To truly understand the enduring (if fading) appeal of the World Economic Forum, you have to go back to high school. One thing we learn in high school is that human beings, like wolves and fish and most other lower life forms, travel in packs. We also learn that there is a pecking order to those packs. And in every high school there is a group of cool kids who enhance their status simply by hanging out with one another. In my school, we hung out each morning along a certain wall in the front hall. (Yes, I was a cool kid in high school. Of a sort. The nerdy, artsy sort with an Isro.)
And if you think Davos is about anything other than status-seeking-behavior, then you have read too many of the press releases of the overly-earnest Swiss gnomes who put the meeting together. They describe themselves as being "committed to improving the state of the world." They do have a variety of bloviatapaloozas during the course of the event at which the improvement of the globe is debated. But, of course, most of the people there share a common background -- the emerging world, women and poor people are hugely under-represented. So you have to conclude that what they really mean is that they are committed to improving the state of those aspects of the world that are important to CEOs and politicians and the journalists who share the appetizers with them at the receptions in the Belvedere Hotel -- where the real work gets done in the small Alpine village that for a few days each year is the center of the trans-Atlantic establishment.
But watch the people at Davos and you see what's really up. It's not deal-making. That almost never happens there. It's networking, which is the professional way of saying: connecting with the kids who have it going on. The appeal, however, of the entire endeavor is fading for several reasons, all associated with the inadequacy of Davos as a networking forum. First, it's pretty uncool to hop on the corporate jet just to schmooze on a piste. Second, the cool kids of the 21st Century -- such as the Chinese -- are in short-supply (although the organizers are working like crazy to fix that). Finally, the event has grown so big, even the cool kids can't find each other in the mix. As Steve Case, founder of AOL, once told me while standing at the bar in the middle of the hubbub of the main conference center: "You always feel like you are in the wrong place in Davos, like there is some better meeting going on somewhere in one of the hotels that you really ought to be at. Like the real Davos is happening in secret somewhere."
Now doesn't that pretty much capture the way you felt in high school? Or is it just me? (I realize in retrospect that the haircut wasn't such a great idea.)