Politics

Hell Is Other People, Specifically the People at Davos

Semafor’s all-in coverage makes me want to stick my head in a woodchipper.

Manchin speaks into a long skinny mic, seated and cross-legged, with the World Economic Forum logo on a screen behind him
Global thoughtfluencer Joseph Manchin at a CNBC-moderated panel at Davos 2023. CNBC

Billionaires and multimillionaires alike gathered in Davos, Switzerland, this week for their annual confab in the land of their most cherished bank accounts. Back in full swing for the first time since the pandemic began, the World Economic Forum is where the global 1 percent go to mingle, make deals, and sit on panels to deliver conventional wisdom to one another. News outlets cover the major speeches and social dynamics, but because the event is exclusive and expensive—the cost of attendance can run upward of $250,000—for the rest of us, it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s like to be there.

Advertisement

Enter Semafor, the urine-colored news site launched by Ben Smith and Justin Smith (no relation) in October. The outlet was founded to serve a global population of “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English,” according to Ben, as an alternative to publications that are often “talking down to their audience.” Rather than simply reporting from the conference, Semafor is producing service journalism from within, with a daily newsletter that offers agenda items, event recommendations, and even wardrobe tips.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Are you wearing boots? Wear boots! The sidewalks are still a mess,” Ben advised in Monday’s dispatch. He went on to write 118 words on the different types of badges attendees might wear at the event, including “Light Blue for forum contractors and Orange hotel badges that just let you into certain hotels.” Fascinating stuff. The best way to serve a college-educated, English-reading audience without condescension, Semafor’s editors have decided, is to assume their readers are at Davos.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Ben opened that first newsletter with a hedge: “You may be wondering why you’re here in Davos (or, worse, reading a Davos newsletter from some warmer spot). What’s the point of globalization’s annual trade show as the old global order unravels? The forum has just the answer for this: more Davos.”

It’s a semisheepish justification of the publication’s decision to go big on the conference—what better place to watch economic relationships fray than amid the people pulling the strings?—but it also hints at a basic truth about Davos that Semafor’s coverage reveals. It appears to be the worst, most boring, least fun event the human brain could possibly concoct.

I tend to assume that gatherings of the uberwealthy and powerful could be at least a little entertaining. Maybe some cool celebrities, some good-looking people, some sick fashion, some stimulating conversations. Not so at Davos. Every sighting, every anecdote, and every quote from a global A-lister recorded in Semafor’s newsletters is more of a snoozer than the last.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Does it sound like a good time to attend an 8:30 a.m. panel on “Quiet Quitting and the Meaning of Work”? How about a party titled “Whose Metaverse Will It Be?” (According to Semafor, this nightmarish-sounding affair was somehow “the party people seem to actually want to get into,” which says everything that needs to be said about the caliber of party on offer.) If you’d hoped to rub shoulders with CEOs, tough luck. The bigwigs skipped the panels and parties, Semafor reported, to accommodate schedules “mostly packed with client meetings, one 30-minute pitch after another.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Even if the metaverse-themed party ended up being chic as hell, your odds of meeting someone cool there would be slim, because the roster of Davos attendees is a veritable OZY Fest poster of the evil, the insufferable, and the extraordinarily dull. Semafor reporters spotted Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, fresh off a set of major layoffs, schmoozing with former GOP Rep. Paul Ryan at a place called Goals House, run by conservative PR guy Matthew Freud, who once fathered and hid a secret child from his then wife, one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters. They also clocked Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—who, in a possible biblical reference, dressed in sheep’s clothing—at a party hosted by Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House comms director under Donald Trump. For some reason, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was at Davos, too, and attended “Korea Night.” I would take great pains to avoid any place where I might even accidentally run into these people. Can you imagine spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of meeting them?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Attendees reportedly also socialize in private chat groups on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, including one called “Burning Man at Davos.” I had never considered the potential intersection of these two events, or what kinds of individuals might lie therein, but the prospect of encountering them makes me want to thrust my head into a wood chipper.

To be fair, Idris Elba was also at Davos this year. A certifiably cool celebrity! According to Semafor, the venue at which he was scheduled to appear was a Hilton Garden Inn.

In between gatherings of absolutely repulsive combinations of people, global leaders and famous people say a lot of banal things at the event that make the news only because they are global leaders and famous people and they say the words at Davos. Here are a few quotes from this year’s convening that Semafor deemed significant enough to include in its newsletters:

Advertisement
Advertisement

“Foreign investments are welcome in China, and the door to China will only open up further.” —Chinese Vice Premier Liu He

“We don’t know when the war ends, but Ukraine has to win. I don’t see another choice.” —Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin

“My challenge to Davos is this: Listen to the communities on the front lines of crisis. Invest in local people, in local solutions.” —Chef José Andrés

Is your mind blown yet??

On the third day of the conference, reporter Liz Hoffman offered the riveting observation that “the agenda is a little slow” and “the vibe is dour,” but “at least there’s free ‘Emirati hot chocolate,’ ” in addition to “toothpicked olives and Gruyère cubes.” The actual substance of the forum, she admitted, is reliably a load of crap: “The ‘Davos consensus’ […] is almost always wrong.”

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson offered a related bit of analysis in Semafor’s “Room for Disagreement” section, in which thought leaders (?) get to chime in on news articles to contradict the reporters’ takes. Davos, she declared, “is a corrupt circle-jerk.” Corruption can be exciting, and circle-jerks can be fun—but doing both at once? In below-freezing temperatures? With Fareed Zakaria and Sen. Joe Manchin? At a Hilton Garden Inn? I’ll pass.

Advertisement