Thursday, April 14, 2005


My boss, Tony Perkins, is in this month's MIT's Technology Review:

Rarefied Air
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, 2005
"Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices"
Davos, Switzerland, January 26–30

January 26, 2005

My dear Jason,

As you know from having made the pilgrimage before, the World Economic Forum adventure begins well before you arrive in Davos, especially if you are traveling all the way from California. Swiss International Air Lines stopped flying direct to Zürich from San Francisco, so I had to make two stops. This year I went through Washington, DC, an eventful choice because we picked up FCC chairman Michael Powell and the fur-coated secretary of labor, Elaine Chao. Secretary Chao is the highest-ranking U.S. official attending the WEF meeting this year. Interestingly, as a cabinet member, Ms. Chao traveled with three bodyguards, whereas Chairman Powell had none.

I have gotten to know Michael Powell pretty well over the last couple of years; he has been blogging for AlwaysOn for a while now. Michael was the first and is still the only major government figure to mix it up in the blogosphere, and he is good at it. Just prior to leaving for the forum, he announced that he would be relinquishing the job of FCC chairman in the spring, but he promised to blog on as a private citizen. "Blogging allows me to step over the heads of the lobbyists and the Beltway press and go direct to the techies and get their unfiltered opinion," he beamed as we glided across the Atlantic. I told him that a third of his traffic comes from Howard Stern’s website.

Touching down in Zürich does not mean the journey is over. One must still choose between a train (with two transfers along the way) or a WEF-sponsored bus. Both take the better part of three hours, and even then there is a taxi ride before you finally arrive at your snug hotel quarters in the sleek little ski village where the forum is held. This is your travel itinerary, of course, if you are not one of the Google founders who flew their shiny new jet to the forum this year. I am certain the boys skipped the bus ride and rented one of those black helicopters that for a few thousand bucks rocket you from the airport and plop you down in the village square in less than 20 minutes.

Like the rest of Old Europe, WEF has its own caste system that all attendees are well aware of but no one really talks much about. First you must get an invitation. The wizard of WEF, Klaus Schwab (founder and executive chairman), and his fabulously courteous yet inscrutable team of munchkins ultimately determine who gets to go. The supply of global players who want to attend far outstrips the supply of available spots, so one has to be either the president of a country, a monarch, the CEO of a big paying corporate sponsor, the editor in chief of a million-plus-subscriber publication, a Nobel laureate, a rock star, or Angelina Jolie. Politically astute smaller-company CEOs, venture capitalists, and other key influencers can get in, but that usually requires a powerful WEF member to whisper a personal recommendation into Klaus’s ear. And even if Mr. Schwab gives you the nod, you still have to pay $37,000 for your membership fee and $28,000 for your annual ticket.

Paying members and corporate sponsors underwrite Klaus’s impressive list of guest members, including leading artists, authors, scientists, scholars, and public figures. Huddled in the media corner with the CNN and BBC crews for much of today (we are “video-blogging” several of the main sessions), I watched a stream of world leaders drop by to smile for the cameras. It was like watching all the most talked about people in the world—the new Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud "Abu Mazen" Abbas, President Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine, and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi—get interviewed in your own living room.

"Members" wear white badges that allow them to roam free, have tea in designated areas in the Congress Center, and sign up for special lunches and dinners held at the few dozen hotels that sprinkle the village. Your conference bag also comes stocked with an HP iPaq Pocket PC that provides wireless e-mail access to all attendees and the ability to remotely sign up for the private events. Lower in the caste structure are the "working journalists," who do not pay but must wear bright orange badges so world leaders know to watch what they say when they are around. If you are on the WEF staff, you wear a blue badge, and you are, more often than not, young, handsome or beautiful, and completely charming. I have to admit that, once you find yourself on the inside, as I have been blessed to be for the last nine years, it is a happy and orderly place, no matter your status.

The World Economic Forum’s mission is to "improve the state of the world," which is lofty enough to satisfy the 2,000 global egos that fit into the main Congress Center every winter. Mr. Schwab also comes up with an annual theme, doing his best to capture if not influence the global zeitgeist. This year the theme was "Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices." I never really figured out what choices we had made for which we now had to take responsibility, but Mr. Schwab did make a general call to "take immediate action on the tough issues of poverty, climate change, education, and equitable globalization." (full article)

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