Google used to hold a legendary late-night party at Davos. Before that, a private evening Q&A each year with Bill Gates was the hot ticket. But it was when I spotted Sarah Huckabee Sanders at this year’s Salesforce party that I realized how completely technology has captured the World Economic Forum. The company’s now-annual blowout was the place to be on Thursday night.
As an Americana-style band fronted by hot guitarist Lukas (son of Willie) Nelson wailed loudly 30 feet away, a relatively normal-looking Sanders crowded in near Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff along with a smirking Gary Cohn, an impassive Steve Mnuchin, and other Trump officials and functionaries. There by the bar were Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, VC Jim Breyer, and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, while dancing by the band stand were MIT economists and digital economy cheerleaders Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The tax-cutters and fake news-asserters wanted to party shoulder to shoulder with the technorati.
They were hardly alone in their tech-centricity. Heads of state have in the past at Davos occasionally mentioned the importance of tech, but this year it became a major theme. A parade of superb and visionary speeches from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others, addressed the potential of a digital economy to speed progress. Each seemed intent on assuring the world that their country would not be out-teched. Like Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke at WEF last year, they all emphasized that our era is being redefined by digital connection.
In general, I don’t think discussions of both geopolitics and global economic and business evolution have sufficiently factored in the overwhelming significance of tech-driven change and digital connection. So it is highly significant that the world’s premier global forum for multidisciplinary dialogue about business and society has so completely absorbed the reality of a digital society. I hope this is a tipping point, and no longer will it be possible to have credible conversation about the future of society without factoring in the opportunities, and challenges of the technologized landscape.
WEF founder Klaus Schwab, who two years ago published his own book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this year gave all attendees a thoughtful and cutting-edge sequel entitled Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with an introduction by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. It includes chapters on artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things, drones, biotech, virtual and augmented reality, and even geo-engineering.
Predictably, the one outlier to the tech-is-king consensus was the partygoers’ boss. U.S. President Donald Trump’s flat, unenthusiastic speech was praised primarily because it did not much offend the globally minded crowd. But it showed no vision for the future, nor even the most meagre awareness that we are operating in a fundamentally new type of connected global economy. (I still hope those partiers from the Trump administration will adopt a more tech-savvy outlook and policies.)
Otherwise, the signs of tech’s predominance were everywhere at Davos. The towering 6-foot-5-inch Benioff effectively symbolized the industry’s acceptance as a central driver of economic progress. Benioff tweeted selfies with Trudeau, eagerly schmoozed with Modi, and generally intersected and interacted with leaders of all sorts in ways that the more-geeky leaders of an earlier generation of tech never could. He also hosted his own flashy and crowded lunch that included a wide variety of leaders on a panel — former Vice President Al Gore, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser, and musician will.i.am, along with Google Cloud chief Diane Greene and young Brazilian technologist and anti-poverty activist Lorrana Scarpioni. When Brin, Page, Zuckerberg, and others used to come to Davos, they tended to stick to their own kind.
Though the topic of the increasing pushback against global net giants was conspicuously absent from the official program, no company was more on the lips of attendees than Facebook, and not because they were flattering it. These days everybody loves to hate Facebook, including the vast press corps in Davos. “I don’t see how Facebook’s relationship with the press could get any worse,” opined one of America’s most senior and eminent journalists, at a dinner. Many in Davos were talking about the challenges the net giants, and especially Facebook, pose to mental health, social life, democracy, and the media.
But the tech companies’ biggest critic in Davos may have been investor, billionaire and human rights activist George Soros, who made headlines with a scathing critique of “the giant IT-platform companies.” “They have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware,” he said, accusing social media companies of deliberately encouraging “addiction.” He also warned of an even more disturbing risk: “There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich I.T. monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.” While some observers found this extreme, the reality is that a de facto version of such an alliance is already developing in many countries, despite the fact that the American companies do not want it. Countries like Egypt, Burma, Turkey, Vietnam and many others have special police specifically tasked with infiltrating activist groups and manipulating opinion on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. The platforms have little means to resist, at least at the moment.
Two of the biggest program topics were artificial intelligence and bitcoin/blockchain, underscoring that there are also many positives in tech for the global economy and community. I moderated a session on blockchain for social good, with speakers talking about how this tool might help with maintaining biodiversity, assisting refugees, carbon trading, and more efficient energy markets. I also moderated a session on the potential of geospatial data — mashed up from both satellite imagery and tagged terrestrial information — to enable better public education about the reality of climate change and other global issues. Another session I moderated included three Carnegie Mellon computer scientists explaining their work in security and “ultra-biometrics” — the use of voice and facial fragments to not just identify people but diagnose disease and enable accurate inferences about a wide variety of personal characteristics and even social background.
Techonomy also hosted our own event — a provocative conversation on AI and geopolitical tech competition with Beijing-based tech investor Kai-Fu Lee — at a storefront on the Davos main street converted by Wipro into a customer lounge. It was part of our partnership with that major Indian software firm.
Now WEF reflects the reality that businesses that do not embrace tech-based transformation put themselves at risk. It also underscores that the success of governments worldwide increasingly will depend on the degree to which they embrace innovation and tech-savvy policy. But as Soros pointed out, that disturbingly includes the success of despotic regimes as well as democratic ones.