend so much time in a place as unlikely as Davos is enormously important and encouraging to all the rest of us.

Social contact is the one human activity that can never be mechanised or replaced by technology, so there is never going to be a shortage of jobs or business opportunities in the service industries that now dominate all our economies and societies, not just in Britain and America but even in China. According to the US Labour Secretary at one of the talks yesterday at Davos, personal trainers will be the highest paid non-managerial employees in the US by 2020.

We may all spend our lives on the internet or talking on mobile phones, but these will never be a substitute for face-to-face human interaction. That is the real news from Davos — and it is a message relevant not only to the good and the great but to anyone wondering how their children will be employed.