Davos

Davos

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 4 1997 3:30 AM

Davos

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       I have had coffee with Kofi and breakfast with Bibi. (I missed out on having a nightcap with Newt--by the time I applied, it was oversubscribed.) But first I must tell you about my most exciting encounter: I have met Bill Gates. In fact, I sit at lunch only one seat away from him.
       For almost two hours he chats and fields questions from the assembled journalists. At the end I am perplexed. How can I truthfully report what I have seen? Mr. Gates (I know, I know, everyone calls him Bill--but I am too old-school to be comfortable doing so on such short and unequal acquaintance), after all, is my über-boss, the man who holds the fate of S

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(and much more of less personal consequence) in his still-young hands. I check out my perceptions with my friends among the press. They are in accord. But if I write that, I protest, no one will believe me. As a journalist, you gotta do what you gotta do, they reply.
       Here goes. Bill Gates is boyishly charming, well spoken, indefatigable, and extraordinarily knowledgeable. His range is immense. He easily handles everything from the mechanics of the Internet and Microsoft's future as a software-cum-media giant to why the gentleman from the subcontinent can't get his Windows upgrade to work. He does not let the correspondent from the Red Herring trap him through a series of not-quite-sequiturs into an implicit forecast of Microsoft's demise (though he lets a smidgen of justifiable irritation flash). He is even a diplomat: China, of course, has its own culture and traditions that we respect--but still it's hard to forget that Microsoft's net trade balance with China, after accounting for the value of pirated software exports, is about a negative $400 million.
       So there you have it, the unvarnished truth. And if you don't believe me, a roomful of TV, print, and Internet journalists will back me up.
       Gates, however, is far from the only world giant who bears up well under close scrutiny. I am, by and large, as skeptical as any of my world-weary tribe, but the truth is that when you sit down in close proximity to people who have risen to true prominence in business or government, often you get a real glimpse of why they are where they are.
       Kofi Annan, for example, gently explains that while United Nations bureaucracy is as surely committed to reform as the American Congress is, "reform" is a concept open to many interpretations. It is not entirely reassuring, nor is it meant to be, but you have the feeling that Annan knows where the points of compromise must lie. Enlargement of the U.N. Security Council's permanent membership is a pressing issue, but it, too, is not easy to resolve. Both Germany and Japan are pushing hard, but there are other claimants. (An Italian diplomat, the secretary general notes, recently observed, only half jokingly, that Italy also would like a permanent spot: "After all, Italy lost the war too," he argued.) Annan reminds the ever-more-networked global community that it has an enormous stake in peaceful development; perhaps it will see fit to invest more in the requisite foundations, even if the payoff in profits is not immediate. The media, too, might help out by engaging in more "preventive journalism"--forcefully drawing the attention of political leaders to crises that are still building, instead of waiting till the "bang-bang" is in full swing.
       Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu could charm the kaffiyeh off Yasser Arafat, if he had a mind to. The Israeli prime minister is here, he says, primarily to remind the world business community that his country has the highest concentration of knowledge workers in the world--thanks in no small part to the Soviet Union, which drove so many well-educated émigrés to Israel. Israel has been booming for the last few years--"something has happened." Might not a significant part of that "something" be the Oslo peace process that Netanyahu once deprecated? Anyone who doubted his commitment to the peace accords, the prime minister says, was not listening to what he was saying when he ran for office. He was elected to "put the peace process back on track" by demanding from the Palestinian authority the reciprocity in action that alone can secure a durable peace. It is very comforting.

******

       No, no, I haven't forgotten that the Illuminati cast powerful spells. Perhaps it is all a smoke screen.

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******

       My computer is thoroughly disgusted. It will utter no sound, play no music. It keeps telling me that its battery is running low, even though I have it plugged in. Worse yet, it no longer even bothers to ask me for my Microsoft networking password. This I take to be a reaction less to the manhandling it got from the international phalanx of technicians who tried (in vain) to make it communicate with the outside world, than to the constant demands of the Congress Centre guards. Each time I enter, they make me turn the poor machine on and off in quick succession--no loitering, bitte. The process for entering the Centre is much like that now employed in D.C.'s airports, except that the guards are young and handsome and wear berets. Also they carry Uzis.

******

       Last night at a small, private dinner at a "country inn" outside of Davos, I sat next to a member of the board of Pirelli. We discuss this year's calendar. The women have been selected and photographed by Richard Avedon. Soon every gas station in America will look like Vanity Fair, only naked.

******

       Here, in the vanguard of the networked society, Europe is taking a terrible beating. Its unemployment is high, its economies are more or less stagnant. Meanwhile, Asia--with its hordes of obedient labor and aggressive pursuit of foreign investment--is flourishing (well, maybe not Japan for the moment, but people are tired of hearing about Japan); America, with its flexible capital and labor markets, is once again ascendant. Meanwhile, poor old Europe clings to its security blanket and refuses to get with the program. I think about this as I walk back to my hotel from a reception to "meet Steve Forbes" (I have not met him; he was standing almost alone when I entered, and I thought of going up and introducing myself, but then realized I had nothing to say after that). It is after midnight and I am alone. The streets are nearly deserted. I am unafraid. I am reminded of what the Europeans are loath to lose.

       P.S.: I have acquired a new function at Davos: print server. Whenever I come to the Ascom communication center, where the kindly Russian technician has showed me how to communicate with the laser printer, a small queue of foreign journalists forms behind me. Each has a diskette in his or her hand. They too cannot make their modems work, but neither can they make contact with the printer. I am proud that my Windows software seems up to every conversion task. I also enjoy displaying my printer technique--which involves giving it a small shove at exactly the appropriate time.
       My modem problems, an American journalist has told me, arise from the fact that the converter cord I was advised to buy by the resident Swiss technicians requires a further adjustment. The paired wires inside the cord must be reversed to be compatible with the Swiss telephone system. This reminds me of a wire story I read only last week. The International Standards Organization and the International Electrotechnical Commission have designated Oct. 14 as World Standards Day. The United States celebrated World Standards Day on Oct. 11; Finland celebrated on Oct. 13; and Italy celebrated on Oct. 18. The "networked society" clearly needs to get its signals in sync.

Slate Washington Editor Jodie T. Allen is filing from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Forum, an international meeting of leaders from business, government, academia, and the media.