A funny thing happened on the way to the World Economic Forum

You used to need a good pair of winter boots when you took part in the World Economic Forum. Tall, well-insulated boots that were made for climbing.

Until this year, the best and brightest minds in business, politics and economics made the trek to Davos, Switzerland, a hilly village that

sits 1,560 metres above sea level. The skiing is supposed to be great. So are the IT networking opportunities, at least during the five-day WEF confab, which routinely draws Bill Gates, EMC Corp.’s Michael Ruettgers and several other top players.

This year, in light of the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, the WEF decided for the first time to move the conference to New York City. In keeping with the change of venue, IT leaders have also come down to Earth.

Media coverage describes their outlook as “”gloomy,”” particularly in contrast to the growing optimism demonstrated by financial and political experts. In one report, Ruettgers said he didn’t forsee a strong recovery this year, as many have predicted. Bill Gates went further: “”The sobriety will stay, the somberness will stay. It’s very healthy,”” Mr. Gates said. “”I like this period where people are forced to play by rules driven by economic sense.””

It’s a far cry from last year, when Gates went to great lengths during a panel discussion to defend the PC. Sales weren’t falling, he said; although the growth rate had declined, it was still “”pretty healthy,”” and the absolute number continued to rise. Not for long, it didn’t.

The year before, as the e-business phenomenon reached its zenith, WEF attendees were so bullish that some of them saw the Internet as an adequate replacement for human interaction. Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, director of the Mirolab Center at the University of Geneva, is a case in point. “”If you go to buy an airline ticket and you deal with someone who is rude and disagreeable, then you go online and buy your ticket from the virtual salesperson who smiles and looks at you, which do you prefer?”” she asked. “”I prefer the second.”” This faith in the virtual model seems completely naive after witnessing the thousands of anxious people who flooded airport phone lines in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

For the last several years, the WEF has been a hotbed of controversy as poverty advocates use the event to protest a group of big decision makers en masse. The actual discussions and conclusions drawn by attendees was of little interest to the everyday person — Davos was like a day camp for Gates and co., a snowy version of the ivory tower where academics make lofty pronouncements.

With a base camp in reasonable proximity to Ground Zero, this year’s WEF will be remembered as a more influential bellwether of the changes to come. The war on terrorism, the economic recession and the uncertainty in the culture creates a need for strong leadership. In this context, the sombre comments from technology’s chief executives are both heartening and necessary. This is not a time for hype. There are more important things besides the Next Big Thing. Having been knocked off their perch on Davos, it’s good to see the people in charge of the largest IT companies understand that it will be a long climb back to the top.

sschick@plesman.com

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