March 25, 2023

Disruptions: In Davos, Technology Moves Center Stage

Eric E. Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, at Davos on Friday.Arnd Wiegmann/ReutersEric E. Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, at Davos on Friday.

DAVOS, Switzerland — When I set out to report at the World Economic Forum, I imagined it might be difficult to find technology-related stories. It turns out, I was a tad wrong. I would have had more luck finding a snowless Alpine mountain in the winter than finding people discussing a topic that did not involve technology.

After a year that has included the social media-fueled protests of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, global Internet privacy legislation and billions of dollars in technology stock offerings, tech and social media have not only entered the building, they are the walls holding it up.

Even the 102-page program guide for the World Economic Forum, where business, political and intellectual leaders gather each year to talk and frolic, has more references to technology and social media than any of the nerdiest Silicon Valley blogs I read daily.

Of course, tech is not a new concept at the forum. Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, told me he had been attending Davos for 15 years, two years before Google was even created.

But what has changed, I was told by dozens of people I spoke with, is technology’s infusion into every topic here.

Sessions on philanthropy, agriculture, social unrest, media and the economy were all full of digital banter. One attendee even told me that social media repeatedly came up during a discussion on religion.

Paulo Coelho, the best-selling Brazilian novelist, said in an interview that business and political leaders were finally accepting the power of social media. “Five years ago Davos was discussing new business models; now that has totally dropped. Now it is all about the Internet,” he told me. “They used to have answers here, and now it seems people are more comfortable with questions; the Internet has a lot of questions.”

Mr. Coelho, by the way, has more than seven million followers on Facebook and three million on Twitter.

Anna Ewing, Nasdaq’s chief information officer, said, “Technology is now framed as a core strategic and business issue.”

“It’s part of every discussion here,” she said, and “not just something that is being talked about by the technoweenies.” Those “technoweenies” are also the new celebrities of Davos. During a philanthropy plenary session I attended, Sean Parker, the Napster entrepreneur and the former president of Facebook, nearly ran out of the room after his session had finished as dozens of people tried to corner him.

Some of the most elite parties — a renowned part of the Davos experience — took place in the Swiss chalets of tech celebrities too, including Mr. Parker and Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire who has invested in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon.

Though Silicon Valley was top of mind, there was also a growing worry about the loss of jobs that often results from new technologies. The new jobs created don’t usually fit the qualifications of the newly unemployed. When cars drive themselves, for example, what happens to the millions of jobs that will inevitably be lost?

Tech drives the economy, but it doesn’t drive employment. “We are a 100-person company and we serve 50 million people. That kind of leverage has never existed before,” said Drew Houston, co-founder of the start-up Dropbox, a service that stores and shares digital files. Mr. Schmidt of Google said, “At Davos the conversation is really about economic growth and the reality is that technological advancement benefits those who are educated but endangers jobs that are routine and automatable.”

“This has been true for two hundred years with technologies,” he added.

Next year as the wealthy and the powerful gather here again to discuss the same topics, the technoweenies among them will have moved society even further forward.

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Media Decoder: On Internet TV, Silicon Valley Displays Its Whimsical Side

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, left, with Jesse Draper.Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, left, with Jesse Draper.

LOS ANGELES — There she was, one of the business world’s most important and serious executives, being interviewed about — leg warmers?

Oh, yes. But Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, got what she signed up for — an appearance on “The Valley Girl Show,” an Internet series focused, more or less, on Silicon Valley personalities. At least Ms. Sandberg did not have to swivel inside a Hula-Hoop and blow bubbles like Bill Clerico, chief executive of the online payments start-up WePay.

Cross “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” with “Charlie Rose” and you have “The Valley Girl Show,” created and hosted by Jesse Draper, a former Nickelodeon actress and daughter of Timothy C. Draper, a prominent venture capitalist. Ms. Draper, 27, started the series in 2008 with $50,000 of her own money.

Since then, Ms. Draper has proved herself to be a dogged businesswoman — the opposite of the ditzy persona she adopts on camera.

Her core audience is still tiny at about 15,000 viewers, posing a challenge to her strategy of selling ads, but she recently expanded from her own Web site ( to television screens in restaurants like Taco Bell. She has licensed her show to sites like and is working on a related book series.

“We are not making zillions of dollars yet, but we are staying afloat,” Ms. Draper said when asked if she had turned a profit.

Most notably, Ms. Draper — leaning heavily on her father’s Rolodex — has managed to land marquee guests, including Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and Craigslist’s founder, Craig Newmark. Ted Turner has stopped by. Ms. Sandberg’s episode will be available starting Jan. 17; Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, will appear on Jan. 24.

“They don’t always say yes the first time, but I’m ruthless,” Ms. Draper said, adding that her goal was to “build a brand, an approachable business brand, by portraying serious business people as fun.”

Silly would be another word for the interviewing style of Ms. Draper, whose signature is her Barbie-pink wardrobe. She opened one episode by playing the drums; in another she got the software whiz Steven C. Walske to put on a pink bicycle helmet adorned with pink pompoms.

“Which ‘Sex and the City’ girl are you?” she asked the investor Peter C. Gotcher, chairman of Dolby Laboratories and a director at Pandora. (“You know, I hadn’t really thought about that because they’re all girls,” he responded.)

Representatives for a smattering of the guests said that “The Valley Girl Show” manages to get big names partly because those people feel a sense of obligation to Ms. Draper’s father. But there are other reasons, including the chance to show off a more casual side that would not necessarily be appropriate on CNBC.

Why Ms. Sandberg agreed is not known; a Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment. But displaying her cuddly side does not appear to be a motive, at least from a look at raw video from the interview. Asked about her former career as an aerobics instructor, Ms. Sandberg shifted in her chair and replied, “I could survive with not being asked this question.”

But before steering the interview to more serious topics — like how to prioritize projects — Ms. Sandberg decided to play ball. “The silver leggings, the leg warmers, I have done a lot to hide all those pictures,” she said with a smile.

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Google’s Competitors Square Off Against Schmidt

Those two headline narratives competed for credibility in a three-hour hearing on Wednesday before a Senate antitrust panel, which heard testimony from Google’s chairman, Eric E. Schmidt, and competitors of the search giant.

Google’s story: The company is zealously dedicated to helping people find the most useful information on the Internet, and Google’s prosperity and the economic opportunity it has created for many thousands of American businesses all flow from that high-minded mission.

The rivals’ rebuttal: Google increasingly tilts search results in favor of its own online commerce offerings like travel and shopping as it bundles those services into its industry-dominant search engine, limiting choice and stifling competition.

The Senate hearing has been the most prominent one yet in the debate about Google’s business practices and their effect. Antitrust regulators in the United States and Europe are investigating Google as it steadily expands its business beyond search.

At the start, Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin and chairman of the Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee, pointed to the potential conflict of interest. “Is it possible,” he asked, “for Google to be both an unbiased search engine and at the same time own a vast portfolio of Web-based products and services?”

Later, he suggested that the profit motive would naturally tilt search results toward Google services. Not so, Mr. Schmidt replied. “I’m not sure Google is a rational business trying to maximize its own profits,” he said.

He never mentioned Microsoft by name, but his testimony was intended to draw a distinction between his company and the last technology powerhouse that was investigated, sued and found to have violated antitrust laws. That former innovator, Mr. Schmidt said, “lost sight of what matters and Washington stepped in.”

Google, he said, has studied that history. “We get it,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We get the lessons of our predecessors.” Later, circling back to that theme, he said, “One company’s past needn’t be another’s future.”

Mr. Schmidt described the online economy as highly competitive, with users “one click away” from other sources of information. The many rivals include search engines like Microsoft’s Bing, specialized review and listing sites like Yelp, comparison shopping sites like Nextag, online merchants like Amazon and social networks like Facebook. “The Internet is the ultimate level playing field,” he said.

There were a few testy moments. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, showed a chart with the rankings for Google Product Search in hundreds of shopping searches, compared with the rankings of three comparison shopping sites, Nextag, Pricegrabber and Shopper. The rivals’ rankings varied widely, while Google’s service was consistently ranked third.

Mr. Schmidt first replied that the chart was an “apples to oranges” analogy, because the Google service steers users to specific products and is not a shopping comparison site.

Unconvinced, Mr. Lee said, “You cooked it so you are always No. 3.”

Mr. Schmidt replied, his voice tightening, “Senator, I can assure we haven’t cooked anything.”

Google’s competitors testified in a second panel, after Mr. Schmidt, an arrangement that Google requested and the subcommittee accepted. The competitors described a different world than Mr. Schmidt portrayed, saying Google has immense market power and uses it.

Jeffrey Katz, the chief executive of Nextag, said that Google was “an outstanding partner to us for many years,” but that the relationship has become strained as the search company expanded. Google’s business interests, he said, conflict with its engineering commitment to an open-for-all Internet.

“But what Google engineering giveth, Google marketing taketh away,” Mr. Katz said. “Today, Google doesn’t play fair. Google rigs its results, biasing in favor of Google Shopping and against competitors like us.”

The issue, he said in a separate interview, is subtle and does not affect all Google searches, mainly ones related to buying goods or services. “When you search for ‘running shoes’ or ‘digital camera,’ Google transforms itself from an independent search engine to a commerce site,” Mr. Katz said. “But that is not what happens when you type in a search for, say, ‘kidney dialysis.’” Jeremy Stoppelman, the chief of Yelp, said sites like his have to cooperate with Google because it is the gateway to so many users. About half of Yelp’s visitors come through Google search.

Google, Mr. Stoppelman said, folds the reviews of other sites into its own offerings. “Google forces review Web sites to provide their content for free to benefit Google’s own competing product — not consumers,” he said. “Google then gives its own product preferential treatment.”

Under questioning, both Internet entrepreneurs were asked, given Google’s evolution, would they start their businesses today. They would not, they said. “With Google taking so much of the real estate, I wouldn’t do it today,” Mr. Stoppelman replied.

Mr. Katz said Google should either give competitors in online commerce equal treatment in search results or clearly disclose its conflict of interest.

He punctuated his point by using the same phrasing Mr. Schmidt did when he testified. “Level playing field, level playing field, level playing field,” Mr. Katz said.

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Ambitions as Deep as Their Pockets

“When I was a kid, I loved not only amazing ocean exploration but space, too,” James Cameron, the director of “Avatar,” “Titanic” and “The Abyss,” said in an interview. “I can think of no greater fantasy than to be an explorer and see what no human eye has seen before.”

The would-be explorers can afford to live their dreams because of their extraordinarily deep pockets. Significantly, their ambitions far exceed those of the world’s seafaring nations, which have no plans to send people so deep.

The billionaires and millionaires include Mr. Cameron, the airline mogul Richard Branson and the Internet guru Eric E. Schmidt. Each is building, planning to build or financing the construction of minisubmarines meant to transport them, their friends and scientists into the depths. Entrepreneurs talk of taking tourists down as well.

The vehicles, meant to hold one to three people, are estimated to cost anywhere from $7 million to $40 million.

The first dive is scheduled for later this year. Since secrecy and technical uncertainty surround many of the ventures, oceanographers say the current schedules may well change.

The rush is happening now in part because of advances in materials, batteries and electronics, which are lowering the cost and raising the capabilities of submersibles. Still, the challenges are formidable.

Hardest to build are the crew compartments, whose walls must be very thick, strong and precisely manufactured to withstand tons of crushing pressure. Designers are using not only traditional steel but such unexpected materials as spheres of pressure-resistant glass.

Humans have laid eyes on the Challenger Deep just once, half a century ago, in a United States Navy vessel. A window cracked on the way down. The landing on the bottom stirred up so much ooze that the two divers could see little and took no pictures. They stayed just 20 minutes.

Forays to lesser depths have multiplied over the years. Since the discovery of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1985, hundreds of explorers, tourists and moviemakers (including Mr. Cameron) have visited the world’s most famous shipwreck. It lies more than two miles down.

The Challenger Deep and similar recesses are part of a vast system of seabed trenches that crisscross the globe. The deepest are found in the western Pacific.

Over the decades, biologists have glimpsed their inhabitants by lowering dredges on long lines. Up have come thousands of bizarre-looking worms, crustaceans and sea cucumbers. More recently, undersea robots have filmed swarms of eels and ghostly fish, their tails long and sinuous.

In early April, Mr. Branson held a news conference in Newport Beach, Calif., to unveil his submersible. “The last great challenge for humans,” declared Mr. Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic, “is to explore the depths of our planet’s oceans.”

His solo craft, nearly 18 feet long, looked like a white-and-blue airplane with stubby wings and a cockpit. The curve of the wings is meant to drive the vehicle downward as it speeds through the water, rather than upward, as with an airplane.

Graham Hawkes, the craft’s designer and a veteran maker of undersea vehicles, said in an interview that more conservative designs were possible but that his goal was “to advance the state of the art.”

The winged craft and its mother ship cost an estimated $17 million. The submersible is scheduled to plunge deep later this year, its pilot a colleague of Mr. Branson. (The venture is profiled at

A few weeks later, in late April, another team went public. It unveiled plans, rather than a nearly complete vehicle. The company, Triton Submarines, based in Vero Beach, Fla., makes tiny submersibles with acrylic personnel spheres that carry two people down a half mile or more. The clear spheres provide much better viewing than the tiny portholes of traditional submersibles.

The company announced that it was ready to build a submersible to carry three people into the Challenger Deep. The vehicle’s personnel sphere — seven and a half feet in diameter — would be made entirely of glass and open like a clamshell to admit passengers.

Glass might seem fragile. But as pressures rise, said L. Bruce Jones, the company’s chief executive, “it gets stronger.”

He said two people — a billionaire and a near billionaire — were talking separately about buying one or two of the craft, each costing $15 million.

A company brochure says investors can expect to charge $250,000 a seat for tours of the Challenger Deep.

Mr. Jones said the craft would drop fast, covering the seven miles in about two hours. That would leave hours of bottom time for exploration before the return trip to the surface.

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