South by Southwest, Day 23:29 PM
Christopher Hayes, author of one of my favorite books (Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy), had a lot to say about "Fractal Inequality"; he used the example of the summit at Davos to illustrate his points. He writes,
"When you arrive at the Zurich airport, your first instinct is to feel a bit of satisfaction that you are one of the select few chosen to hobnob with the most powerful people on Earth. Airport signs welcome and direct you to a special booth where exceedingly polite staff give you a ticket for a free shuttle bus that will drive you the two hours to the small ski-resort town in the Alps.
But you can't help but notice that other guests, the ones who landed on the same plane, but who were sitting in first class, are being greeted by an army of attractive red-coated escorts who help them with their bags before whisking them off in gleaming black Mercedes S-Class sedans for the two-hour drive.
Suddenly your perspective shifts. At first you had viewed yourself as special and distinct from all those poor saps who would never be allowed into the inner sanctum of global power that is the World Economic Forum. But now you realize that, in the context of Davos attendees, you are a member of the unwashed masses, crammed into a bus like so much coach chattel.
And while you're having this realization those same special VIPs whom you've quickly come to envy are enjoying their ride inside their plush, leather confines. But later that night they will find out over cocktails that those who are the true insiders don't fly on commercial flights into Zurich; they take private jets and then transfer to helicopters, which make the trip from Zurich in about thirty minutes and feature breathtaking views of the Alps.
This constant envy is the dominant experience of the Davos conference, an obsessive looking over the shoulder instilled by the participants' knowledge that the reality of fractal inequality means there are infinite receding layers of networking happening that one doesn't even know about!
"The point about Davos is that it makes everyone feel wildly insecure," observed Anya Schiffrin, the wife of Nobel Prize–winning economist and frequent Davos attendee Joseph Stiglitz. "Billionaires and heads of state alike are all convinced that they have been given the worst hotel rooms, put on the least interesting panels, and excluded from the most important events/most interesting private dinners. The genius of World Economic [Forum] founder Klaus Schwab is that he has been able to persuade hundreds of accomplished businessmen to pay thousands of dollars to attend an event which is largely based on mass humiliation and paranoia.""
I was reminded of this quote at South by Southwest EDU, an education conference launched off the main SXSW family of events that (I think) is populated by significantly more people with less self-importance; at the same time, there's a continual feeling of looking over your shoulder. Is that person more important? Is s/he going to a meeting I wasn't invited to? Is the closed-door reception they're at cooler than the one I'm at? Is s/he talking on the phone to someone I should know? Why are they always talking on the phone in the first place? etc. And so it goes on and on and on.
Don't get me wrong, I love education conferences. I love sneaking into the Dell/Pearson/Google lounges for seconds of brownies or Girl Scout cookies, I love getting my picture taken by omnipresent photographers, I love the conversations about education and the meaning of life that I've had with fellow students as well as folks from corporations or the occasional teacher. But in thinking about how education conferences like SXSWedu can be more welcoming places for students, particularly students who aren't on the national speaking circuit and rarely attend places as large (or intimidating) as this, I also started thinking about the exclusivity and "ol' boys' club"-ness that is already evident in such a young conference. If we want students to have a voice, for young people to be heard by decision-makers, then we need to change the prevailing attitude that Ritankar Das and Erik Martin pointed out: that if you're a student, you're not worth talking to.
It's radical of me, but maybe changing that attitude starts with changing the attitude that the world, or a conference, is divided into 2 kinds of people--the people who are worth your time, and the people who aren't. Let's meet and talk and have fun together with fewer preconceived notions. Yes, our time is finite, but let's spend it getting to know all kinds of people instead of creating "infinite receding layers of networking that one doesn't even know about."