The Slopes of Davos

image by imp kerr

The World Economic Forum charts its darkest fears: superbugs and fake Tweets

During the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, in a school auditorium outside the ski resort’s secure perimeter, there’s a smaller Open Forum – no invitation required for anyone who can make it up to the Swiss Alps. It’s TEDx to Davos’s TED, a neat package of webstream-ready inspiration. One of this year’s presentations was Life Lessons from Jazz: Improvisation as a Way of Life, in which Columbia ethnomusicology professor Chris Washburne and his band taught the audience how to survive neoliberal uncertainty with the “spontaneous creativity that we have inherited from the African-American culture.”

Quoting the early soloist Sidney Bechet, Washburne calls jazz the sound of freedom. “It’s the sounds that emulate [sic] from the emancipated slaves. The newfound freedom that they found in the South of the United States, and they had to make sense of that freedom. They had to turn ugliness into beauty, and to rebuild their lives.”  So, too, do we have to grasp the new freedoms of the neoliberal world to improvise a way of life that celebrates uncertainty and precarity.

A favored metaphor in Davos, jazz offers these life lessons to the precariat and the elites alike, while negating the responsibility of the latter to do anything about the vulnerabilities of the former. We’re all in the music together, and risk sets the rhythm. Jazz musicians “have one of the riskiest jobs in the world, because failure is just around the corner at every single turn,” Washburne assures us between sets of Azure and Caravan. “As a matter of fact, you can think about jazz as just a series of failures.”

The World Economic Forum belongs to those who drape themselves in risk and find opportunity in each reversal of fortune. They are used to improv – only improv promises mostly to enrich them, rather than allowing them to scrape by. In a way, the economic elite see this meeting as their own Montreux Jazz, a place for free-market thought leaders to fearlessly riff on the future as it comes.

Their setlist comes in an annual Global Risks report prepared at the start of the year. This document, with its clean graphics in five colors – Google plus purple – lays bare the terrors of the moment and sorely tests the macho boardroom definition of risk. In the corporate world, risk always carries a harmonic of opportunity; always exists to be snatched up by someone with big enough balls and a good enough hedge. It is a kind of commodity. Any disaster just needs to be quantified in two variables – likelihood of occurring, and potential impact – and it’s ready for the market.

The first Global Risk reports emerged seven years ago from a network of experts and roundtable consultations bringing together risk advisors, academics and executives. Insurance corporations – Swiss Re, Zurich Insurance, Marsh & McLennan – played, and continue to play, a nonspecific role as “collaborators,” providing guidance in the selection of risks. In 2011, the process switched to a larger email survey of leaders and thinkers from business, government, international organizations and the academies. Respondents were asked to rate a list of risks by likelihood of occurrence in the next ten years, by potential cost in billions of dollars, and by connection with other risks.

In 2012 the survey pool grew to include NGOs, and the unit of potential impact changed from billions of dollars to a value-neutral five point scale. Like the Open Forum, this was Davos in its inclusive, multi-stakeholder guise. The sample nevertheless remains heavily skewed toward the business world, which accounts for over 42 percent of respondents this year; all other groups are dwarfed, with governments coming in at 8.1 percent.

The list of risks also reached its current size and shape in 2012, and the authors decided to fix it in place for the sake of year-to-year analysis. These fifty possible disasters would thenceforth serve as the basic scale on which to jam – the definitive threats to business and, by extension, humanity. Until the next overhaul, we’re stuck with the sound of 2012 – but if it’s catastrophic imagination that we need, 2012 was a creative year.

Global Risks 2013 explores catastrophes that are too big and unknown to hedge, even if many of them are already coming to pass. Its portfolio is fifty risk factors thick, with water shortages, liquidity crises and orbital debris, each precisely weighted by likelihood and potential impact and charted like commodities. Backlash against globalization is up. Extreme weather is up. Nothing is down. It’s never been clear exactly whose nightmares these risks are, and the lack of attribution is part of the point. They are supposed to rise up out of the data, objective and urgent, the voice of the planet demanding to be heard.

The data visualizations in Global Risks 2013, network charts and scatter plots of drifting risk points, look like graphic notation from the avant-garde wing of jazz. Simultaneously abstracting and reconstituting survey data into swarms of color, the graphics go for impact over legibility, sketching impressions of an intricate score that, if played as music, would carry a clear, smooth, rising melody.

From more than a thousand survey responses, the authors tease out three risk “constellations” of interlinked potentialities. The first constellation, Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience, invites a Sandy comparison that couldn’t have been in last year’s report: “Like a super storm, two major systems are on a collision course.” The nor’easter of economic crisis and the hurricane of climate change, in their union, will bring unprecedented challenges.

With “green growth”  going stale, the World Economic Forum endorses a successor mindset from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: “climatesmart.”  Being climate smart means searching for synergies across mitigation and adaptation, across the demands of the carbon cycle and the GDP – in other words, looking for routes to continued growth that also happen to reduce emissions. The diametric opposition of these goals has not lessened in recent years, but with language like search and possibility, the report holds out hope that we can improvise our way between these major and minor scales. With communication and innovation, we can plan smarter, not harder. At some grand systemic level, climate-smart asks us to believe that capitalism and nature rise and fall together, and to trust that the Forum believes this too.

The second constellation is called Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World. This is, indeed, talking about Twitter. The authors liken the Internet to early radio, and digital misinformation to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast – which would be frightening, if Wells’s staged Martian invasion and the resulting panic had actually been the worst thing that happened in the 1930s.

All the classic pranks of recent years are present – the Sandy shark photos, fake Tony Hayward, and The Innocence of Muslims. But this risk stands on two unacknowledged assumptions: that the effects of misinformation are negative, and that the consequences of false information are greater than those of true information. The latter is disputed by several of the report’s examples, like the case of the YouTube hit United Breaks Guitars. This ballad about a musician’s travel mishap did damage United Airlines stock value, but it was not untrue.

What it comes down to is that executives, including many of those involved in the survey, regularly rate social media among the greatest risks their corporations face. The way the CEOs see it, talking about misinformation is the safest way of talking about the control of information. The report’s authors nevertheless acknowledge that restrictions on freedom of speech may have “undesirable consequences.” Their alternative proposal is halfhearted and unworkable: a persistent credibility rating system for Internet users, described as eBay feedback for the digital self.

The final constellation of risks is juicily titled The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health, referring to the unwinnable race against drug-resistant bacteria and viruses. This looks like the contest in which our would-be Satchmos come up against the planet’s true masters of improvisation. But the assignment of blame gets a bit confusing. “Interestingly, respondents to the Global Risks Perception Survey connected antibiotic-resistant bacteria to failure of the international intellectual property regime,” the authors explain, ever so slightly embarrassed with their own data. “The connection highlights a global market failure to incentivize front-end investment in antibiotic development through the promise of longer-term commercial reward.”

This strange, spurious connection forces us to reflect finally on whose heads we’re looking into, and what these graphics actually measure. The first question is answered deep in an appendix on page 61 where we find the breakdown of the survey sample, and that a lion’s share of 42.1percent hail from the business world. Academics (17.8 percent), NGOs (16percent), governments (8.1 percent) and international organizations (7.7 percent) provide the sidemen to these bandleaders.

These well buried figures are important because the report tells us that different groups acknowledge different risks. NGO staffers give higher likelihood scores for most risks than government assessors, and higher impact scores than the business sector. Economists worry much about fiscal imbalances and little about income disparity. Women rate almost every risk higher, with “important implications” for managers seeking expertise “to make the most informed decisions” (There is only one risk, backlash against globalization, which men rated as more likely than women.)

Risk assessment experts deal with complex global systems, unknown variables, and the contentious political ground in which the acceptability of risk is decided. This is the reason for the survey: it’s a clever way of quantifying the unquantifiable, crowdsourcing the actual work of assessment to a thousand informants whose own rationality operates below the report’s level of analysis. The experts of 2013, now plugging the survey results into their own calculations, are getting nothing but feedback.

But the results are perverse: Every scatter plot in the report slopes contrary to the statistical curve of actual risk. In the real world, the most destructive possibilities – the real Hollywood spectacles – are the least likely to occur. But in the Davos surveys, a strong positive relationship between likelihood and impact lines up the dots on a 45-degree angle from 0/0 to 5/5 – in the aggregate results, in every breakdown, and even in the individual responses. As the authors note, but do not attempt to explain, “survey respondents seem to be associating high-likelihood events with high impacts”  –  an association found in no model of risk.

The word risk is of sterling coinage, invented with probability theory in the 17th century mathematics of gambling. Its meaning is formal and formalizing, which is why a science continues to be built around it. However, most of us – even experts – have a way of slipping into adjacent folk concepts. In positively associating impact and likelihood, the Forum’s survey-takers are revealing not the slope of risk but the slope of danger: that which looms closest looms largest.

Risk as danger is messy, political, and cultural –  not a subject for mathematics, but for anthropology. Mary Douglas was its foremost anthropologist, who,with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, created the cultural theory of risk in the late-structuralist 1980s. Douglas described how certain risks are selected for focus and concern by groups primarily as an expression of the social order they wish to manifest. While governments see threats to authority and hierarchy, environmental activists see invisible poisons flowing from a corrupt modernity. Institutions devoted to the market focus on dangers that threaten the primacy of free contract between individuals – because free individuals, improvising, can ride out any other challenge.

All of us, every fisherman or engineer or parent or plutocrat, operate with keen risk awareness in our everyday fields of competence, says Douglas. But these fields are limited, and the same awareness doesn’t necessarily apply to big risks that involve complex social judgments of value. Here, even for experts, “the onus of choice is shifted away from particular issues to a choice between kinds of social institutions,” writes Douglas in Risk and Blame. “Blame falls in such a way as to reinforce the local community ideal. Far from being steadily analyzed, from the start danger is roped into the work of showing up villains or maintaining morale” writes Douglas.

In stark political terms, it’s even easier to say: If an expert is warning that the retreat of intellectual property law may loose antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the world, that expert most likely belongs to an institution that feels strongly about the IP regime – perhaps an institution within the private pharmaceutical sector. Maybe it’s just vested interest, or maybe there does seem to be an affinity between the invaders of protected bodies and the invaders of protected markets.

When Davos analysts collect such feelings and recirculate them as quantified risk, they are engaging in an ideological task well known to anthropology, consolidating their view of global morality in the most powerful language they speak. It should be a harmonious collaboration, drawing the Davos set further into a shared understanding of our age. But the strange concerns and backward slopes get in the way.


Institutional cultures and ideals are certainly not discussed in Global Risks 2013. Rational, free individuals are too fundamental to both economics and risk analysis. Instead, to explain their shortcomings, the report’s authors take a leap over the cultural and go right to the cognitive level –  sooner questioning decision-makers’ brains than their allegiances.

Research in cognitive psychology and decision-making suggests that people use ‘rules of thumb’ to make judgments in the face of ambiguity and complexity. This approach usually serves well but can lead to predictably faulty judgments under some circumstances. Psychologists call such predictably faulty judgments cognitive biases, and these biases influence how we respond to the best information at our disposal and integrate it in decision-making structures.

The mental flaws include our over-reliance on recent personal experience; our hyperbolic discounting of delayed costs and benefits; and thresholds of concern below which we ignore risks. This “we” is never the specific we of the report’s own survey sample, who are after all experts, but the authors choose the collective pronoun all the same. Each of us is entreated to look within, to clear out the cobwebs of irrationality that keep us from seeing the world as it is.

To locate these distortions in the recesses of human cognition, rather than in institutions and cultures, is a major feat of neoliberal thought. It’s with such feats that the World Economic Forum papers over the base conflicts of our world, finding hope for consensus, triple wins, climate-smart synergy. Without acknowledging the different worlds of risk, danger and opportunity that we inhabit, there’s always the promise of something simple and elegant. Something with a role for all of us, improvising together, as a band. Like this elegant Davos Quintet for 2013:

As the world faces a squeeze in public funds at the same time as the effects of climate change are increasing, it is only through collaboration among governments (to further the public interest), businesses (to search for innovative products and solutions), legal experts (to mitigate fear of liability), science (to bring good quality supporting data and analyses) and the financial sector (to innovate and avoid future damaging costs) that the limits of environmental and economic resilience can be successfully navigated.

If this collaboration ever happens, Chris Washburne has some advice from up on stage. “When jazz musicians are really improvising, we are pushing the limits almost over the precipice into chaos,”  he says, setting his trombone aside. “We’re up here and need to deeply listen to one another, to hear each other’s stories, and where we’re going, and work with that together as a team. If we don’t listen, that’s when chaos kicks in, and that’s when bad jazz happens.”

Like the whole jazz metaphor, his insight is operationally useless at the global scale. To envision the Davos Quintet as musicians creating together leaves out power and conflict and all questions of resources. The proposal relegates all sides to communicative roles, simply writing the problem of the “squeeze in public funds” out of the score. It’s not really a model at all, and neither is jazz. Rather, both work to naturalize the Davos world view – an ideology of the information age that, following the lead of jazzmen before, mystifies the musicians on stage as a conduit for something greater: the flow of the music.