When I called Tom Friedman “the emperor of the idiots” after listening to him speak during a lunch session in Davos, I was, of course, being rude about Tom Friedman. But I was being equally rude about the assembled plutocrats who burst into applause after Friedman finished delivering his nonsense.
So, are Davos delegates all mouth-breathing morons who clap like a bunch of performing seals every time a New York Times columnist emits noises from beneath his moustache? Actually, they’re not.
In their normal, day-to-day lives, the thousands who assemble in Davos every year aren’t just richer and more powerful than 99% of the population. As befits the winners of the information economy, they’re also generally smart, interesting, and knowledgeable. Sit down with one of them for 30 minutes, and you’ll likely learn a lot.
But Davos is not mostly about focused 30-minute conversations between two individuals. Such things do happen; they’re just the exception, rather than the rule. More par for the course are the hour-plus Davos panel discussions like the one that Tom Friedman was on, where you tend to find yourself listening to vague generalities of the kind that Davos excels at. And at the other end of the time spectrum, Bank of America was proud to point me to its Vine page: an entire social-media project devoted to reducing the platitudinous prattling of Davos down to six-second bites. Thanks, BofA!
This kind of thing looks stupid when ripped from the Davos context, and indeed it’s pretty stupid even within the Davos context. But the stupidity serves a purpose. As anybody who’s read Daniel Kahneman’s magnificent Thinking, Fast and Slow knows, humans are cognitively lazy. We love to take short cuts, and there’s a limit to how much concentrated thought we can engage in each day.
A Davos panel discussion is an opportunity for CEOs to feel important, and for the audience to feel as though they’re learning from top-level thought leaders. It’s also highly performative: if it’s on a topic like climate change or inequality, then the main purpose of the panel is generally simply to exist. The message is: these people are talking about this important issue, and they take it seriously. The actual substance of what is said? Not particularly important. (I’m half convinced that the reason that most Davos panel discussions take place off the record, under Chatham House Rules, is so that they can retain some level of mystique which would be shattered if the general public ever realized how boring most of them are.)
Faced with dozens of such discussions, no rational human would or even could respond by paying rapt attention to every banal bromide uttered. Instead, you just absorb the general gist, while probably thinking about something else entirely.
In practice, then, when listening to panel discussions, the delegates pay attention to the sentiments and cadences, rather than to the actual words. Which is why Tom Friedman’s Davosbollocks received a substantial round of applause. It wasn’t wise, it wasn’t insightful, it wasn’t even meaningful in any real sense. But it was the last sentence in his little speech, and it did manage to provide an end point to what he was saying by recapitulating the subject he’d started with.
Tom Friedman has precious little insight into the world. But he is an accomplished and successful public speaker, unlike say Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who was also on his panel. He knows how to modulate his speech, how to repeat himself, how to draw people in as though he’s telling them something important. When it comes to form, rather than substance, he’s actually very good. When he tied his speechlet up in a manner which clearly indicated “this is the final sentence of my remarks”, the audience was perfectly primed to respond. They’d barely been listening to what he was saying; they just knew that (a) he’d agreed with everybody else on the Importance of Mindfulness; that (b) he’d somehow managed to get the Arab Spring into what he was saying; and that (c) he’d stopped speaking.
In Davos, that’s more than enough for a hearty round of applause. So while Tom Friedman fully deserves all the opprobrium being directed at him, I'm inclined to forgive the audience, at least a little bit. All of us, after all, have occasionally applauded a speech we haven't listened to.