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Davos Man meets Silicon Man

A top-shelf schmoozefest, the World Economic Forum gets started this week in Davos, Switzerland.

Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Carly Fiorina and every other self-respecting member of the digerati trooped off to the slopes of Davos, Switzerland, this week to take part in the World Economic Forum's annual summit meeting.

The weeklong conference, bringing together most of the folks who rule the world, is a singular event--as much for its reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist as for its A-list of attendees. For Silicon Valley's best and brightest, who are there to wave company flags and collect business cards, it's naturally a prime schmooze venue. But in years past, it's also provided a bully platform from which they could lecture benighted European, Asian and African counterparts on why they needed to become more--well, more like us.

During the go-go days, this all got to be a bit much.
During the go-go days, this all got to be a bit much. At first, there was buzz and curiosity about this new thing that fell under the rubric of cyberspace. But when geeks and freshly scrubbed MBA types began turning up in force to pontificate as if they--and they alone--held the keys to the future, you can imagine how that went over. Since Internet fever was sending shares of U.S. suppliers straight into the stratosphere back then, who was in a position to argue otherwise?

The high-water mark of hubris came when Andy Grove browbeat a plenary session at the 1997 Davos summit, warning how they were consigning future generations to second-class status by failing to get on board the tech revolution fast enough. Talk about overstating the obvious. But Grove was no more full of himself than any of the other Yanks on parade that year.

An African attendee sitting next to me groaned in disbelief, "Does he think we're all clueless?" I just shrugged.

However, a funny thing happened on the expressway to the postindustrial future. The bubble burst, the economy fell into

However, a funny thing happened on the expressway to the postindustrial future.
recession and dot-com mania dissipated (at least for a time). When came payback time, the dawning of Fat City was dimmed by a succession of corporate scandals, humiliating bankruptcies and mass layoffs. Even after the recession ended, IT's problems lingered, ultimately forcing Silicon Valley into its worst downturn in two decades.

Now after eating more than a few helpings of humble pie, the technology business is recovering from the after-effects of excess. Things are getting back to normal with IT--itself now so commonplace in the corporate world that some say it no longer offers strategic advantage to companies.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has since closed much--though not all--of the technology gap. Some regions have actually outstripped the United States. To wit: Compared with the extent and variety of mobile cell use in Europe and Asia, we inhabit a veritable backwater. Korea can boast broadband penetration that American providers can only dream about.

That's not to say Davos Man (and Woman) can't still use a lot of advice figuring how to connect the other half (or more) of the world on the losing side of the digital divide. Some interesting ideas on the subject have percolated around the Valley in the last year and a forum like the World Economic Forum is just the place to give them an airing.

And after living through the roller-coaster highs and the lows marking the first years of the 21st century, Silicon Man (and Woman) may finally have the perspective and humility to point the way.