David Bouchier: The Joy Of Conferencing

May 1, 2017

Every occupation, profession, interest group and cult in the nation, from grocery wholesalers to transcendental meditators, feels the need to hold an annual conference. Doctors and lawyers have the most luxurious get-togethers, in plush resorts in delightful countries at the best times of year. Small non-profit organizations end up holding their conferences in Phoenix in August, when hotel rooms are virtually free.

The conference circuit is entirely determined by hotel prices because a hotel is the essential setting for these jamborees, and the hospitality business depends on them for its year-round profits. As a result you can't enter a big hotel anywhere at any time of year without encountering a boisterous group of dentists or domestic science teachers, over-excited at being away from home, and wearing big labels saying things like "Hi I'm Sandy - Vice President for Ethnic Cuisine Studies." Frankly, it’s fun. Nobody expects any results from a conference, so there’s no performance anxiety. And, unless it happens to be a Baptist Convention, nobody will censure your bad behavior. They will be too busy behaving badly themselves.

The origins of annual conferences are lost in history, but anthropologists believe that they evolved from tribal meetings. Early in our evolutionary development, some Neanderthal genius discovered the extraordinary benefits of holding meetings. Instead of going out and grubbing for roots or tangling with saber toothed tigers, it was much more pleasant and less dangerous to sit in the back of the cave with your pals and an agenda carved on a bit of stone, and discuss how other people should do these things. Thus, well before the invention of conference hotels, our ancestors had figured out that meetings were powerful magic, allowing them to waste time with a clear conscience, to avoid personal responsibility for anything, and above all to escape from real work.

A million years of evolution have brought us to the point where, in any organization big or small, your status depends on the number of meetings you attend. Really important people are "in meetings" from morning till night, leaving their less important colleagues to get on with the actual job, whatever it is. Conferences, then, are simply inflated meetings, where more time can be wasted more efficiently at much greater expense.

The most exalted conferences, where truly fabulous amounts of money and time are wasted, are the annual G8 Summit of political leaders, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the point-o-one-percenters of the world go to congratulate one another on being so fabulously rich, and discuss how to become even richer.

But everyone at every level needs and deserves an annual conference, especially part-time workers and the unemployed, who don't usually get such treats. There should be an organization dedicated to running conferences for all these disadvantaged people – conferences about nothing in particular with papers about nothing in particular. It's one of those inalienable rights that comes under the general heading of The Pursuit of Happiness: a few nights in a decent hotel, nice meals, lots of interesting people to talk to, and a big label on your jacket to remind you and everyone else who you are.

Copyright: David Bouchier