Sunday, August 5, 2012

SIGGRAPH 2012 Issues for Discussion

[This is draft 1.05 of this post.  This is a work in progress and is likely to change.  You might note the version number of the version you read if you have a comment or wish to discuss the points within.]

Today is the first day of the ACM SIGGRAPH 2012 National Conference.

Keep in mind as you read this post, that I am being a little deliberately provocative.  I look at the program and do not see any of the issues that dominate my life or the life of many of my peers. These issues are apparently  not even acknowledged to exist, let alone addressed.  More discussion is called for, I think.

I have never found that being outspoken on controversial issues does the individual who speaks out any good whatsoever.  It is almost always a negative thing for his or her career, or so it seems from my perspective and experiences.  Nevertheless it is hard to participate in a field that does not think that some of the issues below are important and I wanted to bring them to your attention.

Although a pale shadow of its former importance, ACM SIGGRAPH is still the leading conference of its type in this country and maybe the world.  But computer animation and visualization is no longer a brand new technology looking to prove it can be useful in the world.  Not only is it part of some very large industries, but it has the maturity to be able to say that it has had several major economic booms and busts behind it, not to mention mergers and acquisitions, and is the target of large scale government subsidies by non -US countries in order to affect trade and employment, outsourcing and offshoring, to the detriment of the computer animation industry in this country (at least in terms of employment and the financial well being of people who live here).

It is not clear to me what the role of the entertainment industry in this field is or should be.   Is entertainment and media production (e.g. movies, television, internet production, games, etc) the driving force and the primary participants of this conference, even over education and academia ?  One argument that entertainment / media is the leading participant comes from the evidence of the location of SIGGRAPH.  It is said that when they hold SIGGRAPH outside of Southern California it loses money.   On the other hand, one might wonder if even that equation will still hold true, even if entertainment has become the driving force, as so much of the field has left for offshore.

ACM SIGGRAPH is very expensive compared to conferences in other academic fields.   Or maybe it is just expensive relative to the other fields I am interested in (e.g. the American Institute of Archaeology and the American Philology Association meet each year and the cost of the full technical program is about $200.  Of course, infrastructure support for an Archaeology conference is mostly a few overhead and slide projectors, I think.)

This hastily written post, however sincerely written, can not be comprehensive and present these complicated issues in a fair and balanced manner.  Although I would very much like to do that, it may be beyond my skills and available resources to do so.

Hopefully, it can inspire discussion and not blow up in my face too badly.

Some specific notes, obviously some are much less important than others.

1. Does or should  SIGGRAPH serve as a professional society, in some sense of the word ?  Should we be discussing unemployment, "oversupply" by schools of people in the field?  Should we be discussing the impact of subsidies and other government policies (mostly non-US governments) and its huge impact on employment of people in this field?   With the latter issue, I may have also included an issue that might be more properly addressed by a "trade organization" rather than a professional society.  Maybe.

2. SIGGRAPH implicitly encourages people to go into this field, the glamourous and exciting field of computer animation.   It does so by having all these panels and courses from the motion picture industry and all the rah rah rah related activities over the years.  But many of the production and technology people who have worked in this industry are unemployed today.  Those that are employed will only be working for a brief period before they are unemployed again.  Many employed do not have nor do they have any prospect of getting such things as health insurance.  The point is, what is the moral position of SIGGRAPH in encouraging people to go into this field.   Now a personal note.  I got into this field early after attending SIGGRAPH 1980 in Seattle.  When I did so, I had no idea that computer graphics was such a small niche inside the larger field of computing.  But it is.  By choosing this specialization I was also very likely choosing unemployment as people look at specializations very seriously when hiring people, something I did not realize at the time.   What is our moral position of encouraging young people to specialize in this field without warning them that it may cause them to be unemployed later ?   Archaeology which has none of the glamourous aspects of our field, also makes it very clear that there is little or no employment in that field.  Anyone who studies to be a writer, or say a standup comic, is well aware of the economic implications and makes a conscious choice.  But I assure you that the art schools and SIGGRAPH do not give this impression to the potential new person.  Thus I propose that SIGGRAPH is in a compromised ethical position by failing to do so.

3. Where does SIGGRAPH stand on the issue of ageism?  Well, they are against it I am sure.  But consider,   ageism is rampant in computer animation and the game industries.    If that is news to you, then you haven't been looking very hard.  Of course ageism is present  in many if not most areas of our society, but even so, ageism may be extreme in the technology and media industries.   My perspective on this is that by not addressing the issue openly, and sponsoring such well-intended events like the job fair (which is, unfortunately, very ageist, arguably) that we are perpetuating ageism, or maybe, just not trying to do something about the specific ageism that is in our midst.   I know many people who are executives in these industries (computer animation and related digital production) who believe that ageism is just good business practice and it doesn't bother them one bit that it is illegal.  They point out that if the government was really opposed and not just paying lip service to the problem then they would make the laws even slightly enforceable which they are not.  That may be true, but I do not think that it is a valid moral position.

4. Should we have a homeless shelter for computer animation pioneers ?    I know five pioneers of computer animation who are unemployed and two of them who are on food stamps, and very close to being homeless. Now that I think of it, I know three such people.   Does SIGGRAPH care about these people?   Do the people who put on SIGGRAPH understand that this is going on?   IEEE has a conference rate for the unemployed, should ACM or SIGGRAPH have such a rate, at the very least?

5. The Computer Graphics Achievement Awards seem to be completely academically oriented.  All well and good, we are a part of ACM after all.  But given the multidisciplinary nature of the people who helped to create computer animation, should there also be an award to acknowledge the contributions of these non-academic people to the field?

6. Is the Electronic Theatre at all relevant or necessary?  Attending the Electronic Theatre used to be an intellectual exercise, in which the ideas behind the visuals were as important as the visuals, and understanding that was the key to understanding the film show (to use an anachronistic term).  The Electronic Theatre used to be where important new work in computer animation was first premiered.   The Electronic Theatre used to be a  place that new ideas done by individuals or small groups and tiny budgets could participate because their ideas were good.   Now it is none of those things and hasn't been so for a long, long time.  Sure its nice to have, but these events are expensive and I might like to have a more affordable price for the main technical program instead, for example.

7. This issue used to be how does one volunteer to help put on the annual conference.  I am still curious, but its a minor issue relative to the others here, so it is deleted.

8. Is Scientific Visualization and mechanical CAD/CAM still a part of SIGGRAPH?  It used to be.  If it is a part of our field today, I can not see much evidence of it on the technical program.  I am more interested in the Scientific Visualization part of this question personally, although arguably CAD/CAM is one of the most important applications enabled by computer graphics technology and a driving force behind the economic impact that computer graphics has had on our economy.  I realize these fields also have their own conferences, and it might just be that these fields have split off and are on their own.

9. What is the purpose of the Keynote Speech ?  I see rampant unemployment and people's lives being damaged because they chose to work in computer animation.   Should that be discussed now that the depression / recession is in its, how many years has it been 7 or 8 ?   I have no problem with the current keynote speaker, she is from the game industry and the game industry is certainly a part of SIGGRAPH. But there is a lot of misery in this field and it would be nice if someone was discussing it.  Maybe we should have several keynote speeches ?

I admit that many of these issues are much bigger than any of us or SIGGRAPH can address on its own.  Ageism and unemployment are not problems that we are likely to solve.  But we can acknowledge them and perhaps take an active moral position.   Maybe we are already doing so and I am out of touch.   That is certainly possible.

I understand that I have only superficially mentioned some of the issues involved.   I hope you have not been offended.  But to repeat: there is a lot of misery in this field, and I think it is reasonable that these issues should be discussed at SIGGRAPH.


  1. Just on its own logic an unemployed rate sounds like a great, humane option. (Is there a simple way to verify/prove to keep people honest, or would it have to be on the honor system?) I'd make it the same as the student rate (assuming there is one).

    The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) has an unemployed rate for their annual membership. They don't have their own conference AFAIK, but they are present at major industry events and get their members discounts.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Michael ... all GREAT topics for discussion and I will enthusiastically support any effort to spread the word far and wide; many (if not all) of these items have been talked about for many years on the "CAG" (Conference Advisory Group) during my tenure .. why not widen the scope to somehow engage 100% of all 2013 attendees and world-wide members in the dialog? How to do that exactly is the question of course ... each Chapter is fairly isolated I think. Kudos to you sir for bringing all these topics up ... 40th anniversary is as good a reason as any!