Well, well. And now we’re told that unless we change the name of the profession, we will sentence our successors to eternal irrelevance and eventual extinction.

The premise seems to be that the profession is being restricted by a narrow perception of the term "surveying." The public automatically conjures up images of flannel shirts and tripod-based instruments whenever the term is used. To sidestep that perception, pundits are suggesting abandonment of this "restrictive" name in favor of a sexy new moniker: geomatics. They reason that the new name will open up new vistas to us, and usher in respect, new opportunities and hordes of starry-eyed youngsters ready to carry forth our heritage into the 21st century. Oh, puh-leeze!

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Lest any get the wrong impression, let me clarify my objection: I am emphatically for expanding the scope of our contributions to society. I am convinced that many of the services we provide will be obsolete in 25 years. If we do not recognize the trends now in place and modify our practice accordingly, we will find ourselves, rightly, in the company of plasterers and typesetters: a few practitioners very proud of their once essential, but now largely expired, occupation. But changing our name, believing it an essential part of the solution, is akin to fiddling while Rome burns.

Commenting on the subject, Allen Thompson, a surveyor from Rosamond, California, recently wrote, "To me, ‘geomatic’ sounds awfully similar to that late-night infomercial selling something that ‘slices, dices, and makes julienne fries.’" If "surveying" should be renamed to more accurately describe its potential contributions to society, Thompson wondered, shouldn’t other professions follow suit? "Lawyers could be ‘Sue-o-matics,’ politicians, ‘Fib-o-matics,’ and unscrupulous car salesmen, ‘Fraud-o-matics.’" It’s hard not to see the humor in this.

Some organizations have already embraced the change. ASCE changed its "Surveying Engineering Division" to the "Geomatics Division." (Well, all right; but who wouldn’t want to change that name?) However, most other American organizations are taking a "wait and see" approach to the idea. The Canadians have jumped on the bandwagon and renamed their national organization.

The search for another name is not new. Several years ago, two distinguished educators conducted a survey to find why high school students prefer other courses of study over surveying curricula. After a long, painstaking process, they concluded that high school students didn’t respond well to the name "surveying engineering." Well, duh. The students were asked to rank subjects with such names as geographic engineering and geomatic engineering, etc. against surveying engineering. Now, such a study might be useful, but inquiring whether one prefers geomatic engineering over surveying engineering seems somewhat like asking people whether they would prefer to be known as a swindler over an embezzler. The study concluded that "geographic engineering" would best serve the profession. Try explaining that to disputing neighbors.

Lapsing Into a Deep Coma

Notwithstanding the fact that high school students apparently lapse into a deep coma upon hearing the title "surveying engineer," I haven’t found a compelling reason for society at large to discard the term "surveyor." The perceptions of high school students should be of primary concern, I suppose, to college professors; prolonged negative perceptions will have negative impacts on college employment—particularly among professors. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the effects to society as a whole are as inevitable as the authors predicted.

I keep getting the feeling that we have many among us who are either ashamed of our heritage or who do not believe the public places any value upon our contributions. I wonder if an underlying embarrassment for the nature of the practice isn’t also contributing to the enthusiasm for the change. Curiously, when the students in the above study were asked to pick the most attractive course from among the definitions of the courses, they chose surveying more than any other.

The fundamental question presenting itself is, will changing the name of the profession automatically expand our sphere of influence? There is no evidence to suggest such a thing. Do correctional officers "correct" any more than prison guards did? Sanitation engineers still pick up garbage, and do little else. Environmental engineers still design sewers, and do little else. Who are we kidding, anyway? If our goal is to attract the best and the brightest of the next generation, it seems to me to be more important to expand what we do, not change what we call it.

Let’s Not Embarass Ourselves

Webster defines the verb survey as "to examine or look at in a comprehensive way; to inspect carefully; scrutinize." Who decided that surveying merely concerned boundary retracement or running instruments atop tripods? Surveyors should move into the areas of remote sensing, land use, information systems and data analysis. (Photogrammetry, ultimately, is as doomed as field-run topography, and as such does not offer a safe haven.) Moreover, we should assume the mantle of the preeminent boundary law experts; no other profession is as uniquely qualified. In other countries, surveyors render appraisals. What prevents us from moving in that direction? There are many opportunities, and possible alliances, for the creative surveyor. But let us not embarrass ourselves with self-serving, empty titles.

Are there misconceptions about what surveyors do? Of course. Will inventing a name that no one has heard of change that? I doubt it. In fact, I can think of no better way to create more misconceptions. If we believe that the efforts to explain our role have been ineffective, why would anyone think our efforts to explain "geomatics" would fare any better?

Have we lost our focus here? Let’s concentrate on what is important. The value of any profession must be measured by its commitment to serving the public. Accordingly, rather than proceeding on the assumption that the public is anxiously awaiting a new role for us, it is far more essential to focus on being more essential. Anything less, including twaddle like changing our name, merely clouds the issue.

Copyright © 1997 By Joel M. Leininger, LS