The Jaarbeurs exhibition center, Utrecht, Netherlands, home to the 2012 Reed Exhibitions/Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Intelligent Energy event takes safety seriously. Three DayGlo-orange clad individuals opened the proceedings with in-depth instructions of what to do in the event of a ‘calamity.’ Just before leaving the stage, a last minute warning was issued about the imminent use of stroboscopic lighting which ‘may inconvenience some.’ Any strobe-sensitive individuals had about two microseconds to react before all hell broke loose. Swizzling strobe lighting worthy of a Black Sabbath revival was accompanied by music so loud that my neighbor had his fingers in his ears. The effect was quite devastating and when it ended, one’s senses were not so much dulled as temporarily extinguished.
I am not sure if that was the intention, but when the following spoof presentation of a vision of the future, with the ‘discovery’ of new technology to ‘extract electrical energy from depleted oilfields’ by using them as batteries, I (as I subsequently discovered, did others) took this at face value. As my composure returned, it was soon replaced with a growing sense of irritation at this preposterous ‘discovery’ along with its totally unconvincing mock real-time interviews from ‘experts’ around the world. The oilfield battery was, seemingly, the greatest invention since the invention of the err... battery!
The ‘invention’ was apparently the fruit of the ‘parallel processing power’ of billions of brains—a ‘crowd sourcing’ exercise which the authors of this brain fart conflated with ‘open sourcing.’ This was the only decipherable message from the production—that we are at the dawn of a brave new world of collaboration and crowd-sourcing.
Collaboration is an apple pie-ish concept. There is an implicit menace to those who are just getting on with their jobs. Maybe you/we/I should be collaborating more? Having inflicted us with ‘collaboration centers’ where folks with better things to do watch Power Point presentations on very big screens, the collective wisdom of the global IT marketing department is now telling us—‘You are not collaborating enough§ Throw away the collaboration center! Go forth into the cloud and collaborate with the hordes!’ Such fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is the oldest weapon in the marketing armory. It plays to the other tag-lines of the ‘greying workforce,’ the ‘digital natives’ and the general uselessness of the older generation in the face of err.. Facebook!
Three cameras assiduously recorded these absurd goings-on. I guess that this is so that students—sorry I should say ‘YPs*’ can see what an inventive and cool a profession is petroleum engineering. I like to think that any student worth hiring would run a mile when confronted with such nonsense—although I grant you that the prospect of a six figure starting salary probably makes up for a lot.
Next up was one Jay Rogers of a company called ‘Local Motors.’ Was this too a spoof? Rogers was introduced as a ‘former employee of Dallas-based Ewing oil.’ Apart from this fiction, Local Motors is for real and was ‘recognized’ as a 2012 Industry Pioneer at CERA Week this month for its ‘open source’ vehicle design. In what is after all rather an improbable business model, Local Motors claims to crowd source design, inviting ‘inventors’ to its factory to build the vehicle of their dreams. The results are somewhere between a Batmobile and a lawn mower. Rogers made a brave comparison between his own oeuvre and that of Linux Torvalds—with both at the head of an empire of collaborators. Torvals Linux has, according to Rogers, a 60% market share of ‘installed code base,’ which may be true. The jury is out on how long it will take LM to achieve something similar.
Back home from Intelligent Energy—by the way the show got better after the opening session, I was going to dutifully deconstruct the ‘crowd sourcing’ nonsense. Then I realized that I already did this in my editorial of February 2009 (I would apologize for repeating myself of it weren’t for the fact that this is because the collaboration/crowd sourcing advocates are repetitive in the extreme!).
As I was writing this editorial, Christopher Caldwell, writing in the Financial Times has pitched in on the crowd sourcing debate—backed up with some up to date research. Caldwell’s piece, ‘Groupthink is no match for individual genius’ observes that by ‘locking people of high IQ in a room’ you do not achieve a higher collective IQ. Instead, according to a Virginia Tech study, the group gets dumber! Caldwell believes that the ‘group intelligence’ a.k.a. ‘wisdom of crowds’ is a ‘cognitive science trend on which the tide is now receding.’ Caldwell observes that while ‘individuals produced King Lear and the Discourse on the Method,’ the wisdom of crowds produces ‘a few retail fads at best, book burning and pogroms at worst.’ To which one might add that it was the individual Torvalds that created Linux—even though its subsequent maintenance has crowd support.
OK if I am so smart to dis the favorite topics of the great and good of the SPE, what do I think they should be talking about? Two things spring to mind. Safety and shale gas. I say ‘spring’ because while the SPE is conspicuously silent on such issues, you just have to pick up a paper to read about the Macondo aftermath or about ongoing potential ‘calamity’ of Total’s Elgin gas leak. While there was a session devoted to HSE, with a notable contribution from Chevron on how ‘Digital oilfield principles enhance safety,’ this would merit from a bit more visibility. It could have usefully displaced the whole opening plenary. Shale gas likewise, particularly in Europe is getting the industry a bad name—largely because of the amount of contentious stuff from folks like Josh Fox and his ‘Gasland’ movie. Which is met by an embarrassed silence from the SPE!
* Young professionals.
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