January 25, 2004
Notes and Comment From the World Economic Forum, 2004
Sketch book of a journalism professor and first time participant at Davos.
Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 20-25. This event, the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, is a sprawling thing, with 2,000 attendees rushing from place to place and level to level. Over the course of five days I found it impossible to get any sort of overview of the activity here. By general agreement, no big theme emerged. From the headlines in newspapers, from the big public events, and from the informal chatter in lounges, corridors and bars, one could find no weighty narrative hanging over or lurking under the dialogue and non-stop networking.
Two years ago, when the Forum was pointedly shifted to New York, the “weighty narrative” cohered in the event, a response in the aftermath of September 11th. Last year, 2003, the looming war in Iraq and U.S. actions in advance of it framed much of the discussion. This year… it’s a multipolar world, lots of problems to solve, lots of business to do, many directions the news might take. This themelessness was fine with me, as I was struggling to understand Davos anyway—what is it, really?—and the narrative confusion fit well with the general disorientation of a first time attendee.
The City of Davos
On my third day, I made a discovery that helped. It had to do with the inner geography of events here. Davos, Switzerland is a town, a ski resort in the Alps. Inside the town (this week) there is a city, also called “Davos” by the cognoscenti who populate it. This city is the Forum itself, most of it contained within the vast Congress Center, where the big events are held and hundreds of smaller sessions go on.
Davos the city state flies dignitaries in and out (Dick Cheyney, Bill Clinton, the head of the World Trade Organization, the presidents of Pakistan and Iran, the Prime Minister of Canada, Bill Gates, Charlie Rose, etc.) In press accounts I saw it described as a “bunker,” due to the heavy security inside and out. The city of Davos also exports a lot of news during its week on the world stage, and then imports its own importance, as it were, when the newspapers are picked up at breakfast the next day, featuring multiple headlines from the WEF.
Inside the temporary City of Davos, set inside the resort town of Davos, there is the globe. Symbolically, rhetorically, and of course officially, the globe is supposed to be the matter of priority, the ultimate subject of concern, the common object in front of us, and in a sense the common cause— the centrum. Thus, the stated theme of this year’s Forum: “Partnering for Security and Prosperity.” In the degree that Davos is defined from without, by critics and protest movements, it is likewise “about” the globe.
When I visualized it this way, the event made a little more sense. In the town of Davos, the sensibility is provincial. Within the City of Davos, it’s cosmopolitan. And at the symbolic center, Davos the gathering aspires to a global sensibility, just as it welcomes the globe-striding elite. I was surprised, then, that none of the Congress Center’s public spaces has a globe sculpture in it, an actual sphere to gather around. As in… “Meet me at the globe in 20 minutes.” “Oh, I saw him, he was hanging around the globe a while ago.” “The prime minister will be holding a press briefing in front of the globe at 14:00.”
Inside the town, a world city. Inside the world city, a focus on the globe. But outside the town and surrounding everything here are the mountains, the Alps, nature—and nature’s winter—with its huge indifference to “worldly” events. Walking through the town, on my way to the city, for reflections on the globe, I tried to keep my eyes fixed on those mountains. They, in fact, made the most sense.
The one clear role I had here was ambassador for the weblog form. Experts at this are Joi Ito and Loic Le Meur, both of whom joined me on the blogging panel. Joi even told me at last night’s closing party that he would like to take a year off from everything and just blog, by which he also meant spread the word. (Find Joi’s account of the panel here, Le Meur’s here, and a PDF summary here. For another blogger’s account of the mood at Davos see Whiskey Bar here and also here, Davos Man Gets the Blues.)
After several days of discussions, I realized how hard it was to describe for people in the established news media the significance of the weblog form. For the question they seem more interested in is: will weblogs “take over” the territory of the news media— in other words, are they a threat to the news franchise? And are webloggers somehow outdoing journalists? (Or, as the official program in Davos had it, will the media co-opt the weblog?)
Not surprisingly, established journalists feel the answers are NO. And what many of them mean by a “discussion” of weblogs is simply the opportunity to ask and answer their own question: Weblogs a threat? I’m not worried about losing out to them! It matters not whether anyone has argued that amateur weblogs are “taking over” from professionals or “doing journalism better than journalists” (points I do not make.) The question is there—at least, it is for journalists—and the answer will be given. And given again.
Operating here is a cramped view of amateurs, professionals and the types of interaction among them. The webog makes it possible for amateur writers—citizen journalists—to both publish and distribute their work, as text, image, audio and soon enough video. Not just the voices in the media, but any citizen can (in theory, let us say) submit reports and reflections to the world’s attention. This is a significant new fact, and certainly one that journalists should contemplate, but not by asking whether their franchise is threatened. Perhaps it will be improved.
For comparison, listen to Freeman Dyson on amateurs and professionals in astronomy. (From, In Praise of Amateurs in the New York Review of Books.)
There are many areas of research that only professional astronomers can pursue, studying faint objects far away in the depths of space, using large telescopes that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate. Only professionals can reach halfway back to the beginning of time, to explore the early universe as it was when galaxies were young and the oldest stars were being born. Only professionals have access to telescopes in space that can detect the X-rays emitted by matter heated to extreme temperatures as it falls into black holes.
Now what would the equivalent be in journalism? That, it seems to me, is a question worth posing. Along with: what can amateurs do better than professionals? What are weblogs good at that is harder for the more traditional press? And vice versa.
We never got to that at Davos, but in a detailed and very interesting post reflecting on the bloggers panel, Billmon of Whiskey Bar writes: “Blogs are doing more than just about any other modern institution (if institution is the right word for something as anarchistic as the blogosphere) to recreate a common communication space, and encourage maximum public participation.” (See Davos Discovers the Blogs.)
I did, however, have explained to me six or seven times this week that, no matter how many little providers emerge, “there will always be a need for a filter, someone you can trust, a news organization with credibility.” This observation likewise comes from journalists. It is part of their insistence that the news franchise is not threatened by the weblog or by the Internet generally. (The key word for them is “always.”)
In reply to this, I had no quarrel with the proposition—intelligent, reliable filters are needed, perhaps more than ever—but I did ask: what’s makes for a good filter in an interactive age? And what makes the press believe that its filter will be the one that is “always” needed? It is not enough, I said, to claim authoritative knowledge, a professional track record, or accumulated credibility. Increasingly, the quality of an editorial filter will reflect the quality of interaction between those doing the filtering and those for whom this work is done. But what is an interactive filter? Well, one answer is… a good weblog can be that.
Independence in Peril
I had coffee and some intriguing discussion with Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC News in London. He’s the boss of the worldwide news operation. Sambrook’s biggest concern (aside from the ongoing inquiry into Andrew Gilligan’s reporting on a “sexed up” dossier) was the flagging support on both sides of the Atlantic for an independent press. Outside of journalists themselves, no one seems to believe in it, he said. Few are willing to stand up for an independent press, and even fewer are willing to credit the existing press with actually being independent. The constant refrain is: you are in someone’s pocket.
We agreed that independence was in trouble in both Britain and the United States. I argued that in the American press, the language of independence had lost much of its power. It was never adjusted to take account of new conditions in politics and public culture that made the press much more of a player. It was possible, I said, to make a case for the American press as, yes, a player but also an independent one. But this would be a different language than objectivity, neutrality, the watchdog role, “all the news that’s fit to print” and so on.
Introduction to Blogging
Finally, these are the only prepared remarks I gave at Davos, as introduction to the panel on weblogs.
People in New York City remain grateful to the World Economic Forum, to its leaders and members, for shifting this event to Manhattan during the difficult winter of 2002. That was something I appreciated, even though I could not get within six blocks of the Waldorf-Astoria that week. So thank you for that, and for asking me to join you at this elevated location in the Alps, where, if I understand your ways, we are to think elevated thoughts— and do the work of the world without neckties.
For comparison, see Dave Winer’s essay from the 2000 Davos.
Whiskey Bar, Davos Discovers the Blogs
Rebecca MacKinnon of CNN also wrote about Davos at her weblog. Here is a “traditional” journalist who will soon be soon be on leave from the newsroom to explore the potential of weblogs at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. Bears watching.
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 25, 2004 8:36 AM Print