Two Days at Davos
Saturday, January 29, 2000 by Dave Winer.
This piece was written on Friday January 28. Because of technical problems I was unable to send it out when it was written. It may be the longest DaveNet ever, but there's an even longer one in the pipe. This piece sets the stage for the one that follows.
It's Friday night at Davos, and I think I've finally figured out how it works.
One of my fellow Davos newbies said it's like being in a supermarket ten minutes before closing, constantly. You're always rushing to make it to the next thing, but while you're doing that you're supposed to be setting up your agenda for the next two days, and this is always going on, and believe me, it is quite confusing if you've never done it before, especially when you're jetlagged and sleep-deprived at high altitude and cold and worried about slipping on ice and scared by soldiers carrying machine guns. (One fellow Davoser said that Swiss soldiers don't carry handcuffs, they don't need them. Oh!)
This afternoon I came to the conclusion that my first Davos is going to be spent learning how to do Davos, that I would be happy if I got to a few meetings or lunches or dinners that were interesting, I set the expectations low. Cut myself a little bit of slack. But then while I was trying to fall asleep late on Friday night (3PM back at home) I figured it out. I wanted to leave a list of clues for next year's Davos newbies, maybe if you have this all in one place, your Thursday and Friday will be very productive and rewarding, and maybe by summarizing it all in writing, my Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday will be richer too.
By the way, I don't want to leave you with the impression that my first couple of days have been anything less than incredible and wonderful! These are the smartest people. I was lucky to go to a high school of the highest IQ kids in New York City. Davos feels like that, but instead of being kids who are smart (lots of potential) these are adults who are off-the-scale smart, who have accomplished something, they wouldn't be in Davos if they hadn't. I had lunch with an astronaut today. I had a frank conversation with a Russian presidential candidate (he was bitter about the United States, we shared that frustration, I tried to explain how crazy the US is, I don't think he understood. We agreed to get together when he comes to the US, I'm going to help him get his story out thru my website). Even the booth people at WorldLink, who I share space with, are smart and sweet.
My frustration comes from all the people I haven't had a chance to meet or listen to. And that frustration traces back to too much newness. They do things differently at Davos, differently from any event I've been to before, and that adds to the confusion. So here are the mechanics, how Davos works, my cookie-crumb trail that other Davos Newbies can follow in the future.
At other conferences, meals are either totally themeless random affairs, or even worse, closed to newbies who may not know anyone to have lunch or dinner with. Not so at Davos.
With a couple of exceptions, lunches and dinners at Davos are very structured. The meals happen outside the conference center, at the town hotels. Each meal is hosted by one to three people, who serve as discussion leaders. You must reserve a space at each meal, the reservation system is totally democratic, first-come-first-serve, and is computerized. You go to a kiosk, a touch-screen interface that's quite easy to use, once you get the big picture.
The emphasis is on fairness. You can only reserve space at a lunch or dinner one day in advance. This allows latecomers to have a great Davos experience too. It can be pretty random. I had no idea who would be at my first meal, a dinner, where the discussion was whether business inevitably had to be like war. Coming into the meeting I was sure that business did not have to be like war, and I left even more sure, but inbetween I had some doubts. This is the best kind of experience, my mind and emotions were engaged, and we had a family-style debate, not unlike jury duty. After we left, I had renewed old acquaintances with Tom and Mary Evslin who I knew from the early days of the Macintosh, and had gotten to know some other people perhaps more than I wanted to, but everyone survived, so that's cool.
Reading the conference notes that I got in the mail a month before Davos was probably more confusing than it was worth. I even had Lance's writing on the Davos Newbies site to help guide me. But it didn't sink in! The key to a great Davos experience is to learn how to use the kiosk system as soon as possible. But being a newbie means that it takes at least a couple of days to get it. This afternoon while I was working on my kiosk, a helper from Andersen who had been working with me before, came over to ask if I needed some help. I gave her a thumbs up, no need for help, I Get It Now.
The plenary sessions are held in a room that in theory can hold all the attendees . If you're late, you have to stand in the back and it gets so packed that leaving can be very difficult. I left the Tony Blair speech early, and missed Michael Dell's appearance, later I learned that I could have watched from one of the smaller rooms, in greater comfort, and I'd recommend that, unless you don't mind overheating in a room that's hard to exit from.
Plenary sessions do not require a reservation.
There are two types of sessions other than the plenaries, those that require a reservation and those that don't. It's not clear how they decide which require a reservation. The one that I participated in on Thursday, 10 Websites that Will Change the World, did not require a reservation, but the room was full fifteen minutes before the session started. I assume they don't require reservations if the management believes they will not be full.
Many, if not most of the sessions do require a reservation, for the simple reason that the rooms hold as few as 100 people, and 2000+ people attend Davos. So if you want to hear Umberto Eco talk, you have to be quick, and probably lucky. But the cool thing about Davos, that's echoed (no pun) through the structure of the show is that knowing someone does you no good. The rich, powerful and famous queue up with the rest of us coming back into the meeting hall after lunch. This is one of the things I like best about Davos, like all good conferences, they seem to have low tolerance for crybabies. Another aside, on the first day of the show the Wall Street Journal ran a page one story saying the opposite, that the Davos management was for sale. I don't believe it. It's run by academics with high principles. I would depend on their honesty, certainly until I see evidence to the contrary, and unlike other conferences that play favorites, this one really is first-come-first-serve.
Also, I think your experience is what you make of it. Each session is pretty open to the participants, and what happens depends largely on who shows up. There's something very rich going on here. We all feel honored to be here, with some exceptions, mostly Silicon Valley people who bring their bad manners with them, that's why I stopped going to software industry conferences. When I mentioned this to Lance Knobel earlier this evening he asked about Esther. Oh Esther! She's the total exception. She's like a little girl, bopping around making faces, and sewing clothes in the back of a meeting room. This is Happy Esther, we could all learn something from her -- why bother being superior? One famous Silicon Valley personality I ran into told me how clueless the people at Davos are. I wanted to ask him why he bothered coming.
I came to a different conclusion.The people at Davos are thirsty to know. There are a lot of things they don't understand, but the spirit of Davos is Ask! Every time I asked for help I got smothered with it. And it's the cheerful sort of Let's Figure This Out kind of help, not the Oh You Don't Know So You're Not Cool kind of help. I would say Davos, while it's structure is daunting to the newbie, is a total newbie oriented thing. Silicon Valley could learn a thing or two from Davos.
After doing the opening day session about the web, people have been asking me to explain how the web works, and the various discussions have lead to explanations of how ISPs work and DNS and email, how they relate, and how they don't relate. One wife-of-a-CEO said that for a few weeks she couldn't get thru to BlueMountainArts.Com, and wanted to know if Microsoft was responsible. I said I knew for a fact that Microsoft was not responsible. I think she believed me, but she didn't understand why.
I'm totally rambling, but what the heck. I think the structure of the Internet is actually no more complex than the structure of Davos. But as far as I know there is no newbies guide to the Internet. When I get back to California perhaps we should start a project to do that. I wonder if InternetNewbies.Com is taken?
If you're from North America, Asia or Australia, expect heavy jetlag. I think most people figure that out in advance, it's kind of obvious. As a result a lot of attendees are a little cranky the first couple of days (maybe more, the jury is not in on this one yet). But there are other surprises.
Davos is a high altitude place. This means that your dreams will be vivid.
It's also cold, but it's a dry cold. You need gloves and a scarf, and as Lance was very wise to point out, shoes that are suited to walking in snow. I brought beautiful Italian shoes, but I haven't bothered bringing them with me to the meeting center. I did an informal survey on the first day, and believe that fully half the men do it this way. This is one place where people forgive you for wearing funky shoes with a nice business suit. Another wise person pointed out that people usually don't care how other people look, they just care about how *they* look.
One thing I have trouble getting used to is machine guns. There are a couple of soldiers at each entrance with machine guns. I guess I'm glad they're there, but every time I pass one, as the gun is pointed at my body, I wonder if the soldier really knows how to use it. The guns are daunting and fear-provoking. That's what their purpose is, but net-net, I don't like them.
Another surprise was the hotel room. European hotel rooms are smaller than those we're accustomed to in North America, yet the price I'm paying would buy a really nice suite in most US cities. And the walls are really thin. You can hear everything your neighbors do, including but not limited to tooth brushing. It's like having room mates you can't see. And forget about watching TV unless you like watching reruns of Kojak dubbed in German. One thing I found interesting is that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" has been adapted to German, I did watch that, with interest. The German Regis Philbin isn't as corny as the real one, and I don't know if he says smart things like "It's not as easy as it looks" because I don't understand German, although I am trying.
Davos people are very very nice! It's kind of like Wisconsin. I ask my cab drivers if Davos attendees are good tippers, but they won't answer. There seems to be a language barrier there. And speaking of language, words like fahrt and schmuck are all over the place. This makes me giggle. But the cutest thing is that in Switzerland bubbles in water are called "gas" so when a waiter wants to fill you up, he or she asks if you want some gas, and this makes me break out in guffaws of loud American laughter. I'm laughing out loud as I write this and I wonder if my roommates are pissed that their next door American neighbor is laughing so loudly at 1AM (4PM back in California).
Anyway, if you're reading this just before Davos 2001, feel free to send me an email, I'll see if I can help. I'm absolutely sure that I'll want to reminisce about this experience, because not only are the dreams vivid in Davos, the whole thing has a bright color to it, an optimism, a can-do attitude that I thought was just an American thing. Davos is about the world, not about any one country, so from my point of view, they're taking the best of US values and translating them to the world we actually live in in the 21st century, and I dig it.
At dinner last night I told the story of my company and likened the last year to jumping out of a plane with no parachute. One of my dinner friends said that's crazy. So I said OK, you have a parachute. Later I thought about it and realized that there is no parachute. Not only do you have to create the parachute while you're in free-fall, you also have to invent the damned thing!
Like it or not, the economy we participate in penalizes companies that live by the old rules, and only rewards the inventive ones that take advantage of the electronic one-ness of the world. I realized that "globalization", the term that's caught on, is just another word for the Web. The free-fall is disturbing until you realize that everyone is doing the same thing. So the theme of Davos is the theme of DaveNet. Let's have fun, namaste y'all, dig we must and we're all newbies on this bus.
PS: Written Saturday morning, the middle of the night in California. Today is Bill Clinton day in Davos. The polizei are out in big numbers wearing bright orange blazers.
PPS: Digital pictures of my Davos experiences are on www.scripting.com, including one of me wearing a suit!