Jan 28, 2010 | Davos, Switzerland
Jan 28, 2010

I was the first one to the dinner, and I was standing next to the pretzels and putting some into my mouth, thinking about what I was going to say. They asked me to speak to the crowd about storytelling with five other authors, but traffic was slow in the snow, so everyone was late to the dinner. Finally a woman came into the room and put her coat on the rack. She came over to me and looked friendly so I said hello. She said, "I won the Nobel Peace Prize — what do you do?"

If it were any other place I would know she was joking, but this is Davos and she was not joking. Her name was Jody Williams, and she won the prize in 1997 for her work with land mines. Soon we realized we were both from Vermont, and she was very pleased to learn I was not a banker, so we had a glass of wine together at a small table in the big room, and we finished the bowl of pretzels.

She was saying how she thought Davos was mostly bullshit, and how people only talk about changing poverty so they don't have to change themselves. "Talk, talk, talk," she said. "I'm only interested in talk that turns into action. All of this talk about adding conscience to capitalism is ridiculous. These guys just want to convince people they care about others, which they don't, and then get back to making money as fast as they can. As for me, I don't care what anyone thinks. I don't care at all. I say what I want."

She said how everyone was less concerned with speaking the truth and more concerned with getting asked back next year, which is a complicated political concoction that is poorly documented, though cash and compliance are known to be active ingredients.

There were about 50 people at dinner, and every table had an author. We each stood up and talked for a while. Since we were authors and since we were asked to, we talked about our stories and our lives. Jody repeated to the audience what she'd said to me over wine, and added a rant against technology, saying how it makes us less human, and how she'll die before she uses Facebook or Twitter. The other authors were old, so I was cast in the role of technology defender. I said how there will be no way to resist technology, that it will be ubiquitous and inescapable, and that instead of complaining about it, we should make it into something that is good for the soul. I said that for my generation, one of the big struggles will be to improve the online world, as past generations have struggled to improve the physical world. I talked about the importance of understanding your own story and described my daily photo practice, and what can come from being a student of your own experience.

When I sat down, my table turned against me. They were mainly older British folks, and they were pissed off. The head of the European Trade Commission was especially angry. "We are working on serious issues — serious issues — and here you are talking about fluff! Since the last Davos 34 million Europeans have lost their jobs. And what I am hearing from you speakers is me, me, me. It's all about you as individuals, and it makes me sick. I came to this dinner to hear counterviews to the captains of industry, but all I hear is me, me, me. And that goes for you, too, I might add," stabbing his finger at me through the air.

The rest of the table seemed to agree in one way or another, and there was much nodding and saying of yes, yes, that's right, yes.

An old British lady said, "But I just love the smell of newspapers! And books — I love the smell of books! I could never read my news on a screen. With technology, don't you think we're losing something?" I said, "Yes, anytime something changes something is lost, but something is gained, too."

The CEO of PLAN International was also British and he was livid, too. He said, "Since you call yourself an author, let me quote to you something that Wordsworth, who was a real author, said. He said that art is experience deeply felt and processed with introspection over time. Note the second part — introspection over time. This business of publishing your current thoughts and feelings every night without proper introspection is just adding more junk to the written landscape. It is a waste and we don't need it. What we need is real introspection, and action."

I said that I was not a saint or a union leader, and that what artists and authors often try to do is use their personal experience to get at universal ideas, which hopefully give people something they need, even though what they really need might just be a job. I said I was glad he was working on the rights of organized labor, but I had chosen different battles, and was sorry if my choices offended him. He shrugged his shoulders and rearranged his napkin, and next to him the British Trade Commissioner got up to answer his phone.

The PLAN CEO continued, "And as for what you call your 'art' — two questions: who pays you to do it, and how can a website be art?" I said that nobody pays me to do it, that I release my projects for free, and that yes, a website can be art if that is your intention. The newspaper woman chimed in and said, "Oh, that's like a true artist, then. And we're sorry for being so difficult."

I said it was ok, and that it was nice to have an argument. I said it was the first time at Davos I'd seen anyone speak with any kind of passion, and it was true. The meeting is like a robot convention, and everyone is very polite and says exactly what they need to say, unless they decide you are not important enough, and then they don't say anything at all. Then you feel like a ghost among robots, which is how I feel a lot.

Paulo Coelho was one of the other authors, and he was saying how there are only four stories: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, a struggle for power, and a trip. He wrote a famous book called The Alchemist, which was about a trip.

He said, "Storytelling and art are the only bridges left, now that we see this world collapsing."

Later, we were standing next to each other at the urinals, and I told him I liked what he said about the bridge. He said it was the only way for the soul to survive, and I said that yes, I thought so, too.

Then we went outside into the snow, so he could smoke a cigarette. Across the valley and up the other mountain, the ski slopes were lit up at night, but then suddenly the lights went out and they got dark, and I thought how it must have been time.