Fritz Lang’s Davos


Joyful elites bathe in a sunlit garden while workers march to and from underground factories with their heads hung low.

This stark dichotomy between haves and have nots was visualized by Fritz Lang in his 1927 sci-fi epic, Metropolis

Today’s ruling elites reenact it every year in Davos, Switzerland, only now the rest of us are left to drive to and from gig work in Ubers.

The contrast is a bit different, but it’s also kinda worse.

Davos is a trade show hawking the promises of neoliberalism: unfettered global movement of money and trade, unrestricted technology invention, and unrepentant celebration of the fame and fortune that accrue to the owner class therefrom.

The world’s woes look clearly solvable from the heights of the Swiss Alps, thanks to glib solutions like a climate-risk ranking tool for companies, and “responsible” investing rendered through tech startups. Corporate marketers and PR people are on hand to celebrate their invention of “purpose,” which is a comfortable cover story for making highfalutin promises without actually changing any of the business practices that underly it. 

There’s no need to change anything, since many of the world’s problems are well on their way to being solved. Most of us eat better, live healthier and longer lives, and enjoy more stuff than our grandparents could have  imagined. All of these benefits are self-evident proof of the power of the marketplace, and the value of the elites’ worldview.

Only what can look like dreamy promises of self-driving cars, automated workplaces, and data erasing risk and spontaneity from our everyday lives often appear as frighteningly crushing threats to the people who live below the clouds. Perspectives on crises like income inequality or climate change that aren’t voiced in the terms of pressing, house-on-fire, potentially existential challenges just don’t travel well. 

It’s telling that leaders of the US, France, and UK stayed home to deal with thorny and chronic problems arising from their citizens’ anger over the effects of that worldview.

Can pursuing the managing model of the Status Quo rescue it from the problems that same model has not only created, but tolerated for years?

If so, I can’t find a single, reliable argument that makes the case, though we get lots of gloriously counter-intuitive missives, like “robots taking jobs will create jobs,” “lack of reliable income is freedom,” or “you can protect your privacy while we violate it.”

The most forgiving explanation of the gap between haves and have nots is that it’s due to poor communication.

Davos, as a symbol, says all the wrong things, which makes what is actually said there, or by the elites before and after their jet set confab, only less relevant or believable. I find the blather on AI and robotics in general particularly hard to swallow. It’s just too easy to suspect that we’re not being told the truth.

So that gap is what Davos, like Lang’s movie, is all about. The only difference between the two is that Metropolis was a work of fiction.

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