The Jacob Marley column: Conferences

November 19th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize, Featured: Energize



The recent annual AMEU convention caused me to reflect on the curious habit of congregating in what is styled a “conference” – although now often referred to by as many different nomenclatures as there are specialised fields for trooping together in these ritual gatherings.

As the year draws to a close, there are still half a dozen or so programmes, fora, conferences, colloquia, workshops, planning sessions, summits and indabas in the pipeline for the local energy sector, so there is plenty of opportunity to go flitting from one event to the next in an never-ending circuit of communication, networking and being seen.

Once one expands that to global proportions, the mind boggles like that of a 19th century horse in London. There are literally dozens of high-powered gatherings, all in interesting spots scattered around the globe where one can indulge in being seen at any given time irrespective of whether one is a high-powered policy-maker or merely a hopeful low-level pen-pusher. Just as well, because if you miss out being spotted, you will have missed the boat on the whole shebang.

There are those who suspect that it is all orchestrated – the global dispersion, the jet travel to exotic destinations, the nights in huge, tasteless hostelries and being seen by those who are inclined to the same sort of thing. A sort of global conference industry, a global psyche if one wishes, to keep us pumped up all the time. After all, if one is setting off in a giant flying cigar at 600 or 700 miles per hour, one knows instinctively that one has to be going somewhere important. Whether that can stop copper theft, non-payment or exorbitant price increases, of course, is an open question.

What do all these high-powered gatherings really accomplish? There can be no more inane way of communicating information than being seen flying 5000 miles to sit in a most uncomfortable gilt chair in a packed hotel ball room or on a lecture-room bench at the back of a three-thousand seater theatre doodling with a cheap plastic pen with a sponsor’s logo on it while listening to thirty talking heads reading mostly boring papers to a mostly disinterested audience.

Twenty-five or so of these papers aren’t usually worth the paper they were printed out on; at least one will be so dense or obtuse that no one cannot follow it, including the author. Another paper will invariably be a power point presentation with the slides out of sequence or interleaved with those of another offering; others may be read by someone with borrowed dentures or an author’s assistant who has no clue. Perhaps a marginally stimulating paper will be read in an accent that cannot be understood even by a linguist and the last paper, and probably the only one out of the thirty or so that is really worth the effort, has to be read at breakneck speed because the author has a plane to catch to the next conference.

The paper could probably have been read at leisure in the quiet of one’s own office, or a pleasant park bench, in twenty minutes, with real birds twittering in the background and insights equivalent to those of Einstein’s paper on general relativity leaping from the page. So what is the attraction of doing it in a far less idyllic, almost archaic, way of communicating?

The entities that seem to gain most from conferences include the airline, travel and hospitality industries. They have to make a living too, one supposes, but participants have to take care not to get trapped in an aeroplane seat next to a snorer, or getting snared in the coffee shop by a long-lost colleague who wants to share his latest conquests. Or finding oneself seated at dinner between a pair of the opposite sex who complain about glass ceilings or corner offices, one with the view obscured by a rubbish dump and the other with open vistas of savannahs teeming with wildlife.

Unfortunately one cannot escape these hazards if one wants to stay connected and “in the loop” and “contribute to the debate”. One cannot refuse if “invited” to a conference without fear of “losing status”. At least the venues are usually plastic and hence supposedly hygienic; perhaps one can go exploring the neighbourhood for interesting watering holes or oases and besides, it’s all on expenses, not so? So perhaps it’s not as bad as the critics claim.

I am not for one moment suggesting, Sir, that this is the case at AMEU conventions. Oh, no, there are opportunities to meet interesting people who whisper all kinds of serious secrets into ears or leave enticing bits of paper lying about. They might even invite one for a drink. One can’t get that from just reading the papers can one?  Is a park bench better that a stuffy conference hall? Is there time to get things done in between all this serious diplomacy?

Although there seems to be less and less time as one becomes fatigued after meeting the first few hundred delegates, shaking hands, exchanging cards and pleasantries, one can mercifully not even find the time to think about one’s inbox (email or otherwise) while one is having this tremendous fun.

Video-conferencing has long been touted as an alternative, of course, but it has somehow never caught on. That is because one can’t read all the signals this way, the pundits claim. With the advent of broadband and video-streaming, the quality of the picture has improved no end, and one can almost see every blink of the eye, every twitch of the brow and the very flare of the nostril. But is it like in a park bench?

One can’t smell the whiskey on the other’s breath, the critics argue, or the perfume in her hair, or experience sweaty palms. And that is why conferences and their offshoots have an almost unassailable advantage. If we want to stop the thieves and keep the lights on (although perhaps not by tomorrow), I am afraid, Sir, we should not wish for an end to conferences, however unproductive they may appear. Deep down, there may be more to them than meets the eye.

And until we find out exactly what that is, Sir,

I remain your humble and obedient servant.

Jacob Marley

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