Weekend edition—Davos deliberations, flying cars, hagfish slime

Good morning, Quartz readers!

It’s a pity there were fewer influential world leaders than in previous years at Davos this week at the World Economic Forum, and not only because so many of the risks that are top of mind right now for delegates are political in nature.

The official theme of this year’s forum, “Globalization 4.0,” focused on the fourth industrial revolution and how the world will respond to mass job losses triggered by automation and artificial intelligence. Surely the private sector must share in the burden, but the shortage of participation by governments in the debate here felt inexcusable given the stakes.

Livelihoods are on the line, and the ripple effects on families and communities won’t be slowed by empty talk about the need to reskill the labor force. The Davos set learned this the last time around, when an inadequate response to the labor-market effects of global trade paved the way for the populist wave that prompted much soul-searching (paywall) among Davos regulars.

Of course, expecting the world’s problems to be solved in a few days at a ski resort is asking a lot. But for all of the stick that Davos gets, there are few times and places when so many executives and policymakers are crammed in the same conference center. If nothing else, the consensus that emerges from the speeches, meetings, and schmoozing this week can nudge things in a certain direction once everyone goes home and gets back to work.

Every country will choose its own level of involvement in smoothing out the effects of the disruption, but arguably none of them is close to prepared. Even governments that manage to provide quality services to the young (with schooling, for example) or to the old (public pensions) tend to have much less experience helping people manage major life transitions during the stages in between.

On the positive side, the absences of Modi, Macron, Trudeau, and Trump meant that Davos wasn’t the circus it was last year. Security lines moved quickly and the promenade that runs through town was relatively clear of traffic. But the economic security of millions of people remains at risk, and the road ahead won’t be so easily navigated. —Heather Landy

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

In the age of luxury cannabis, let’s not forget America’s War on Drugs. Jenni Avins explores the dissonance between the swish aesthetic of legal cannabis and the racial injustices of aggressive law enforcement and mandatory prison sentencing. Advocates and consumers, as well as some lawmakers and companies, aim to address these wrongs. At issue is whether the “Green Boom” becomes a model for what racial reparations could look like—or yet another tale of hypocrisy, greed, and erasure.

The unsung hero of the KonMari movement. The Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has won a following in the US, but it isn’t just the advice on mindful decluttering that makes the show work. Kondo’s interpreter, writer Marie Iida, also plays a key role, as Anne Quito writes. Even native Japanese speakers marvel at how seamlessly Iida relays Kondo’s sometimes quirky, long-winded invocations, and her ability to somehow mirror her subject’s buoyant energy without parody.

The risk of thinking of your job as a higher calling. Tesla CEO Elon Musk repeatedly disparages the idea that excellent work and a humane schedule can co-exist. In a recent memo to employees in which he also announced layoffs, he rallied workers to the company’s cause of creating affordable clean-energy products. As Lila MacLellan writes, such an approach can backfire if it’s used to downplay practical needs—say, sleeping and eating.

The vital role of a new museum in Dakar, Senegal. The past couple of years have seen a growing chorus of calls for the great museums of Europe to return art taken from Africa before and during colonial times. Typically those calls have been met with concerns that African countries do not have the facilities needed to maintain the valuable artifacts. Ciku Kimeria visited Senegal’s newly opened Museum of Black Civilizations, which hopes to allay any such worries.

Anxious waves. The more scientists find out about the human brain, the more obvious it becomes that who we are and what we do is the result of neural processes—chemistry and biology rather than any immaterial soul or spirit. According to philosophers Gregg Caruso and Owen Flanagan, this understanding is prompting a “neuroexistentialist” crisis. But they argue that we needn’t despair, and can even take solace in the knowledge, as Ephrat Livni explains.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

The little black box plaguing Netflix in Latin America. Stroll along certain streets in São Paulo, Brazil and you’ll find dozens of shops offering illegal streaming devices with pirate software installed. Hook one to your TV and you’ll have access to Netflix and similar services for a fraction of the normal price. You might not even know who’s behind the device: organized crime. For Americas Quarterly, Jonathan Franklin explores the “pirate to consumer” business model.

Restoring balance in Haida Gwaii. In recent years, hunters have killed hundreds of deer on islands in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off Canada’s Pacific coast described as the “Galapagos of the north” for its biodiversity. The ungulates are an invasive species, and the culling is part of an ecological restoration project. For the Haida people, who’ve occupied the islands for some 13,000 years, it’s about revitalizing a botanical medicine chest and restoring cultural integrity, as Leslie Anthony writes for Hakai magazine.

Japan is getting serious about flying cars. The country is home to perhaps the world’s most comprehensive government effort to encourage flying cars, and by the late 2020s, aerial taxis and delivery trucks could be traversing the skies of Tokyo. A team from Bloomberg Businessweek meets the engineers and technocrats working to make the vision a reality (paywall). Japan has proven masterful at building safe, effective transportation networks.

Big Brother isn’t just for China. The social-rating system taking shape in China will allow the government to reward and punish online behavior as it sees fit, and other authoritarian governments are taking note. But softer versions of such developments are also taking shape in democracies, argues David Samuels for Wired, noting big tech firms in the US are increasingly beholden to Washington as they compete for lucrative contracts linked to surveillance agencies.

Hagfish slime is one of nature’s most wondrous substances. The hagfish is among the weirdest creatures on Earth, and its signature slime—released as a defensive measure—is “unlike anything else that’s been concocted by either evolution or engineers,” writes Ed Yong for the Atlantic. Besides being one of the softest materials ever found, it’s also a miracle of packaging: less than a teaspoon of the gunk can quickly expand by 10,000 times, enough to fill a bucket.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, decluttering tips, and cures for neuroexistentialism to hi@qz.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Kira Bindrim.