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The Purpose Of A (Corporate-)Scientific Society

In an attempt to describe the good stuff from this year’s SEG annual meeting, I left out that the unnecessary aspects of vendor marketing continues, as if such schlock makes any difference to those of us who really use the tools. All the way from the outrageous and costly flash on the main exhibits floor with a ratio of 3-4 marketers for every geoscientist to the booth babes (admittedly lots fewer and less egregious compared with previous years and other technology conferences), do we, as in exploration geophysicists and not-uninformed buyers at a trade show, need it? Matt Hall summed up many of my feelings towards these phenomena in his most recent Agile post. You should read the whole thing, but here are my favorite bits:

What a shame ads bring nothing at all to our community. All that money — so little impact. Well, zero impact.

One innovative company has invented time travel, but unfortunately only to 1975. At least, that’s the easiest way to explain the shoeshine stand at Ovation’s booth.

Let’s be clear: marketing, as practised in this industry, is a waste of money. And this latter kind of marketing — remarkable for all the wrong reasons — is an insult to our profession and our purpose.

Are we okay with burning millions of dollars on glossy ads, carpeted booths, nasty coffee, and shoeshine stands? Is this an acceptable price for our attention? Is the signal:noise ratio high enough?

I almost touched on this with my closing remarks on the SEG Women’s Network breakfast: “[We are a] growing group of women and men who understand the importance of removing unnecessary [obstacles and] sexism in our industry as well as supporting and promoting professionals because that is what we are – professionals.”

Let’s go there:

Every individual and company in the entire industry wants to “remain relevant” and fears being “left behind.” But, I don’t know what relevance and keeping up mean when the same products are being marketed to and purchased by all of us. Granted, the majors have tons of money and people to research and write their own special plugins for these off-the-shelf products, but in the end, the underlying engines are the same, so how are we being competitive when we’re all standardized to the same tools?

As for marketing products with the aid of the scantily-clad, male and female geoscientists are professionals who can be won over with great new algorithms and excellent services; catering to the lowest common denominator among us may net a company lots of money (and that’s all they care about), but with changing industry demographics, fewer folks are likely to take that company seriously. Look, I hold nothing against scantily-clad women and men, but there is a time and place for that, and it is not a professional industry gathering. And, come on, shoe-shining? My husband says it’s a lot worse in defense-sector trade shows and I have personally seen it get icky at COMDEX and IITSEC, but there is none of it at Strata, OSCON, etc. The latter is Tim O’Reilly‘s direct and respectful influence on his company’s conferences. Therefore, I challenge SEG, its board and incoming president to discourage such practices (a great precedent is past president Klaas Koster who launched and still supports the SEG Women’s Network). In fact, the shoe-shining women from this year were brought to the Women’s Network’s attention and not much was done after we translated the message upward. If the conference organizers don’t care enough to set a respectful tone, I really don’t expect it from vendors.

Being an extrovert who can easily control my level of social involvement as needed, I will continue to attend industry events – to say hello to technology vendors, find out what’s new, easily run into friends from all over the world whom I rarely get to talk to and pick up a book or two – but playing dodgeball* to get from one end of the confusingly-laid-out floor to the other is a huge price to pay for finding out what is Really new.

Ultimately, it’s a result of any industry conference becoming an end in itself. The conference happens because they are paid a lot by vendors to make it happen. But, when it results in the society and science being relegated to the background – where, as Amanda Knowles puts it, “stumbling upon the golden nugget of a good technical talk comes at the expense of sitting through five bad ones” – you really have to reconsider why you’re paying your dues AND your attendance fees AND your travel costs.

Our professional-scientific society has reached a point at which it has to seek identity and true purpose. Who do we want to be as a society? What do we want this conference to say about us? There’s the thousand-megawatt-flashy exhibits floor run by the vendors who want to buy us and private hallway/barroom discussions among the cognoscenti. And then there’s the sad Book Mart in back, the deserted SEG Foundation booth, the press room in godknowswhere on the third floor, a low signal-to-noise ratio in the talks and a couple of nice but heavily-vendor-sponsored parties. Even if most of us work for corporations, our purpose as a society is important and achievable, if we continue to amplify the stuff of lasting value like vetted talks, open discussions, working workshops, hackathons, professional networking, parties when they are free of awkwardness and, especially, the science and people of exploration geophysics, i.e. the society itself.

*Patches O’Houlihan says: “If you can dodge a booth babe, you can dodge a ball!”

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